By William Wolf

PHOTOGRAPH  Send This Review to a Friend

A tender and moving love story from India, “Photograph” explores class differences involving a street photographer and a woman whose picture he took. It has been directed with smoothness and sophistication by Ritesh Batra, who previously made the successful film “The Lunchbox,” also set in India. “Photograph” emerges as among the best films of 2019 thus far.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Rafi, who in Mumbai roams tourist sites to take pictures. It is a meager living as he struggles to pay off a family debt. He is being bugged to marry by his grandmother, colorfully portrayed by the veteran actress Farrukh Jaffar, who is coming from her village to visit Rafi. To appease her, Rafi convinces Miloni, a shy woman whom he has photographed, to agree to pretend to be his intended bride. His grandmother is an all-knowing woman who cannot be easily fooled and she dispenses some wise advice to Rafi for his future.

Sanya Malhotra is cast as Miloni, and her performance is nicely modulated. As one might expect, a real attraction between Rafi and Miloni deepens, but the class differences pose an obstacle.

Miloni lives in a middle class environment complete with a housekeeper to whom she is close. Rafi shares a crowded attic dwelling. When he and Miloni go to a neighborhood movie, a rat scampers across her feet. She tries to ignore it. But director Batra quietly underscores the differences between the lives of Miloni and Rafi, even while the screenplay, which Batra wrote in addition to directing, moves them closer and closer in their feelings toward one another.

Will love conquer? Batra in the end leaves it up to the viewer to decide. On the one hand, he drops a hint after Miloni exits a film before it is over. Rafi follows and says she didn’t miss anything, as the stories all end the same with the man not getting the girl because he’s from a different class. Yet, on the other hand, we see Rafi and Miloni walk away together.

The city of Mumbai comes across as an added character as a result of the excellent location filming. The performances ring true in this setting, and once again, Batra has created a convincing story entertainingly told with delicacy and an understated emotional buildup. The result is a very special achievement. An Amazon Studios release. Reviewed May 16, 2019.

THE TOMORROW MAN  Send This Review to a Friend

John Lithgow plays Ed, who is obsessed with planning ahead for the disastrous turn of events that he fears coming. But what about the present?

Blythe Danner is cast as the likable but loner Ronnie, a woman who enjoys staying at home and watching war documentaries. The two meet in a supermarket. Ed falls for her and persuades her to have coffee with him. After some tentative romantic sparring with the potential of a relationship lurking, the two become closer.

Ed harbors a secret, which he finally reveals to Ronnie. He has a garage stored with food for a future emergency. As they become more and more a couple, Ed’s concern with what lies ahead, fueled by internet influence of survival extremists, increasingly disturbs Ronnie.

She needs to live in her present and their relationship teeters. But the film’s writer-director Noble Jones has serious stuff on his mind and develops the film accordingly. What if Ed’s fears are well-grounded? There is a side angle of Ed’s troubled relationship with his son, who resists his father’s relentless gabbing about the future.

“The Tomorrow Man” is a patently contrived tale. But when there are excellent actors like Lithgow and Danner as oldsters, the performances can at least hold one’s interest no matter what one thinks of the flimsy story and phony climax that stresses what is important is finding happiness in the momentary present under threat of eclipse. A Bleecker Street Media release. Reviewed May 22, 2019.

NON-FICTION  Send This Review to a Friend

Sophisticated and witty, “Non-Fiction,” a French film written and directed by Olivier Assayas, is an up-to-the minute story about the publishing world in the new digital age. Perfectly cast and often very funny, the film involves intimate relationships and sexual betrayals that combine the business world with personal machinations. Having been shown at last fall’s New York Film Festival and now getting a commercial release, “Non-Fiction” is one of the best films to open his year.

How much about real-people does a writer put into his novels with characters others will recognize as themselves? Such parallels can have unsettling effects, as is the case with novelist Léonard Spiegel, earthily played by Vincent Macaigne, who in the early stage of the film is being fobbed off at a lunch by Alain Danielson, his editor, played suavely by Guillaume Canet, who recognizes certain elements in the manuscript Léonard wants published.

Guess what? Léonard has been in a romance with none other than the editor’s wife, Selina, exquisitely enacted by Juliette Binoche in a fresh major screen achievement. It is always enjoyable to watch Binoche at work, and she is at the top of her game here playing a successful television actress frustrated with her career, and trying to convince her husband to publish her lover’s novel even as she is on the verge of ending the relationship.

Of course, editor Alain has been quite busy with his own bedroom shenanigans. He is having a fling with Laure (Christa Théret), whom he has hired to take the publishing company into its new digital level. (Although all of the talk about the digital age concerns what’s happening in France, the situation is patently pertinent to the United States as well.) The skill with which Assayas sets up the entanglements is remarkable, and the cast members strike exactly the right attitudes to establish French sophistication masking what happens between the sheets.

