The relationship status of Christian and Anastasia continues to be “It’s Complicated” in James Foley’s not-as sloppy-seconds-as-you’d-think sequel Fifty Shades Darker (C+). Dakota Johnson and Jaimie Dornan actually improve a bit on their original portrayals of a couple from different sides of the track marks, as they advance their unusual romance against the demons of his dysfunctional past. It’s perplexing, but they make the far-fetched characters relatable. The struggle to tame this wounded billionaire is real, and sometimes he earns a little Red Room. Overlong and oddly paced most of the time, this erotic thriller could have used some whips, chains and clamps in the editing room. The final act begins to progress like a season of a campy eighties nighttime drama (Falcon Breast?). In a particularly saucy role as a BDSM mistress who keeps showing up to warn Ana about Christian like a Dickensian apparition, Kim Basinger seems to cast all fifty forms of shade. The movie is beautifully filmed, a kind of love letter to Seattle through the spherical lens of Ben Wa. There’s even an homage to Johnson’s real-life mom with a line right out of Working Girl as Ana advances in her publishing company. The cliffhanger in the original didn’t prompt much interest in this sequel, but Foley tarts things up enough this go-around that he may indeed have built interest in bringing on a third.
David and boyfriend Khaled (Maximilian von Pufendorf and Omar El-Saeidi) are ready to shatter one of the last great taboos of middle-class German society: a same-sex marriage between a Jew and a Muslim. Having dated for two years and deeply in love, the time is ripe to tie the knot. Nothing could stand in their way it seems, except for their parents: David’s overbearing mother (Maren Kroymann), and Khaled’s homophobic father (Ramin Yazdani). On top of all this, an old acquaintance (Franziska Brandmeier) turns up out of the blue, claiming to be pregnant with David’s baby. As the plot thickens, relationships are stretched to the breaking point by deceit, obfuscations and the struggles of the family business. The directorial debut of Hanno Olderdissen, Family Commitments mixes classic screwball comedy with eye-catching production design, a goofy fun soundtrack, and an inclusive multi-cultural worldview.
The screening on Saturday, February 11 at Woodruff Arts Center is presented by ACCESS Atlanta, American Jewish Committee’s young leadership division, and is reserved for festival-goers 40-years-old and under. The program will include a pre-film party with a cash bar.
The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival runs through February 15. Follow the festival and get tickets at ajff.org and @atljewishfilm on Twitter.
It’s Super Bowl weekend, and the ads are quite cinematic! Watch ten of the top trending Super Bowl commercials, including new spots for McDonald’s and Budweiser plus a Mercedes-Benz ad directed by the Coen Brothers and an ad for SquareSpace featuring John Malkovich. #SB51
Regaining his strut as a writer/director of modern-day suspense films, M. Night Shyamalan has crafted an entertaining psychological thriller and met an acting match for his cinematic chutzpah in James McAvoy headlining Split (B). The film is above all else a showcase for the considerable acting talents of McAvoy as a man with 23 discrete personalities (Dennis, Patricia, Barry and Hedwig among the most notable). McAvoy uses some pretty sly ticks and tricks to bring brilliant life to his menagerie of characters. What starts as an abduction and escape room type movie in the vein of the recent 10 Cloverfield Lane becomes a more labyrinthine glimpse into a shattered mind. The female protagonist played by Anya Taylor-Joy helps anchor the film gracefully; she’s a perceptive outsider bent on cracking the code of the man holding her captive with two other teens. It’s also a hoot to see a late-career Betty Buckley in fine form clearly relishing a role as a therapist specializing in split personality disorders. The two other abducted teens played by Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula aren’t quite as indelible in the face of other sharp characterizations. The film is mesmerizing at times and taut throughout until the end, when it limps a bit to the finish line. Like his clear antecedent auteurs Hitchcock and De Palma, Shyamalan has created a twisty tale full of engaging mental machinations. It lacks the visual urgency to match its lead performances and can’t quite sustain the mental sharpness of its moving pieces. But for horror fans who like a PG-13 level basket of scares, it’s a gangbusters gateway drug to the genre and a corker of a story.
