Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

Current Reviews


One of the great exemplars of 20th century Japanese cinema is “Ikiru” (to live), directed and co-written by the master Akira Kurosawa in 1952. The tale features a bureaucratic paper-pusher mired in a barren government job until he belatedly comes to life and takes action on a positive project. With the lead played by the great Takashi Shimura, the film won international honors and represented a change from Kurosawa’s usual action pictures.

Dutiful bureaucrat Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) outside his office in London. Photo courtesy of Sony Classic Pictures.

After long marinating, that drama has finally been adapted for an English-language audience and set in 1950’s London by the Japanese-British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (author of “Remains of the Day” and “Never Let Me Go”, inter alia). The adaptation stays quite true to the spirit of the Japanese original, with appropriate English touches and equivalents, but principally through a superb reincarnation of the lonely bureaucrat by Bill Nighy.

The film opens with a callow new employee, Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), beginning his new job at the London Public Works Department, where he is warned immediately about the unknowable Mr. Williams (Nighy), a paragon of inaction in their unit, an exemplar of do-nothing. Williams is a recent widower, but still has a son (Barney Fishwick)--who is utterly indifferent to him--and a daughter-in-law, but they are wholly wound up in their own lives. A visit to his doctor brings bad news: he has but six months to live from end-stage cancer.

Alone in a pub, he tells a waitress about his medical fate, a conversation overheard by man-about-town Sutherland (Tom Burke), who urges him to undertake a beachside pub crawl with him. But the binge night doesn’t take. He tries to clumsily charm an ambitious young woman from his own office, Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood)), but that too doesn’t go any farther than halting, uneasy conversations.

His grim diagnosis, however, somehow triggers Williams to action. Knowing his time is short, he first abruptly abandons his office and goes on a private seaside holiday, but most importantly, he decides to change his life and speed up a long-delayed community request to build a small neighborhood park.

Through these vagaries, Williams is ever the taciturn stork in the black suit, slow to speak and to reveal his emotions. Tentative and timid, he opens up (slightly) only in his final weeks when he finally has a job to do by standing up to his own bureaucracy.

Such a role is catnip for Bill Nighy (73), often a flinty figure in British films who has made a career of such men. Over some 70 films since the 1980’s, his portraits of Brit restraint have graced films like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” (2012), “Pride,” (2014), “The Bookshop,” (2017), and “Emma” (2019), as well as “”Living.,” while his comedic chops were acclaimed as a has-been rock singer in “Love Actually” (2002), the film that introduced him to a world-wide audience.

Directed with taste and acumen by Oliver Hermanus (a South African helmsman), and outlined beautifully in Ishiguro’s delicate and sensitive script, “Living” is much aided by a series of classy production elements of period London, exhibiting luminous cinematography, production design, and music. Like its Japanese model, “Living” caps its narrative with a poignant remembrance of a fellow on a swing in a delicate snowfall that redeems this man of no importance.

(Now in theaters, the film is rated “PG-13” and runs 142 mins.)

(January 2023)

Women Talking

The one-liner—“Do we stay or do we go?” would make a crude set-up for the absorbing new film by writer-director Sarah Polley. A stark but compelling drama set in 2010, it is based on a contemporary incident that happened in a religious community in Bolivia. It features eight women from an isolated Mennonite colony (location not specified) grappling to reconcile their harsh reality with their abiding faith after it is revealed that multiple men from their isolated colony have drugged and raped the community's women at night for years.

The main cast of “Women Talking” re-lives their past traumas. An Orion Pictures Release. Photo Credit: Michael Gibson © 2022 Orion

Eight of their number gather in the hayloft of a barn to argue about what to do about this realization. An odd setting for a movie drama, perhaps, but made compelling (mostly) by an octet of fine female actors.

The setting opens briskly but with little background information. It is not clear what people in the colony do for a living, although it appears to be farming. The exact nature of the abuses is never specified or described. What is learned is what the women discuss for the two-hour run time. Viewers will see the colony’s inhabitants in what seems a timeless setting--with the women wearing garb out of “Witness” (1986)--modestly dressed but with searing material to impart. The photography is purposely restrained, with a muted color scheme (shot by Luc Montpellier) just this side of high-contrast black-and white.

The protagonists are a fine Greek chorus of women actors: Rooney Mara as Ona, torn about the choices they must face, Claire Foy as Salome, a vociferous voice against the criminal menfolk, Jesse Buckley as Mariche, almost as outspoken but willing to listen to arguments, and Judith Ivey as Agata, who has historical perspective and the presence of an elderly Catholic nun. The only significant male role is August (Ben Wishaw), the shy but honest school teacher who has agreed to take notes of the session.

As stated above, Polley’s script reveals little information about the scandal that has riven the community; you piece it together from the women’s fervent exchange. The setting of their talk fest is narrow, even a little claustrophobic. The to-and-fro of the debate is intense and gripping (giving each actress a chance to shine), yet, also somewhat repetitive. Will they or won’t they vote to leave the colony...?

Polley comes with a long film-making pedigree in her native Canada. She began acting as a child and her breakthrough role came in “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997), playing a teenage survivor of a bus crash, and in the TV series “Slings and Arrows” (2004-2006). Among the dozens of feature films she appeared in through 2010 (when she turned to directing), some of the most prominent included “Guinevere” (1998), “Go” (1999), and “My Life Without Me” (20003).

