I am a fan of Spanish film maker Pedro Almodovar. His films are well written and not predictable. “Pain and Glory”, his latest, is no exception. It’s the story of a washed up film director, who is wallowing in self pity because he’s sickly and alone. He agrees to come out of seclusion to publicly discuss one of his films. He has to reconcile with an actor from the film who he trashed. Through flashbacks we learn of his impoverished childhood and he was a prodigy. His mother in these scenes is played by Penelope Cruz, who seems to be channeling Sophia Loren’s earthiness. Antonio Banderas, who started his career in Almodovar’s films and became estranged from him, plays the director. It’s probably his best acting job ever. As with most of the director’s films it takes a bit to get started, but one it does, it packs a wallop.
Adam Sandler tries something different in “Uncut Gems”. He plays a dramatic role and not a sympathetic one. In this film he is owns a New York jewelry store and he’s a liar, gambler and cheat. Obsessed with his gambling, he neglects his family and business, looking to make it big on the next deal. He owes money to the mob and they’re chasing him. This is not a pleasant movie, but it is compelling, well acted and shot on a minimal budget. And Sandler is outstanding in a totally different type of role.
One of the best reviewed films this year is “Marriage Story”, currently streaming on Netflix. Starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, a better title might have been “Break Up of a Marriage Story”, since the whole film is about a couple’s divorce. Johansson and Driver, along with Laura Dern as a divorce lawyer, give career best performances. The story and characters seem so real and many of the situations are heartbreaking. I have not been an Adam Driver fan so far, but he won me over with this role, (Maybe I haven’t forgiven him for killing Han Solo.) And I have always thought that Scarlett Johansson was a good actress. She plays a woman who is a wonderful mother, sweet person, but screws over her husband. Definitely worth seeing.
“Honey Boy” is an autobiographical film about Shia LaBeouf’s life as a preteen and his time in rehab in his early twenties. Lucas Jupe plays the twelve year old character, Lucas Hedges plays him at twenty, and LaBeouf plays his own father. LaBeouf was a successful child actor who lived in a fleabag motel with his guardian father, a former rodeo clown who rides his son endlessly. The father is a recovering alcoholic, with a foul mouth and low moral values. On top these issues he is jealous of his son’s success and infringes on any happiness he has. Jupe and LaBeouf are excellent and play well off of each other. Hedges, playing the actor at twenty, is in rehab trying to come to terms with his demons. The movie tackles difficult themes, with the father especially unlikeable. This is a good slice of life film. LaBeouf, who wrote the movie, doesn’t candy coat his story. It’s a brave move to tell his life in this way.
“Dark Waters” is the story of how Dupont has systematically polluted the land and water in West Virginia and poisoned the world with some of their products. It is discovered when a corporate lawyer takes the case of a farmer whose land has been ruined and his cows are dead or dying. As with many of stories where the little guy takes on the system, it’s an upward climb. Mark Ruffalo plays the real life attorney who convinces his law firm to take on Dupont. The corporation fights them with everything they’ve got, but in the end they can’t overcome the evidence. The film is a bit long, but the story is very compelling. Anne Hathaway plays Ruffalo’s wife and Tim Robbins his managing partner An interesting and important piece of current history. You will throw away your teflon pans after seeing this film.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is not just about Fred Rogers. It’s the story of a magazine writer who is assigned to write an article on the star of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood”, initially believing it will just be a fluff piece. Instead, getting to know Rogers changes his life, helping him to get over his anger, appreciate his wife and child and become a better writer. The lead character is played by Matthew Rhys of television’s “The Americans” and Mr Rogers is portrayed by Tom Hanks in his best performance in years. The character could have come off as corny, but Hanks makes him a genuine, sweet man. If you saw the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” last year, this film is a great follow-up. It’s a genuine fell good movie that will lift your spirits.
Chadwick Boseman turns in his Black Panther uniform for that of a New York City detective in “21 Bridges”. The film starts out with a cocaine heist gone wrong. The heist is interrupted by four policemen and they blast their way out. A total of eight officers are killed by two thieves. The 21 bridges refers to the number of bridges connecting Manhattan with the outside. They need to be shut down so the killers cannot leave. The rest of the movie shows the chase and the realization that the thieves stumbled on a much bigger crime. This is a taut thriller with a lot of twists and a huge body count. It will keep you on the edge of your seat. Boseman is good as the detective. J.T. Simmons is good, as usual, as the head of the precinct that loses so many men. Worth seeing if you like tight police dramas.
“Harriet’ is the story of Harriet Tubman, one of the conductors of the Underground Railroad. We learn how she escaped slavery, traveled, over 100 miles to freedom and then went back time and time again, first to save family and then others. She was a badass. The film is a little slow at times, especially when the story is being set up. Harriet’s relationship with her young master is creepy, almost bordering on sexual. As with most films depicting slavery it is sometimes not easy to watch, especially when the bigotry and cruelty is portrayed. Cynthia Erivo, a British actress, plays Harriet in a star-making performance. She portrays Tubman as stoic and focused. An interesting history lesson that should be mandatory watching for students studying the Civil War.
I figured that “Last Christmas” was going to be one of those typical Christmas romantic comedies, the kind with attractive leads meeting cute and falling in love. You know what I mean, a Hallmark of Lifetime movie, but with better production values. The female lead is Emila Clarke, from “Game of Thrones”, and she is somewhat of a train wreck of a person. She’s from an immigrant family from Croatia (Emma Thompson with a thick accent), semi-homeless in London and has a nowhere job in a Christmas ornament shop run by an Asian dragon lady. She also recently had very serious health issues. Out of the blue, this handsome stranger appears and wins her over. He helps her find her way in life, because she was pretty much drifting. The difference between this movie and other Christmas themed films is that it has a major “Sixth Sense” twist and I did not see it coming. The film itself has giant reality holes, like how does the ornament store stay in business year round and why does the lead character wear an elf costume most of the time? But I really enjoyed this film. It ends on a happy/sad/hopeful note. The two leads, Clarke and Henry Golding from “Crazy Rich Asians” have a lot of chemistry. A nice holiday diversion.
I have been reading a lot about “Jo Jo Rabbit” and its audacious plot, the type that you’ll either love or hate. It won awards at film festivals, while some audience members walked out. Jo Jo is a ten year old Nazi youth, who has an imaginary friend, Adolph Hitler. The writer and director, Taika Waititi, plays the dictator as buffoonish and simple minded and I must admit, he is very funny. Roman Griffin Davis, a newcomer, is Jo Jo and he is outstanding, believable and sympathetic while spouting Nazi rhetoric. The film turns a Hitler Youth Camp into a series of funny and ridiculous episodes. Jo Jo’s mother is played by Scarlett Johansson giving a great performance. Sam Rockwell is a clownish Nazi officer, sympathetic to Jo Jo. This film is not be for everyone. Some people may find its attempt at humor offensive. If you are not offended it is a crazy story with a lot of humor and some pathos. I liked it a lot.