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Review of ONCE UPON A RIVER (DVD)

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Grade: B-
Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13 for brief nudity and adult elements)

Thus far in her career, Chicago-born musician-actress-filmmaker Haroula Rose is probably best known for her soundtrack contribution to American Horror Story and her involvement as an associate producer for Fruitvale Station. Like the latter, her first directorial feature, Once Upon a River, also tackles a serious subject and endemic problem.

Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, with one out of six women the victim of an attempted or successful rape. Youths between the ages of 12 and17 are the most vulnerable. Fifty-five percent of sexual assaults happen at or near the victim’s home, and it isn’t usually “stranger danger”. More often it’s a friend of the family, a neighbor, or even a family member. And in an average year, it’s estimated that there are anywhere from 1.3 to 1.5 million runaway and homeless youths in the U.S.

So yeah, this film deals with serious subjects that can be especially relevant for American teens and their parents. While it treats the material in a frank way, there’s nothing gratuitous or sensationalized. Maybe that’s because Once Upon a River has a strong female presence, both behind the camera and onscreen. In addition to directing, Rose wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell and also shared a producing credit. The film was shot by cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby (Hair Wolf), the production design, set decoration, costume design, and makeup were all done by women, and the casting director was also a woman. Onscreen, New York-trained actress Kenadi DelaCerna carries the film with her strong presence as a biracial 15 year old—younger than her usual range.

NPR called the novel’s main character, Margo Crane, “the most realistic underage runaway in modern fiction,” and that’s true for this 2019 film adaptation as well. Margo has been raised by her Native American father (Tatanka Means), who gave up drinking the day the girl’s mother left them to “find” herself (which people were doing in the sixties). The film is set in 1977 in the small fictional town of Murrayville in rural Michigan, where prejudice against Native Americans and the class inequity are apparent. Margo appreciates her father and the skills he taught her—she carries around a book about Annie Oakley and has become a crack shot herself—but she clearly misses having a mother in the house and like any teen wants more than life is currently giving her. More

Review of THE OPENING ACT (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Comedy
Not rated (would be PG-13)

As a college English professor I’ve run across a surprising number of students who want to be stand-up comics. Some of them started a comedy club on campus, some did open mics in local comedy clubs, and one even asked for my opinion on a stand-up routine he was filming to send to an Ivy League school for his grad school admissions essay. Even if they’re not aspiring to grab the microphone themselves, college students love stand-up—which is why so many comics do the college circuit. So a passionate movie about stand-up comedy ought to be a hit with college and high school students who have secret (or not-so-secret) ambitions of being a stand-up comic.

The Opening Act is also plenty fun for the rest of us who have no plans to quit our respectable jobs, as Ken Jeong did (he was a doctor), to become stand-up comics. But as you watch how passionate everyone is about stand-up you begin think, on some level, maybe I could do this too—and that’s because this 2020 film feels like a love letter to stand-up comedy. It’s written and directed by stand-up comic Steve Byrne, it stars stand-up comic Jimmy O. Yang, and all but four of the remaining cast members are stand-up comics. Even guys playing a heckler (Butch Bradley), a cop (Tom Segura), and a taxi driver (Felipe Esparza) are stand-up comics. The only pure actors among the rest of the cast are Debby Ryan (The Suite Life on Deck), Jackie Tohn (GLOW) and two minor roles. Surrounded by so much comedic talent, I can picture them trying to pick up pointers, as The Opening Act‘s main character does throughout the film. More

Review of MULAN (2020) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B-
Action-Fantasy
Rated PG-13

When it comes to live-action remakes of Disney animated films, there are two types of people: those who want a near-exact copy of the original, and those willing to accept the live-action version as a completely new work of art and entertainment. And people who expect Disney to remain faithful to the 1998 original aren’t loving this 2020 remake of Mulan: Where are the songs? Where’s Mushu? Where’s the cricket? Where’s Shang? And what the heck is a witch doing in this story?

Yeah, about that: Disney opted to go the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon route, with an emphasis on mysticism and the fantastic in a film that showcases martial arts action sequences, along with a heaping portion of qi. It’s not exactly new territory for them. Disney-owned Miramax rolled out Hero in 2002 just two years after Crouching Tiger changed the landscape for martial arts movies. As in Hero, the fight sequences in Mulan 2020 are gravity-defying and poetic in their movement and choreography, even if the fights themselves aren’t quite as spectacular as those you encounter in some of the best martial arts films. Which is to say, überfans of martial arts flicks aren’t loving this film so much either, because Disney likes to steer the ship right down the middle, aiming always for a general audience. The sequences are less violent and bloody so the film could earn a PG-13 rating.