“Non-Fiction” is also notable for the appearance of Nora Hamzawi, until now known primarily as a standup comedian. She contributes colorful acting as Valérie, an outspoken activist involved in promoting a left-wing candidate. She not only adds a political dimension, but she is involved with Léonard. The relationship between Valérie and Léonard turns out to be especially interesting and sensitive.

Some of the best scenes occur when those having affairs are thrown together, the betrayers and the betrayed, and are attempting to be discreet and above it all. The film is loaded with smart dialogue and humorous lines, all adding up to a film unlike anything an American film would be likely to attempt. That goes for all of the serious conversation about the changing world of publishing as well as the way in which the film addresses infidelity. As you can gather, the very entertaining “Non-Fiction” is definitely a favorite of mine. An IFC Films release. Reviewed April 30, 2019.

TOLKIEN  Send This Review to a Friend

Director Dome Karukoski’s “Tolkien” is an old-fashioned biopic that examines the early life of J. R. R.Tolkien, who was born in 1892 an died in 1973, in a manner that shows the literary seeds that led to his becoming the famed author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings." Nicholas Hoult gives a creditable performance as the author-to-be in the film, with a screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford. Mostly, the territory covered is the period of Tolkien’s education when he bonds with a group of fellow students who commit to friendship forever.

There is, however, a forced structure of flashbacks that become annoying. Tolkien is depicted as a soldier in World War I who is trying to survive amid the horror of trench fighting, and is also looking desperately for one of his buddies in hope that he can find him alive. What’s annoying is the repeated back and forth from that situation to the earlier days. One flashback and a later return to the battle scene would have been enough.

The film does depict the school days atmosphere well, and there is a warm handling of the problematic relationship between Tolkien and the effective Lily Collins as Edith, whom he leaves because of pressure in the first stages of their romance by Colm Meaney as the priest who looks after him following the deaths of his parents. But the lovers later connect and he and Edith will eventually marry.

One especially pleasing scene occurs when as a student, he takes Edith to an opera, but finds there are no more seats he can afford, only the expensive dress circle. He then tries to sneak into the opera with Edith through a side door. But they find themselves stuck in the basement, which is stacked with costumes. Edith dons one and mouths the words she hears from the stage, and the two dance romantically. Somewhat corny, yes, but deeply felt.

The style of the film is tradition-bound, but there are many effective moments as we see Tolkien’s life being shaped, and the horror of World War I and the toll it took on young men is emphasized. We also get some insight into what an Oxford education was like at the time. Derek Jacobi has a role as a tough professor depicted as being an inspiration to Tolkien. A Fox Searchlight release. Reviewed May 10, 2019.

ANIARA  Send This Review to a Friend

Take a ride to infinity on Aniara, the spaceship of the title, in a Swedish sci-fi import that warns about what can happen to earth and those who try to leave it. Co-directed by Pella Kegerman and Hugo Lilja, “Aniara” is an imaginative, well-made but bleak experience.

Here’s the deal. Earth has been destroyed, and survivors want to head for a new life on Mars. They board a spaceship that looks large enough to be a transatlantic ocean vessel. Not so simple. A collision with debris knocks the Aniara off its course Bad news—the ship will sail indefinitely into the great universe beyond.

The time involved is ticked off year by year until a final number that is daunting. So what happens to the passengers? They are increasingly needy in one respect or another, and on this ship of doom a key employee is MR, played excellently by Emelie Jonsson, who has the task of managing a room where earth’s refugees can harvest memories of their life on the destroyed planet. She must be dedicated to helping the passengers despite ever-increasing problems. Other cast members include Bianca Cruzeiro and Arvin Kananian.

Things get tougher and tougher, with MR’s task harder and harder. Trouble mounts for the viewer too, as the events get more and more difficult to watch. Despite the expertise with which this vivid, well-acted film has been made, it becomes unpleasant to see what happens on this unusual journey. A Magnolia Pictures release. Reviewed May 17, 2019.

WALKING ON WATER  Send This Review to a Friend

Christo, working with his late wife Jeanne-Claude, achieved a unique position in the art world. He became known for completing huge, physical and visual projects. In New York’s Central Park he installed an exhibition known as “The Gates,” which I enjoyed experiencing. He wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont-Neuf bridge that I used to cross frequently while living in Paris. “Walking on Water,” a documentary by Andrey Paounov, records his most recent feat, the construction of “the Floating Piers” on Lake Iseo in Italy.