Lonny Price’s documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened (B+) chronicles a requiem and reunion of sorts of cast members and collaborators from the 1981 Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, a show that notoriously failed on Broadway, lasting only 16 performances but that achieved cult notoriety over time, spawning some of the songwriter’s most popular tunes including “Old Friends,” “Not a Day Goes By” and “Good Thing Going.” Price, who was one of the show’s three leads and before that a fanboy in his own right, helps keep the work – a complex show about cynicism turned to idealism, told in reverse order – alive in the imagination through the documentary, unearthed interview footage and a reunion concert. While Jason Alexander may be the most recognizable of the ensemble to casual viewers, the stories of many major participants including Jim Walton, Ann Morrison and Mr. Sondheim himself serves as a bit of a reverse Chorus Line with touching personal stories. The structure of the documentary comes full circle as well as it plumbs themes about the joy of collaborating on art and the recovery from disappointment. It would have been amazing if more original behind the scenes footage were available, but it’s fairly staggering how much is discovered three and a half decades later. For musical theatre enthusiasts, Price’s fond film is a bundle of merriment.
In John Lee Hancock’s biopic of McDonald’s executive Ray Kroc, The Founder (B), the hunger of the protagonist is so palpable you can almost taste it. It’s a rather ruthless portrait of a business tycoon with Michael Keaton in fine serpentine form, part Midwest milkman charm, as wily as a Music Man, relentless as a cattle driver. While it’s ironic a man named Hancock fails to leave much of a signature in his ambivalent lens on the historical figure responsible for spreading the world’s most famous hamburger stand beyond its humble California origins, it is a fascinating business case and mostly compelling in its story (gulp) arch. As the humble and inventive McDonald’s brothers, Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are fabulous foils to Keaton’s Kroc. The film’s best sequence, although awkwardly placed in flashback, depicts the McDonald’s brothers designing a kitchen schematic in chalk on a blacktop, with crew “blocking the scene” like theatre directors would do. Kroc’s troubles on the domestic front including an estranged marriage (Laura Dern simply has to look sad a lot) and a fixation on a bottle of his own form of special sauce get short shrift as business machinations take center stage. The cynical themes about persistence and ambition trumping actual genius or invention, juxtaposed against sunny nostalgic art direction, are timely and prescient; but after more richly textured tales such as The Wolf of Wall Streetand The Social Network, this film could have used a bit more super-sizing in ambition.
Oh, coming-of-age ensemble dramedies: let me count the ways I love them! Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical 20th Century Women (A) is a blissful slice of life as characters on the cusp of change in freewheeling 1979 Santa Barbara craft an unconventional family. Central to the film is the relationship between never-been-better Annette Bening as an eccentric divorced chain-smoking single mother and her only son, played with perception by Lucas Jade Zumann. Buoyed by before-their-time left coast sensibilities, Bening’s character enlists three kindred iconoclasts as spiritual guardians of her son’s angsty adolescence. Elle Fanning is brittle brilliance, Greta Gerwig a luminous and tender spirit and a weathered Billy Crudup an unlikely boon companion. Mills intersperses flashbacks, flash-forwards, historical archives and literary snippets, coloring the story in lovely context. There are sequences of majestic intimacy between characters as they tumble, stumble, dance and glance through life’s foibles. The film is a tribute to the mother-son bond, anchored by resplendent female performances and a lens into the many portraits of womanhood. Bening centers the film with a marvelous mix of misanthropy and repartee; she is perfection in the role. Roger Neill’s spry music, plus songs showcasing the rise of an emerging West coast punk scene, accent this love letter to shifting mores and the enduring power of familial love.
You’ve got to hand it to director Martin Scorsese: When he’s obsessed with a subject, he pursues it with vice grip precision. He has evidently had the story of two 17th century Christian missionaries facing the ultimate test of faith in Japan (when their religion was outlawed and their presence forbidden) in his mind for nearly three decades, so it’s cathartic indeed to have his fever dream of a tale realized on screen. But while his epic Silence (C+) will undoubtedly become required viewing for graduate divinity students pondering its Big Themes for generations to come, it is a fairly uneven and punishing task for an everyday moviegoer. The acclaimed director strips down many of his showy virtuoso moves to flesh out a naturalistic period story tackling issues of gravitas. It’s often fascinating to watch the auteur plumb Herzogian man versus nature (and human nature) style plot lines against a stark and exotic landscape. He explores violence both physical and emotional in new milieus, and there’s lots to ponder as this film kinda happens to you. The Japanese actors fare better than the Hollywood ones: Issey Ogata is a revelation as a captivating antagonist, and Yōsuke Kubozuka provides wild-child wonder as a confused soul. Miscast as the film’s hero, however, is Andrew Garfield, a thoroughly modern actor who can’t consistently bear the cross of the film’s themes or of a Portuguese Jesuit character in the 1600s. Adam Driver and Liam Neeson are similarly uneasy in their parts and generate a bit of a hollow center that may actually be symbolic. A hodgepodge hybrid of Apocalypse Now, Passion of the Christand Salò with awkward narration and a needlessly lugubrious patchwork pace, it’s a film that will long be studied, both for its audaciousness and for its overreach. Now that Marty’s religion-themed trilogy of Silence, Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ is at long last complete, folks may welcome tales of confession, redemption, vengeance and sacrifice back where Scorsese does it best: on the mean streets of modern America.