The live-action villain, Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) may not be as deliciously villainous as Shan Yu from the animated version, but his witch cohort, Xianniang (Gong Li), is menacing enough for both of them. She’s also a shape shifter who can break apart and reassemble into hundreds of bat-like flying creatures. The live-action Mulan (Yifei Liu) doesn’t have any cutesy animal companions, and there’s less suggestion of attraction between her and the Commander (Donnie Yen) than there was in the animated version. Otherwise, the plot remains essentially the same. When invaders threaten China, the Emperor decrees that every family should send one man to fight to save the empire. Poor old Hua Zhou, a military hero in previous wars, can’t even accept his orders without falling. So naturally his feisty daughter Mulan decides to take his place and leaves in the dead of night with his armor, his sword, and his mount. If she’s discovered, she’ll be put to death for not recognizing her place as a woman.

Mulan 2020 is directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider), and the film’s feminist themes come across even more forcefully than they did in the animated version. Young Mulan is already a warrior-woman in the making when we first see her as a child fearlessly chasing a chicken across rooftops (chickens on the roof?) and using a staff with the prowess of former martial arts star Jet Li, who plays the Emperor of China in this version. Though the live-action Mulan has to endure the same embarrassing encounters with a matchmaker, at least her father acknowledges the warrior and qi (life force) within her. So off she goes—without his knowledge or blessing and without the comedic talking dragon and cricket—to train with other draftees and eventually fight the invaders. More

Review of CRESCENDO (2019) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13)

When this 2019 German film debuted at the Munich International Film Festival, the audience gave it a standing ovation. I’m not surprised. The film tells the story of a world-renowned German conductor who travels to Tel Aviv to assemble a youth orchestra composed of both Israelis and Palestinians. It’s a gestural stunt sponsored by a group whose next project involves a cause in Africa. But while the main message of Crescendo involves Israeli-Palestinian accord, a subtext is that all people ought to get along—including Jews and Germans, the latter whom, conductor Eduard Sporck suggests, should be forgiven for the sins of their Nazi parents and grandparents.

Peter Simonischek (Toni Erdmann) is warm and engaging as the fictional maestro who must work not only with the typical egos and attitudes of the artistically gifted, but also with two groups that hate each other and have stories in their families that reinforce and justify that cultural hatred. So while we see Sporck audition and rehearse his young musicians, a large portion of film time is devoted to his finding ways to broker peace, to break through the barriers with musicians at a retreat in Italy, neutral ground, rather than Tel Aviv, as originally planned.

Crescendo is multi-language, with spoken English and German and English subtitles. By American standards, it would be slapped with an R rating because an f-bomb is tossed near the beginning and again at the end. Only one is usually permitted for a film to slip into a PG-13 rating. But those two words, which come at emotional high points and are used for emphasis, are joined by only one other noticeable swearword in a film that’s otherwise PG.

If there are teens in your family who got hooked on the Australian TV-series Dance Academy, the few personal dramas that we get in Crescendo will seem familiar. There’s a romantic side plot featuring a Israeli French horn player named Shira (Eyan Pinkovitch) who quickly falls for a quiet and sensitive West Bank clarinetist named Omar (Mehdi Meskar), and there’s a competition side plot between the best Israeli violinist (Daniel Donskoy as Ron) and the best violinist from across the border (Sabrina Amali as Layla). The Palestinians’ families also appear, but for the most part Crescendo builds to its musical and thematic climaxes through Sporck’s efforts to bring them all together to work in both musical and metaphorical harmony. More

Review of THE LADY EVE (Criterion) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Romantic Comedy
Not rated (would be PG-13)

When BBC Culture unveiled their list of 100 greatest comedies of all time, screwball comedies fared pretty well. Topping the list was Some Like It Hot, the Billy wilder comedy produced more than a decade after the subgenre’s hey-day. But Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby turned up at #14 and #17, and closely behind them at #19 was Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve—a 1941 screwball comedy just released on Blu-ray by Criterion.

