Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

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A small movie in scope but large in heart is “Mass,” a four-hander wherein two grieving couples come together to try to cope with unimaginable loss. One pair, Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton) had, six years earlier, lost their teen-aged son in a school shooting, while the other, older couple, Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) are the parents of the teen-aged shooter, who committed suicide after the act. Though they all have had testy legal encounters in the aftermath of the shooting, Gail has, through a mediator, suggested that the other couple meet with them one more time for some kind of final reconciliation.

From left to right: Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney, and Ann Dowd star in “Mass.” Photo credit: Bleecker Street Pictures.

Their meeting, in an all-purpose room in an isolated Episcopal church (the film was shot in northern Idaho) begins tentatively, with church staff trying to make the guests comfortable. All arrive and agree to sit at a plain round table. Some guarded small talk ensues—there is a fussy exchange about a bouquet Linda has brought--before Jay opens up the meeting, still trying to comprehend what happened. An early flare-up occurs when Richard hints at political issues being implicated in their case, when Jay cuts him off, saying they should exclude politics from their conversation.

From there, each parent, more or less in turn, agonizes about how the shooting has left them. Gail still wants to know “why,” while the shooting has triggered her husband towards a new activism. Richard, though grudgingly regretful, is the one most ready to move on, while his wife struggles with her own inchoate guilt. All four actors express themselves within a delicate balance, with each given a chance at a modest monologue to express their own version of grief. The four pinwheel through personal attacks, poignant remembrances of their sons, speculations on their own guilt—not exactly reconciling what has happened but aiming for some kind of surcease.

All four actors are splendid, utterly natural and believable in delivering the incisive script. Plimpton stands out as a woman struggling to express herself, while her inner turmoil is agonizingly revealed in her eyes and expressions. Ann Dowd, the most emotional of the quartet, delivers an urgent late soliloquy describing her last evening with her son, a soul-destroying encounter.

Fran Kranz makes his directorial and screenwriting debut with “Mass,” and it is a stunning one for this LA-based actor. His work is the more remarkable for directing a fine quartet of older actors when he was but 39. His achievement reminds me of other young directors who have created serious dramas with mature actors such as the 27-year-old Sarah Polley with the touching “Away from Her” (2006) “ and 33-year-old German Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck with the magnificent “The Lives of Others” (2006). May Mr. Kranz have many more chances to prove himself over the years.

(The film is rated “PG-13” and runs 111 minutes.)

(November 2021)

Mayor Pete

Observers of feature documentaries about political campaigns are usually begin with “Primary” of 1960, covering the Wisconsin primary race between Humbert Humphrey and JFK, with a crew headed by renowned documentarians Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker. Others have followed, including “Street Fight,” “War Room,” and the recent “Knock Down the House.” “Mayor Pete” follows in that tradition, with the expected minutiae of the campaign trail leavened with the unabashed youth of the candidate and his articulate, buttoned-down demeanor.

Pete Buttigieg (center right) takes a selfie on the campaign trail. Photo courtesy of Amazon. Copyright Amazon Content Services, LLC.

From the start, director Jesse Moss ”was intrigued by Buttigieg. He had remarkable composure, evident intelligence, and a gift for conveying complex ideas in ways that felt graspable.... Could a small-town mayor ascend, in one bold step, to the highest office in the land? It was a story that Frank Capra might have concocted.”

“Mayor Pete” brings filmgoers inside Pete Buttigieg’s 2119-2020 campaign to be the youngest US President, providing an unprecedented intimacy with a most guarded candidate, his husband Chasten Buttigieg, and their redoubtable team. Opening a year before the Iowa caucuses, the film follows Buttigieg’s remarkable trajectory up to his unlikely, hair-breadth victory there. The campaign carries on to New Hampshire and beyond, ending only in Pete’s withdrawal after the South Carolina primary in March 2020. (Recently appointed U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Buttigieg serves as the first openly LGBTQ Senate-confirmed Cabinet member in U.S. history.) 