Welcome to Silver Screen Capture’s latest crossover with Ashley Williams of The Book Fetish Blog. She read the novel Hidden Figures, and we both saw the movie. I’m reviewing the film, she’s reviewing the book and we both answered a few questions. Check out her site for the book critique and read our joint Q&A right after my movie review.
Somewhere in the common area of a Venn diagram plotting the space race and race relations in the American Sixties is Theodore Melfi’s inspirational historical biopic Hidden Figures (B), a film grounded in three sterling performances achieving lift-off when it counts. Anchoring the narrative is Taraji P. Henson as Katherine G. Johnson, the little-known African-American mathematician who helped calculate flight trajectories for Project Mercury and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon. Her trusty friends and colleagues at NASA – Octavia Spencer as computer whiz Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe as engineer Mary Jackson – make history in their own right tackling heavy duty science while battling the last vestiges of segregation. The three women give dignified performances in a wholesome, family-friendly film that wanders for a while to find its tone and sometimes resorts to attitudes and platitudes over natural dialogue. Supporting performances are of little help, including Kevin Costner in one of his bland buzzcut roles and Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons as emotionally withholding bureaucrats. Mahershala Ali gets to shine as a persistent love interest, and Glen Powell charms as astronaut John Glenn. The director struggles a bit to keep appropriate focus on all three women and to put their historic accomplishments in context; some parts are rushed and others prolonged. Spencer is the easiest character to relate to and is the soul of the ensemble. There were moments the filmmakers could have amped up the drama for effect or opened up its world a bit more in cinematic terms. But the film’s shortcomings are forgiven because of its undeniable heart and the grace of its characters against undeniable odds.
Stephen Brown and Ashley Williams answer questions about the nonfiction book-to-movie translation!
Question: What made this an important story to tell?
Ashley: It’s an unknown or unrecognized part of history that celebrates minority women for major achievements, despite so many odds being stacked against them. It makes science and math heroic activities performed by smart women.
Stephen: The film is even more groundbreaking than its makers may have even known, what with glass ceilings, bathroom controversies and stereotypes still plaguing Modern America. The real-life characters were presented in a reverent, almost saintly portrayal. I almost wish the chronicle of their struggles had been a bit more visceral. These women were true trailblazers.
Question: What key points made it an effective tale to read or enjoy in the movie theatre?
Ashley: For me, reading the book, it was the reminders of segregation and that the women had to do so much more than white men to be seen as credible, even approaching equal. And the reminder that a success and advancement for any of these women was a victory for African-Americans as a whole- they were fighting for themselves and their community.
Stephen: The film valued sentimentality over genuine suspense. I found it approached the characters at surface level from a bit of a safe distance. But there are so few movies presenting such positive portrayals of women or African-American women that one can look past wishes that it would be a little less color-by-numbers.
Question: What characters fared the best in the translation?
Ashley: Katherine Johnson the best, I think. But really all three main characters- Dorothy, Mary and Katherine. The movie gave them a more vibrant personality that may not have always translated on the page, but all three were drawn true to the core aspects of the women in the book.
Stephen: Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy, in her bootstraps quest to become a supervisor, had the most satisfying story arch.
Question: How did the author/director bring history to life?
Ashley: The importance of the NACA and NASA missions- what it took to advance our fleet of aircrafts for military purposes, of course. But then the most important part was the effort to keep our astronauts safe. I’ve always loved stories of our first astronauts and the courage they must have had to take on something so new. But until now, I hadn’t really thought about all the effort and work it took behind the scenes, and Hidden Figures really explores that aspect.
Stephen: The actresses were superb, but I feel the director could have provided meatier material. We know going in that it’s a rather untold story, yet I’m still not sure I got in the veins of the characters to truly understand their verve and passion. Movies like this can have a slightly wax museum quality about them. I loved the story and even applauded at the end along with my fellow late-night theater-goers.