It’s an enjoyable film, but not one that I would rate so far ahead of It Happened One Night (#28 on the BBC-Culture list) or even The Philadelphia Story (#38). The film rolls along at a brisk pace for the first two-thirds. Lady Eve is the serpent in this farce about a card sharp (Barbara Stanwyck) aboard a cruise ship who sets her sights on a well-known ale heir (Henry Fonda) who just happens to be a snake researcher. But then a third-act dinner party scene goes on too long, a lost snake is all but forgotten, and Lady Eve bounces back and forth between love and revenge so abruptly you’d swear she was under a spell. Then, just as abruptly, the film rushes to an ending with a last line clever enough to rival the most famous last line in cinema (“Nobody’s perfect,” from #1 comedy Some Like It Hot).

Screwball comedies are typically farces revolving around a courtship, pursuit by a member of the opposite sex, or divorced couples still playing games with each other. Film noir has its femme fatale, but the screwball comedy version is more benign, causing the male levels of distress but nothing that can’t be overcome by the end of the film. Screwball comedies are also characterized by clever, fast-paced and often overlapping dialogue, and more often than not they include implied social commentary involving the classes (rich vs. middle class). Some films, like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby, are fast-paced enough and with a plot gimmick (escaped convict, escaped leopard) that make them best suited for family viewing. Others, like The Lady Eve, are driven by a spider/fly plot and a screwball femme fatale that make it still fun but a little more sophisticated. More

Review of GUNDALA (2019) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Action
Not Rated (would be PG-13)

With the U.S. being the center of the Marvel and D.C. universes, it’s easy to think of superheroes as being an American thing. But Superman, “born” in 1938, debuted seven years after Japan’s Ogon Bat (“Golden Bat”), which is generally acknowledged to be the world’s first comic book superhero—that is, a hero with at least one super power.

Marvel and D.C. films are recognizably formulaic, so it’s fascinating to see how other countries “do” superhero films. Gundala is a 2019 cinematic origin story of the most popular superhero comic in Indonesia, a character created by Harya “Hasmi” Suraminata in 1969. And there are some striking differences.

For one thing, American superheroes, even before they fully develop their powers, appear in almost every scene. That’s not the case with Gundala, which offers a complex web of characters that get plenty of screen time without the hero present. That’s one big difference. Another is that Gundala has terrific fight sequences and plays more like a martial arts film with all characters on equal footing than it does a superhero flick—at least for four fifths of the film. Yet another difference is that the actual superpower and how it works is murkier than an American superhero film. And the filmmakers aren’t interested in traveling the shortest distance between two points to explain it. They get there eventually, but they’re in no hurry. You can pinpoint at least three moments in the film when an American superhero would have pivoted and hit that moment of discovery or resolve earlier than our Indonesian hero, because Hollywood likes to keep it simple.

What’s immediately striking is that Gundala has strong production values and seems to have been made with subtitles in mind. Though the film is fast-paced, subtitle texts don’t speed by and the dialogue is short enough to enable non-Indonesian viewers to read them comfortably. More than any non-English film I’ve watched over the past several years, this one required no conscious effort to juggle the “reading” of images and reading of text. More

Review of STAR WARS IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Rated PG-13
Sci-fi Fantasy

George Lucas and The Rise of Skywalker director J.J. Abrams had to be dreading the day when the last of the nine-film Star Wars franchise finally went into production—less so because a beloved series was ending, and more because fans have been notoriously hard on final installments. Just ask the Game of Thrones people. They know a little something about expectations being so high they can seldom be met.

But if you’re going to market all things Star Wars over four decades, including books about the various creatures, weapons, uniforms, and vehicles, you’ve got to expect that diehard fans are going to downgrade the film if they see inconsistencies, as überfans did. You also could have predicted that critics, who expect originality in every episode of a storied franchise like this, would also complain that there were too many scenes that seemed little more than variations on iconic scenes from previous Star Wars films.

But if you’re just a casual Star Wars fan who’s looking to be entertained, The Rise of Skywalker is a decent enough popcorn movie.