This film reveals what really goes on inside a campaign for the highest office in the land. Mayor Pete is shown touring the country in his “Pete 2020” bus, appearing on network interviews, prepping for the Democratic debates, and in earnest conference with his chief aides, led by campaign manager Mike Schmuhl and head of communications, the feisty Lis Smith. A unique aspect of the Buttigieg campaign (among other things) is the steady presence of his spouse/partner, Chasten, who fulfills a role in the film as tactician and surrogate, as well as Pete-whisperer. In separate interviews, he offers insights into the candidate which Buttigieg, famously self-contained, does not reveal.

While overall laudatory, the movie does not avoid one major hiccup on the campaign. While Pete was campaigning, he was still mayor of South Bend, and in June 2019, a police incident involving a local white policeman shooting and killing a black man happened. This caused him to skip campaign stops and return to his home town. The film shows Buttigieg in South Bend, facing a black population enraged at the incident and shows him, chastened and defensive, facing a hostile audience asking what actions he would take for justice. The troubling event gives us a different take on the ever-cool Buttigieg as he searches to explain a failure of his city’s government.

“Mayor Pete” is director Moss’ follow-up to last year’s “Boys’ State,” which was honored with a 2021 Primetime Emmy Award as Outstanding Documentary. As in “Boys State,” Moss achieves, with roaming, hand-held cameras, an intimate connection with the candidate and his campaign team, portraying a revealing and candid backstory.

(The film, now on Amazon., runs 97 mins. and is rated “R.”)

(November 2021)

Fauci – DC in the Movies

“America’s Favorite Doctor,” i.e., Dr. Anthony Fauci, has become a household name with his singular knowledge as head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in a time of COVID-19. His remarks on the science of epidemiology made him a TV superstar, delivering sometimes dozens of interviews per day. Moreover, his assured manner and distinctive Brooklyn voice were a balm for a concerned and confused public.

Adding to his celebrity was his presence on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, where he represented medical reason amidst presidential hunches and grandstanding as President Trump took over the group’s narrative. He came out of the Trump years untainted (though vilified by some Trump supporters) and surfaced again as a chief adviser to the Biden administration.

His expertise on the coronavirus front are an important part of “Fauci,” but only a part. The movie is an admiring biography of this treasured civil servant whose career—50 plus years at NIH—deals with other international epidemics, including HIV/AIDS, SARS, and Ebola.

An extended sequence on AIDS is effective because it was inherently dramatic and his first national exposure on a major virus while also introducing criticism of him as a stodgy bureaucrat. While the Reagan Administration’s initial reaction to the AIDS crisis was silent or wary, it was Dr. Fauci who first came to pay serious attention to both activist’s protests and the scientific questioning of the Act-Up coalition. He went from being a pariah to their ally and helped steer the virus to a treatable malady.

The film, directed by John Hoffman and Janet Tobias, captures the Fauci saga in media sequences, leavened with contemporary footage of the doctor and his family, humanizing this committed man. The filmmakers, in fact, had to delicately shoot around Fauci’s Trump period, showing him only in his office or at home, so that any live comments critical of an irascible president did not get back to Trump.

(The film is rated “PG-13” and runs 104 minutes.)

(November 2021)

The French Dispatch

From “The French Dispatch:” The façade of the publishing house for the expatriate journal. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

From singular director Wes Anderson comes his tenth feature film, “The French Dispatch,” which he has described as "a love letter to journalists set at an outpost of an American newspaper in the fictional 20th-century French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé.” The film is inspired by Anderson's love of The New Yorker, with some characters and events based on real-life equivalents from the magazine. It is also a “portmanteau” film, i.e., an anthology of three distinct stories that have appeared in the Dispatch, written by its idiosyncratic expatriate staff.

Bill Murray, a long-time favorite of Anderson’s (he has appeared in every one of the director’s films), plays the Dispatch’s editor, Arthur Howitzer, Jr., a soft-spoken curmudgeon, whose eclectic staff includes Herbert Sazerac, a travel writer (Owen Wilson), Alumna (Elizabeth Moss), the copy editor, and Hermes Jones (Jason Schwartzman) the magazine’s cartoonist.