The film records step by step the planning and execution of the project, triumphant construction of piers strung together to connect with an island. All was dismantled as planned 16 days after the opening.

The personality of Christo is captured as we see him arguing with his work force, making his demands, stubborn in his vision and refusing to compromise. There is the passion of a man possessed, even though the result of his dream is something that will disappear except on film, in photographs and in the memory of those who built the walkway and those who experienced it.

Upon the opening of the sections built and strung together in a long walkway over the lake, the crowds that showed up to walk the walk grew so large as to present a safety hazard and limits had to be imposed.

We see the pride and satisfaction reflected in Christo’s demeanor as well as the restlessness which leaves him always planning for his next artistic coup. The film is a mix of beautiful outdoor shots and intimate recording of Christo’s day-to-day struggle to bring the challenge to fruition despite the obstacles that arise. A Kino Lorber release. Reviewed May 17, 2019.

MY SON  Send This Review to a Friend

Imagine a father in France learning from his separated wife that his son has been kidnapped from a camp? Guillaume Canet as Julien gets such news and, not satisfied with what the police are doing, he embarks upon his own vindictive search for his son. There’s an added motive—he is trying to make up for the years in which he hasn’t paid enough attention to his role as a father. That’s the set up for the thriller that director Christian Carion unleashes from a screenplay he wrote with Laure Irmann.

The film escalates toward Julien’s discovery of the kidnappers and his violent battle to free seven-year-old Mathys before the boy can be harmed. The confrontations are harrowing, but there’s something not made clear. Why was the boy taken?

The answer seems to lie in that that there is another kidnapped boy being held. This would indicate the thieves, not aiming for Julien’s son in particular, grab lads for profit reasons as their regular operation. Selling them? Using them for pornography? More specifics would help.

But the action boils down to Julien’s ultimate successful, hard won but dangerous battle in the thriller mode. Ultimately, he returns the boy to the woman from whom he is separated, Marie, played by Mélanie Laurent, who has been going with a new boyfriend, portrayed by Olivier de Benoist. A Cohen Media Group release. Reviewed May 10, 2019.

BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ  Send This Review to a Friend

Seeing this film is like taking a fascinating course in cinema. It is also akin to a scholarly detective story. Who was Alice Guy-Blaché and why don’t more people know about her?

In my 1979 book “Landmark Films: The Cinema and Our Century,” written with my wife, Lillian Kramer Wolf, who did the extensive research, in a chapter paragraph that listed prominent women in film, I am pleased to say that heading the list from Lillian’s research was Alice Guy-Blaché.

Unfortunately her contributions have been largely forgotten, partly because women were generally not given deserved credit and also because the early films that she produced and directed were generally not preserved. Guy-Blaché was born in France in 1873 and died in New Jersey in 1968. After working at the renowned Gaumont studio in France until 1906, she came to the United States. Unusual for a woman at the time, she founded her own movie-making company, Solax Studios, first in Flushing, N.Y., followed in 1912 by a move to Fort Lee, N.J., the renowned early location for filmmaking.

In an impassioned effort to set the record straight, Pamela B. Green has made the documentary, “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché,” with a narration by Jodi Foster, also executive producer.

Green is due commendation for the diligence and devotion employed in hunting down available information, records, clips, interviews, including with Guy-Blaché, and everything she could find to help fill in the blanks of Guy-Blaché‘s pioneering achievements, which were amazing. For example, she made the earliest known narrative film with an all African-American cast. She wrote, produced or directed some 1000 films—think of that.

But it wasn’t only the volume; it was also her interest in adventurous subject matter, such as issues of child abuse, immigration and emphasis on women and their empowerment. In this era of seeking greater recognition for women this documentary is right on target.

Anyone interested in film history should see this account that attempts to set the record straight. Although it is a testament, information-filled and a story of discovery, it ultimately is also an affecting very personal story that begs to be told. A Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber. Reviewed April 26, 2019.

THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE  Send This Review to a Friend

It took director Terry Gilliam 30 years to get his Don Quixote vision on screen. It was worth the wait. His adventurous “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is a huge entertainment filled with striking imagery, colorful performances and ideas that reflect Gilliam’s fascination with the Cervantes character and the director’s own quest to see his desire become a reality.

There are many pleasures to be found in watching this film, which was shot in Spain, Portugal and the Canary Islands and has an intricate screenplay by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni. The striking visuals are one reward. The story is imaginative. And the performances are impressive, especially those of Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce.

Driver plays Toby, who previously made a student film about Quixote in a Spanish village. Now, his ambitions channeled from artistic aims into the advertising world, Toby returns to film a commercial. He not only finds that the village has changed but his earlier work had left considerable damage to those involved with the film.