Her directing debut was “Away from Her” (2006), a sympathetic study of a woman suffering with dementia, “Take This Waltz” (2010), a delicate film about a love triangle, and “Stories We Tell” (2012), a revealing documentary about her own family’s mangled past. This makes “Women Talking” her first feature in ten years, and one of her best. At age 43, we can only hope that Polley has years, if not decades, of work ahead of her (and perhaps she will act again sometime).

(The film is rated “PG-13,” runs 144 minutes, and arrives in DC-area cinemas on January 6th.)

(January 2023)

Empire of Light

Writer-director Sam Mendes's latest offering is a period drama about the staff of a English resort town’s movie house with themes including mental illness and the growing racial violence of the time, told within a sweet background of cinematic nostalgia. Its strengths include its superb cinematography, a delicate score, and a fine ensemble cast led by Olivia Colman, a virtual sure-bet for an Oscar nomination. It is a worthy follow-up to Mendes’ last picture of 2019, "1917."

From left to right: Michael Ward and Olivia Colman in a pensive mood in “Empire of Light.” Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

Stephen, a decent lad, warms to Hilary but doesn’t go too far as she mentors him about the work and shows him around town. He later finds companionship with the sweet Ruby (Crystal Clarke). Ellis, seeking to put his house on the map, dreams of a sprightly restoration and a splashy premiere with the 1981 hit “Chariots of Fire,” with local celebrities attending.

When the premiere arrives, Hilary begins to lose it (her troubled mental state has been hinted at earlier): she makes a clumsy, unscheduled speech at the opening then rushes to call out her paramour publicly in the lobby, a horrible gaffe that gets her fired. The film has one terrifying sequence when local skinheads burst into the theater to trash it and throttle the staff, but the show goes on.

The finale is told gently, as Hilary is eventually called back to the Empire, says goodbye to Stephen as he begins a new life at university, comes to settle with her colleagues, and gets a wondrous gift from Toby.

“Empire of Light” is dominated by Colman, currently on a string of fine performances beginning with the “The Favourite” from 2018. Here she does unfussy modesty to perfection but also can explode when necessary, such as her outburst in the theater lobby. Young Ward is a cool, thoughtful customer who shows real delicacy in his relationship with Hilary. Toby Jones adds a grace note as a passionate film fan, and the usually cool Firth is here an aging swine.

Mendes paints the town carefully, its look and spaces clearly defined, especially the theater itself, with its spiffy front and lobby created by production designer Mark Tildesley, while the veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins lights everything with clarity and class. This is a nostalgia trip that merits a visit.

(The film, released in cinemas December 9, is rated “R” and runs 115 minutes.)

(December 2022)

She Said

“She Said” is a new drama based on the recent New York Times investigation that exposed film producer Harvey Weinstein's history of abuse and sexual misconduct against women who worked at his Miramax Studios in New York.

Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan are crusading journalists in “She Said.” Photo by JoJo Whilden/Universal Pictures - © Universal Studios.

It is based on the 2019 book of the same name chronicling the investigation led by Jodi Kantor, and Megan Twohey. It is a splendid picture in the spirit of its forebears (see below). The film stars Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan as Twohey and Kantor, respectively, alongside Patricia Clarkson as the duo’s editor-boss, Rebecca Corbet, as well as Andre Braugher (as Times editor Dean Baquet), Jennifer Ehle, and Samantha Morton in supporting roles, and Ashley Judd appearing as herself.

The book was optioned in 2018, and the film announced in 2021 as a co-production between Annapurna Pictures and Plan B Entertainment, ultimately to be distributed by Universal Pictures, with direction by Maria Schrader from a screenplay by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. The evocative score was composed by Nicholas Britell (“Moonlight”). The film had its world premiere at the 60th New York Film Festival in October and is being released theatrically in the US on November 18.

The film triggers immediate comparisons to the classic “All the President’s Men” (1976), especially for its tandem of two dogged (female this time) journalists wearing out their shoe leather to track down reluctant sources who will finally give in to their persistence. Similarly, it evokes the great “Spotlight” (2015), where the parallel with running down a major, wide-spread sexual scandal among Catholic priests is even more exact. And it can stand up to those landmark movies through its painstaking, careful pacing as Meghan and Jodi seek out and gently cajole potential witnesses to Weinstein’s crimes.

The film shows, in myriad interviews, how reluctant the abused women were to talk, partly because of their assumption of guilt (most were very young) and the loss of their careers, and partly because many had signed Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) legally binding them to silence. Also, many respondents just wanted to forget the whole ghastly thing! (An exception among those celebrities sucked into Weinstein’s orbit was actress Judd).

But, drip-by-drip, some of the victims absorb the Twohey-Kantor pressure and decide to fight the Master Abuser. In the film’s textual finale, a statistic states that eventually, many dozen casualties spoke up. (Note: the male focus of the film--Weinstein himself—is never really seen; his broad back appears in one shot and he is heard on tape and on the phone at different points of the investigation.)

Both Mulligan (“An Education”) and Kazan are the core of this excellent film, Mulligan, as the more mature Twohey, stands up to constant rejection with a calm and cool demeanor (a stance which is broken only once in the film when, in a bar, she roasts a sleazy guy with a tirade of obscenities). Kazan (“The Big Sick”) matches her as a younger, poker-faced grinder with a mission, gently eliciting tears and confessions from her interviewees. Look for them to be nominated at Oscar time.

(The film is rated “R” for sexual subjects and runs 126 minutes.)

(November 2022)