The first of the three articles (“The Concrete Masterpiece”) centers on Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) a fervent art dealer interested in the work of a violent prison inmate Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), housed in the section for the criminally insane. This piece is based on a New Yorker series covering the real-life art dealer Lord Duveen and is narrated by Dispatch writer J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton). French star Lea Seydoux plays Rosenthaler’s prison guard, Simone, who serves as his muse, posing for him nude which he envisions as an abstract impressionistic jumble, an image that captures Cadazio. The convict follows up with an expansive series of similar frescos.

The second tale takes off from the May 1968 student occupation protests (inspired by New Yorker articles originally written by Mavis Gallant). Called “Revisions to a Manifesto” in the film, it is written by staffer Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), a no-nonsense journalist profiling the student revolutionaries, which include chess-playing Zeffirelli (Timotheé Chalamet) and his obdurate girlfriend Juliette (Lyna Khoudri). Zeffirelli is the poetic voice of the “revolution” while his Juliette is its enforcer.

The third item, entitled “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” is written by Roebuck Wright (Jeffery Wright), a food journalist at the Dispatch. At a dinner with the Police Commissioner (Mathieu Amalric), Wright and others learn that his son Gigi has been kidnapped, and Lt, Nescaffier (Steven Park), a noted chef as well as a police officer, is on the case. Edward Norton (a chauffeur) and Saorise Ronan (a showgirl) are part of the kidnapping gang who are run down by the police and eventually succumb in a shoot-out.

Let it be known that “The French Dispatch” could be none other than a Wes Anderson film. All the quirks of his style are there: the highly-stylized jewel box set-ups, the bare-bones, dead-pan dialogue, the symmetry of the frames, the occasional animation, the ever present whimsy and preciousness. Here they are on full display for another mellow comedy (the film is especially reminiscent of “Grand Hotel Budapest” ), which, however, for this observer, misses the mark. It seems like Wes gone amok.

The best of the three tales is “Masterpiece,” principally because the set-up is distinctive and unexpected, and the deadpan delivery works best (del Toro and Brody seem comfortable in their stilted dialogue). It is the least cloying of the three with a semi-clever take on contemporary art. The “Manifesto” sequence is a narrative mess, the objective journalist ill-contrasting with the half-committed, willful youth aching for a vague “revolution.” It tries to be a mock of clueless insurgents (Chalamet seems particularly ill-cast) which renders little but confusion. The “Dining Room” is a complete farrago, with too many oddball characters doing too many weird things, all ending in a mindless and confusing police chase.

Other elements seem capricious, like the shifting from black-and-white to color in each segment, without apparent purpose or point. Similarly, though Anderson has summoned, as usual, an unusually varied and intriguing cast, he has so much talent he gives many of them (e.g., Moss, Schwartzman, Swinton, Norton, Ronan, Amalric, etc.) very little to do.

If these assessments seem harsh, consider them disappointing outcomes from a director this reviewer as often enjoyed and admired. This time he has taken the ingredients of his now-familiar schtick and just left them too long on the stove.

(This film is rated “R” and runs 103 mins.)

(October 2021)

The Last Duel

Matt Damon as Jean de Carrouges and Adam Driver as Jacques LeGris in "The Last Duel." Photo by Patrick Redmond. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

With “The Last Duel,” Ridley Scott steps back into history, as he so memorably did with his Oscar-winning “Gladiator” from 2000. This time, his focus is again on a tale of betrayal and vengeance, but this period piece is set against the brutality of 14th century France rather than ancient Rome. The period is that of Normandy in the late 14th C. during the reign of Charles VI.

Based on actual historical events, “The Last Duel” begins and ends with France’s last sanctioned duel in 1386 between Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), two long-time friends and warrior knights of the king turned bitter rivals over the course of almost 20 years.