For one thing, Javier, the shoemaker who played Quixote, has gone bonkers and morphed into believing that he really is Quixote. Jonathan Pryce is brilliant in that role, a picture-stealer who looks as if he is having the time of his life as an actor. It is a far different performance than the one we recently saw him give in “The Wife” as the egotistical husband of a thwarted woman played by Glenn Close. The new film is worth seeing just for Pryce’s work.

Driver is also excellent as the filmmaker swept into the new situation he encounters and becoming bewildered trying to get his work done in the midst of the mayhem that erupts. (One can currently also see Driver on the Broadway stage in “Burn This.”) Running through the film are, of course, parallels to themes of Cervantes filtered through Gilliam’s vision.

Personal relationships emerge, with Toby’s gross boss played by Stellan Skarsgard. There is a funny scene in which Toby is being seduced by the boss’s wife, played with horny intent by Olga Kurylenko, and the interruption by the sudden return of her husband as Toby flees.

Another key character is Angelica, an innkeeper’s attractive daughter, played with depth by Joana Ribeiro. Smitten by dreams of becoming an actress as a result of involvement with Toby and his student film, she has seen her ambitions shattered and we find her as the girlfriend of a super-wealthy, obnoxious Russian, who may remind us of the oligarchs we read about.

There are lavish party and religious sequences that are dazzling to watch, and tragedy occurs when Javier meets an accidental death. But before he dies Javier indicates that he may finally know he is not Quixote. It is amusing to see Toby undergo his own transformation, complete with a Sancho Panza.

“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” needs to be seen rather than described, as Gilliam’s work soars above the printed word. Remember that he comes from Monte Python fame, and that he has made such ambitious films as “Brazil,” “Time Bandits,” “Jabberwocky,” “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” “The Fisher king,” “Twelve Monkeys” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

In 2002 I reviewed a film called “Lost In la Mancha” (See Search), about the failure to complete Gilliam’s Quixote extravaganza for a host of financial and casting reasons. How premature. Now that after Gilliam’s doggedness the film is actually with us, it stands as one of the most unusual screen entertainments of 2019 thus far, and offers delights for those who want to plunge into Gilliam’s intricate world to follow and analyze his take on the centuries-old work of the famed Miguel de Cervantes. An Alacran Pictures release. Reviewed April 19, 2019.

PETERLOO  Send This Review to a Friend

Writer-director Mike Leigh usually likes to make revealing intimate films. With “Peterloo” he has opted ambitiously to portray an epic event in British history, the slaughter in 1819 in Manchester, England, of protestors demanding representation. While he observes the larger picture of how the atrocity developed, he is also using his expertise to focus on individuals on both the demonstrators’ side and among the callous perpetrators determined to shut down the protest and teach those demanding rights a lesson.

The carnage took place four years after the victorious battle of Waterloo in 1815. For his role in winning, the celebrated Duke of Wellington was given 750,000 pounds, tough to swallow for the working class struggling to exist. The title “Peterloo” derives from Peter’s Field, where the demonstrators were attacked, and obviously the film’s title is a play on the battle of Waterloo. The situation is personalized by the site of a bugler who survives Waterloo and wanders in a post-traumatic haze back to Manchester, where we follow him until he is ironically caught up in the onslaught.

A massive protest rally is called to express in a peaceful manner the will of the people who are demanding representation. Women and children as well as men stream en masse into the area. The focal point is an address by Henry Hunt, played by Rory Kinnear, a renowned liberal speaker who travels there to lend his weight to the protest. Leigh builds suspense by showing how Hunt deals with the various factions involved in the demonstration, always insisting that the protest be peaceful. No weapons, he decrees. On the other side, Leigh focuses on the various characters running Manchester, a nasty lot who ultimately succeed in getting the cavalry to ride into the crowd and disperse it.

The lethal mayhem that results is depicted in great detail, as people are trampled by horses and cut down with swords in a horrible following of orders with no mercy given. The toll is at least 11 people killed and the wounded figure rises to some 400. Leigh is adept at displaying the full horror of what happens and engendering disgust at seeing peaceful people crushed by the establishment.

“Peterloo” is a mighty film that honors a long-remembered event in British history. However, it has one flaw. The ending is cheapened by looking in on royalty to show how disgustingly those who approved the killing act. Gleeful, buffoon-like behavior is a ridiculous caricature totally at odds with the realism of the rest of the film and comes across as a silly scene out of sync with Leigh’s otherwise mastery.

However, such is the overall power of “Peterloo” that the massacre is what will be most remembered from the film, as well it should be. Chalk up another important accomplishment for Mike Leigh. An Amazon release. Reviewed April 5, 2019.

  

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