This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of April to June 2018


“Wonder Wheel” - This latest Woody Allen creation was savaged by many critics who attacked an aspect of the story because it too closely resembles supposedly notorious aspects of Woody Allen’s life (in particular, his marriage to the adopted daughter of his former girl friend, Mia Farrow). Although an auteur’s purpose in creating a film is certainly one issue that can be considered in evaluating it, I chose to watch the film on its own merits because Woody Allen has, over the years, produced so many memorable and important films (along with quite a few doozies). The film stars Kate Winslet as Ginny, a down-on-her-luck former actress now working as a Coney Island waitress and married to a rough unattractive carousel operator, Humpty (Jim Belushi). It doesn’t help that Ginny also has a young son (from a prior relationship) who loves to set fires and needs psychiatric attention. Ginny finds herself in an under-the-boardwalk affair with a lifeguard (and former soldier), Mickey (Justin Timberlake), but things get a little hairy when Humpty’s attractive and sexy daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple) returns to Coney Island from an unfortunate marriage to a mob gangster. As Carolina puts it, the gangsters are out to kill her. With extremely colorful cinematography, Coney Island (my birthplace) looks wonderful. But Ginny, caught up in a miserable situation, is incredibly insecure and vulnerable. “Wonder Wheel” definitely resembles Allen’s standard philosophy of romantic relationships and contains his usual timely background music. Kate Winslet gives a memorable performance as Ginny, one that was apparently overlooked due to the negative press about Woody Allen and the MeToo movement (whether deserved or not). The supporting cast is okay, although I might have made other casting choices for the roles of Mickey and Humpty. Overall, not Woody Allen’s best but certainly worth viewing, especially if you admire Kate Winslet, are a Woody Allen fan, and/or love Coney Island. B (6/2/18)


“Red Sparrow” - I have listened to excellent audiobooks of both “Red Sparrow” (upon which this film is based) and “Palace of Treason,” the second of Jason Matthews’ trilogy about Domenika Egorova, a Russian ballet star who becomes, against her will, a Russian intelligence agent known as a “sparrow” (someone who uses sexual techniques in the performance of the job); Although the film, “Red Sparrow,” changes the book’s ending somewhat, I found it to be an effective and compelling version of the book with an outstanding performance by Jennifer Lawrence as Domenika. Joel Edgerton plays Nate Nash, the CIA agent with whom she falls in love, Matthias Schoenaerts is Domenika’s evil uncle (Vanya, believe it or not), Charlotte Rampling (perfectly cast) is the leader of the Sparrow School, Joely Richardson is Domenika’s mother, and Jeremy Irons plays General Korchnoi, a leader of the Russian intelligence. The film is intelligently paced and not overly violent. I’d say it’s one of the most effective and smart thrillers I’ve seen an a while. B+ (5/30/18)


“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” - If you have ever seen the films “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952), “The Big Heat” (1953), or “Oklahoma” (1955), you’ve seen Gloria Grahame (here played by Annette Bening). Grahame was a celebrated Hollywood star of film noir, acting with the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas, Lee Marvin, and Glenn Ford, before accepting the comedic singing role, at age 33, of Ado Annie Carnes (the girl who “Cain’t Say No”) in “Oklahoma” which unfortunately started problems with her career. When she was in her 50s and struggling to find acting roles, she met a young British actor named Pete Turner (Jamie Bell) and hit it off. Ultimately Turner came to stay with Grahame in Malibu and in New York, until she forced him to return home alone. “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” based on Turner’s book, is a poignant portrayal of that relationship and Grahame’s last illness in which she spent a great deal of time in Turner’s home being cared for by his mother (Julie Walters) with support from his father (Kenneth Cranham) and brother (Stephen Graham). Annette Bening does a wonderful job of portraying the tragic Grahame, and Jamie Bell is very effective as a young man who deeply cared for an older woman (regardless of her fame) with whom he had fallen in love. B+ (5/25/18)