Carrouges is a ferocious knight, long engaged in fighting the rival English and also a stolid, unlettered man, with a gift for rampage but none for wit or guile or deceit. Le Gris is his opposite, a poor but clever man who has educated himself in numbers and letters and taken on libertine ways, thereby ingratiating himself to a high prince of the domain, Pierre d’Alencon (Ben Affleck), an advisor and right hand of the King. It is Jean, however, who wins the heart of the most desirable local ingenue, Marguerite (Jodie Comer).

However, Le Gris, lusty that he is,also has eyes for Marguerite and, with her husband away on a Scottish campaign, he breaks into Carrouges’ castle and viciously assaults her. When she becomes pregnant, suspicion is thrown on Jacques as the father. He denies a rape charge, but Marguerite refuses to stay silent and forcefully accuses him as her attacker, an act of bravery and defiance that puts her life in jeopardy. A trial by combat is then authorized by Charles VI ( , a grueling duel to the death, shown in a grim, crashing sequence that opens and closes the picture (Scott gave a similar version of this brutality as the culminating fight of “Gladiator”).

At more than two-and-one-half hours, this “Duel” does grind on, perhaps because Scott wallows too long on medieval detail: pervasive mud, grim stone, and endless candle light, all bathed in a gray-blue cast and carrying a clattering soundtrack. It may make for a convincing 1380, but it doesn’t always keep the story moving. The film can’t help being somewhat repetitive either, since the story is set in three chapters, the first two covering similar events from first Jean’s perspective then Jacques.’

The three-way screenplay—by Nicole Holofcener (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” “Enough Said”), Affleck and Damon—may explain why the movie is part macho mania (from Affleck and Damon?) and part a sort of primitive #MeToo movement in Old France (crafted, perhaps by Holofcener?). The latter’s all-too-contemporary vessel is the young Comer, here comely for sure but also principled and a staunch seeker of the truth, unlike the tired and cynical women all around her.

(Now in theaters, the film is rated “R” and runs 2 hours, 32 minutes)

(October 2021)

Second Look: An Annual Survey of Overlooked Films

With this annual column, I again signal several “Movies That Got Away,” feature films (from 2020) less noticed or hyped upon release. This selection avoids blockbuster fare for movies which offered something distinctive, discriminating, or novel. Most of the films mentioned below had short runs and modest US box office but glowed with quality.

As in all movie seasons, there are standout individual and ensemble performances that too few people saw and which were mostly ignored during awards season. I cite one lead performance and two 19th C. period pieces with standout ensembles.

Sound of Metal – A triumph of a lead performance from Riz Ahmed as Ruben, a rock drummer who gradually loses his hearing, laments his fate, then struggles to come to terms with that loss with grudging acceptance and a careful, thoughtful reconstruction of his life. That redemption comes through working and learning within a small deaf community where he is mentored by Joe, a Vietnam War veteran, who helps him find his own way by learning signing. The film exhibits stunning sound design, with clots of sound whirling in and out of the sound track, mimicking Ruben’s auditory experience (The film won an Academy Award for sound design).

EMMA - Debut director Autumn De Wilde’s take on the Jane Austen classic is strikingly traditional and fully in period. Locations, costuming and hair, high-toned dialogue, and period music (a mix of Mozart, church tunes, and traditional airs)—all combine to present a world that Austen would recognize. As a “comic” Austen novel, the picture opens as flighty and twee, but then develops a more poignant mood as the miscues of Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) come to actually affect people’s lives. Young Taylor-Joy shows she can handle period rom-com quite capably. Her look—porcelain skin and marble eyes—gibes with the character, and she expresses moods both shallow and spirited with poise. For now, she will do nicely as the latest EMMA.

Anya Taylor-Joy (left) as Emma Woodhouse and Bill Nighy as her officious father in EMMA., a Focus Features release

The Personal History of David Copperfield – This is a triumph of a movie adapting a literary masterpiece, achieving, in boisterous style, the feel of the original. The diverse cast, led by a lively Dev Patel as David, offers a parade of fine comic actors performing as if oblivious to their own comic world. Peter Capaldi (Micawber), Ben Wishaw (Heep), Hugh Laurie, and Tllda Swinton, among many others, are standouts in their clueless unawareness of their circumstances. Director Armando Iannucci choregraphs his charges in a headlong series of quick cuts and lively vignettes that keeps the pace hectic yet the plot clear. The production lovingly creates the world and wardrobe of rural Victorian England to a tee, and the jaunty music and smart cinematography enhance the fun.