Yes, the original Star Wars trilogy— A New Hope (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983)—remains the best trio of the franchise because the films stayed true to what Lucas wanted to do in the first place: make a contemporary version of the Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and Commando Cody serials he grew up watching. That meant creating a slam-bang cliff-hanging adventure that was as fun as those old-time black-and-white serials. In the original trilogy, Lucas managed to perfectly capture the blend of action and tongue-in-cheek campiness that made those old-time serials fun. He created a fantasy adventure that didn’t take itself too seriously, with the actors bantering at times like those you saw in another old-time genre: the screwball comedy. More

Review of JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Rated PG-13
Fantasy Action-Adventure

Before I offer my family’s take on Jumanji: The Next Level, I’d like to point out that the Internet Movie Database readers thought it was almost as good as Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (6.8 vs. 6.9/10) and 87 percent of the audience at Rotten Tomatoes rated them dead even.

Our family’s reaction came closer to the Tomatometer Critics, who gave it a 71 percent “fresh” rating compared to the 76 percent rating they had given Welcome to the Jungle. We didn’t think it was as good.

Welcome to the Jungle effectively used the Breakfast Club formula of grouping different teen personalities together so that we knew, by the time they entered the game, what they were afraid of, what they most wanted, and how they acted normally, so we could appreciate their every movement as an avatar within the game that had sucked them inside. The writing was crisp and it all made sense.

This time, though, the beginning is slow and which characters are which avatars is a bit muddled. When we watch Spencer (Alex Wolff) drag through some pre-game scenes that are supposed to explain why he goes back into the game, those scenes seem unnecessary because they don’t really offer much in the way of an explanation. They just slow the narrative. Same with the introduction of Spencer’s Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his estranged business partner Milo (Danny Glover). The camera time they get feels wasted, given DeVito’s and Glover’s talents. You find yourself thinking, “Come on, get on with it.” More

Review of NE ZHA (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B-
Not Rated (would be PG-13)
Animated fantasy-adventure

The ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang (light/dark, positive/negative) is at the heart of Ne Zha, an animated feature film from Chinese director Jiaozi that shuns the harsh angularity of anime in favor of the rounded contours that typically characterize western animation.

In fact, there are moments in this 3D computer animated fantasy when you might find yourself thinking of Disney’s more traditionally rendered Mulan, especially when a governor named Li Jing (Hao) is drawn in the same style as a younger version of Mulan’s father. The governor and Madam Yin (Qi) learn that the Primeval Lord of Heaven has decided that they will be the ones to raise one half two beings that came from the Heavenly Pearl. The other half is being raised and controlled by the Dragon King, who seems determined to prove that even the good offspring of the Primeval Lord of Heaven can be used for evil purposes.

But of the two, Nezha is the hellraiser. In fact, the full Chinese title of the film translates as “Birth of the demon child Nezha.” He’s like Dennis the Menace and Stitch rolled into one—a little fireball that his doting parents love, nonetheless, and want to protect. Because of his temperament and frankly evil laugh, he’s ostracized by his community, and probably justifiably so. I mean, he is prophesized to bring destruction to the world, so why would people cozy up to him? But eventually the community learns they have to count on him. More

Review of DARK WATERS (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Rated PG-13
Investigative legal drama

Dark Waters sounds like the title of a missing person case or murder mystery, and quite literally that’s what this legal drama turns out to be. It’s also based on a true story.

Mark Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, who in 1998 was a newly minted partner at a Cincinnati, Ohio law firm that specialized in defending chemical companies. But one day a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia brings a box of VHS tapes to his office. Bilott is ready to brush him off until the man says he knows Bilott’s grandmother. As a result, Billot drives to Parkersburg to investigate. There he sees a lot of unsettling things, ranging from blackened teeth to a mass burial site for cattle, close to 200 of which died after suddenly acting crazy. The farmer shows him more. Convinced there’s something going on, Bilott agrees to look into it.

This film traces his investigation into DuPont’s use of the dangerous chemical they labeled C-8 (used in Teflon) and the backlash Bilott faced, both personally and professionally. On the home front, for example, he had only been married for several years to his wife Sarah (Jane Hathaway) when he took the case, and at one point in the film, after his obsession starts to rival Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale, we see how close to the breaking point everyone is. It was no better for those in Parkersburg who came forward to testify against DuPont—the biggest employer and community benefactor in the area.

Dark Waters does a nice job of showing the dilemma that communities face: Can you really bit the hand that feeds you? Can you really choose between jobs, or health? If you do anything to sabotage the corporation, you also sabotage the community or your own family. Yet, one worker in the film tells how his brother got hired at DuPont and died two years later of testicular cancer, leaving behind three small boys. How important was his job? This film tells the stories of the victims of corporate greed and the heavier prices that they all pay. More

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