“The Post” - In an era when the biggest movie box office seems to be coming from films about superheroes, it’s a pleasure to see a serious film about a significant incident in recent American history, and one that almost led to a constitutional crisis. Directed by Steven Spielberg, “The Post” takes us back to Washington in 1971. The New York Times had just published excerpts from the “Pentagon Papers,” released by Daniel Ellsberg, a top secret study initiated by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara which proved that several presidents, including the incumbent Nixon, had been lying to the American people about the Vietnam War. A federal court had issued an injunction against the Times publishing anything further and there was a question whether it might apply to other newspapers, thus placing a limit on freedom of the press. When Ben Bagdikian of the Washington Post obtained the remainder of the “Pentagon Papers,” Publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) and Editor-in-Chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) were faced with the question of whether to publish and defend freedom of the press. Graham had only recently become publisher of the Post, after the death of her husband, and Meryl Streep appropriately plays her well as a woman with lots of hesitation, but ultimately courage. Tom Hanks plays Bradlee as the tough newspaperman he was. The cast is excellent, including Bob Odenkirk (“Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”) as journalist Ben Bagdikian, Sarah Paulson as Bradlee’s wife, Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara, Tracy Letts and Bradley Whitford as powers-that-be at the Post advising the publisher, Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”) as Daniel Ellsberg, Carrie Coon (“Fargo”) as Meg Greenfield, and Jesse Plemons (“Breaking Bad” and “Fargo”) as a Post attorney advising about the legalities of publishing the remainder of the “Pentagon Papers.” The story is told crisply and clearly and it is always clear that the Post was facing a battle over freedom of the press until the NY Times went to the Supreme Court. And the film ends with an appropriate hint of the next major story that was about to hit the Post (hint: see the 1976 film “All the President’s Men.”) Highly recommended. A (5/3/18)


“The Greatest Showman” - Based somewhat on the life of P. T. Barnum (1810 - 1891) whose shows were created and headquartered in Bridgeport, CT (never mentioned in the film), “The Greatest Showman” is something of a fantasy musical. With sets that are quite colorful and yet surreal for the time period involved, the film really goes off the rails with tasteless ultra-21st Century loud, pulsing, and repetitive sound-alike musical numbers, with dancing of the type you might see on a Carnival Cruise or a live Vegas show. What I found endearing though was the enthusiasm of the performers, especially Hugh Jackman as Barnum; Zac Efron as his partner, Phillip Carlyle; Zendaya as a Barnum aerialist and Carlyle’s love interest; and Keala Settle as Lettie Lutz, Barnum’s bearded lady. Rebecca Ferguson (“The White Queen” and “The Girl on the Train”) appears as Jenny Lind, the great 19th Century Swedish opera star, who is presented as sounding more like a mediocre Celine Dion than any soprano who ever appeared on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera or La Scala. One of the most intriguing performances was that of Michelle Williams as Charity Barnum, P.T.’s wife. A highly unusual, mostly upbeat role for her, she looked like she was having fun playing the part. “The Greatest Showman” is certainly not great, and it’s not terrible. It can be enjoyed for its spunk, but its music is likely going to be off-putting to anyone who appreciates the great movie musicals and Broadway shows of the past golden era. B- (4/21/18)


“Call Me By Your Name” - This is an exquisitely photographed film with some breathtaking performances, particularly by Timothée Chalomet, the young actor who plays Elio, a precocious boy of seventeen. Elio is the son of an American professor of antiquities (the ubiquitous and wonderful Michael Stuhlbarg) who owns a villa in the northern Italian countryside at which the family spends summers and holidays. Each year, the professor invites a new student to be his research assistant and on this occasion (1983), that student is a tall handsome man of twenty-four named Oliver (Armie Hammer). Elio already has a romantic interest, a young beautiful French girl named Marzia (Esther Garrel). But although the obviously highly intelligent and educated Oliver acts somewhat nasty and arrogant when he first arrives, something clicks between him and Elio and a completely different romantic relationship develops. Luca Guadagnino’s direction is best described by this lovely and accurate language from the rave review by Manohla Dargis in The New York Times: “In Mr. Guadagnino’s work, passion and drama are expressed in words, deeds and surging music but also in the vibrant, visceral textures that envelop his characters — the cool marble, succulent fruit, shadow and light, sheens of sweat.” That said, I still have a few criticisms. First, the scenes of physical interaction between Elio and Oliver are overdone and uncomfortable to watch (and I’d say that even if it were a heterosexual relationship). Second, there seems little concern about the age difference, including in an almost impossible to believe scene in which Elio’s father admits total awareness of the relationship between Oliver and Elio and shows absolutely no concerns despite Elio’s rather sensitive age. Timothée Chalamet’s performance is a revelation and deserved the Oscar nomination it received. Also of note is Esther Garrel, the young French actress, whose expression is memorable when she realizes that the boy she is involved with is now involved in a homosexual relationship. (Primarily in English but also with some Italian, French, German, and Hebrew). A- (4/3/18)

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