As usual, each film season presents great foreign-language films worth a look. Here are two of last year’s best:

Collective – This documentary about ingrained corruption in contemporary Romania is a wonder: a meticulously crafted landmark of investigative journalism. The title comes from the name of a Bucharest nightclub, scene of a fatal fire in October 2015. After the fire deaths, multiple burn victims died of infections in the aftermath, causing a national scandal. By early 2016, director Alexander Nauau and his crew began covering the scandal, following crusading journalist Catalin Tolotan, who leads a team to discover the truth through persistent inquiry and shoe leather. That inquiry is told in a pokerfaced style reminiscent of documentarian Frederick Wiseman: no interviews, no voice overs, no suggestive music track: just the steady presence of the all-seeing camera.

The Traitor - The story of the man who broke the Mafia in the 1980’s told in gripping detail. Tomasso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino) makes a fateful decision in prison to tell all to another Sicilian as tough as he is: Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi). The result of his vast testimony is the famous maxi-trial in Palermo, with Buscetta the star witness before more than 300 Mafiosi defendants. Favino carries the film with a mix of toughness and grace, portraying a once violent man seeking a way to a better life. While there is action and suspense, the best scenes are quiet, thoughtful ones where Tommaso pours out his revelations to the solemn but sympathetic Falcone. The film, directed by legendary Italian Marco Bellocchio, swept the 2019 Italian film awards.

Pierfrancesco Favino as Tommaso Buscetta (on the lamb) in “The Traitor.” © Fabio Lovino. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Splendid documentaries, too, surface every film year. Below, note three intricate and heartening American exemplars:

Crip Camp – In the early 1970s, teenagers with disabilities faced a future shaped by isolation and institutionalization. Camp Jened, a camp "for the handicapped" in the Catskills, exploded these limitations. And it became their breakout Utopia, a place with summertime sports, smoking, make out sessions, and campers who finally felt fulfilled as human beings. Those bonds endured as some migrated to Berkeley, California, where friendships forged at the camp morphed into movements that realized that disruption plus unity could secure life-changing accessibility for millions. Co-directed by Nicole Newnham and former camper Jim LeBrecht, this exuberant documentary depends crucially on found footage from the 1970’s camp that introduces us to irrepressible characters who will later lead to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Boys’ State - “Boys’ State” is a week-long program in which rising Texas high school seniors gather at the University of Texas for an elaborate mock exercise: building their own state government. Filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine tracked the 2018 edition of the program, where some 1,000 17-year-olds participated in a riveting gubernatorial race. The filmmakers, showing an eagle eye, focus on a quartet of committed, distinctive kids to carry the drama. It is a kind of miracle that the directors pulled off the film from out of this ten-ring circus. One reason is that they collared seven different sound-and-film crews to troll the campus, collecting hundreds of offhand conversations, speechifying moments, and personal interviews with the boys themselves.

A contingent of attendees at “Boys’ State.” At center, front row, is Rene Otero, one of the convention’s leaders. Photo courtesy of A24 and Apple

The Fight – Though hardly a reclusive organization, the ACLU has never granted access to its offices, where it battles rights issues like immigration, abortion, LGBTQ issues and voting—subjects that remain more significant than ever. The filmmakers of “The Fight” were granted that access and followed four inspiring attorneys, all handling landmark cases. Each lawyer is given equal time in this smartly edited film, making complex cases clear while keeping up the tension. Though the four are nerdish workaholics, their humanity also comes through. To get that rounded view of brilliant individuals, the filmmakers show their vulnerable sides, too, as when one panics trying to charge his cell phone, and another dutifully practices his Supreme Court speech at his bathroom mirror.

(August 2021)