Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield (B) is the anti-Masterpiece Theater take on the autobiographical Charles Dickens classic, and it’s a delightful ode to harnessing one’s creative impulses. It’s not as breezy a bildungsroman as last year’s Little Women remix, but it has significant whimsical charms. The director, a noted acerbic satirist, tells the story with a sunny disposition and multi-ethnic casting and condenses the novel’s hundreds of pages into a tidy two hours. It’s nearly all there: the house made of an upturned boat, the kite fashioned of prose pages, the scene-stealing lapdog personified by its ventriloquist owner and much more in a brisk build. Dev Patel embodies the Victorian Everyman with relish, even though the story feels a bit like it is happening to him rather than him having much discernible dominion over his destiny. Hugh Laurie and Tilda Swinton stand out in the vividly painted ensemble of eccentrics festooned with fabulous costumes and stunning locales. Dickens was notoriously paid by the installment, so it’s fitting that Iannucci dramatizes his story in almost serialized form with title cards marking each episode. Despite its storied pedigree, this adaptation is a bonbon of coming of age reality bites.
Sometimes we search for meaning in art where there is actually very little to mine, and often we give a story more patience than it deserves. Giuseppe Capotondi’s neo-noirish drama The Burnt Orange Heresy (C+) features some idiosyncratic performances and a stylish milieu but doesn’t successfully integrate its intriguing elements before culminating in a corker of an ending. Claes Bang plays a charismatic art critic who along with a new companion (Elizabeth Debicki) met while lecturing in Italy, is hired by an eccentric collector (Mick Jagger) to pull off a mission to swipe a painting from a reclusive artist (Donald Sutherland). Clunky, unrealistic dialogue diminishes a Hitchcockian/Highsmithian plot set on lovely Lake Como, and alas character intensions are rather impressionistic for far too long. Bang and Debicki are engaging and make the most of awkwardly written roles. Jagger sinks his teeth into what amounts to an extended cameo, and Sutherland doesn’t bring much to the party. Ultimately this bendy indie doesn’t quite hit its mark.
This movie is quite observant about what it means to be an American teen, down to the chapter and verse. Director Karen Maine’s Yes, God, Yes (B) is a sensitive coming of age dramedy about reconciling church teachings and teenage urges with a breakout performance by Natalia Dyer of the sci-fi TV show Stranger Things. Dyer is the main attraction, astute and engaging and in nearly every sequence, as her innocent and precocious character traverses a ’90s landscape of AOL chat rooms, the emergence of cellphone culture, a punishing parochial school and an even more confusing Christian retreat. These secular land mines all threaten to thwart her steadfast beliefs. Timothy Simons is solid as an authoritarian adult, and the teen ensemble is largely believable even as they navigate provincial points of view. The dramatic stakes aren’t extremely high, and the laughs aren’t as plentiful as, say, Booksmart, but the film is a righteous glimpse into adolescence geared to viewers ready for its adult themes. These types of films often glide on a combination of heart and nostalgia, and Christina Aguilera and Mandy Moore tunes punctuate this enjoyable journey into wary womanhood.
Writer/director Atom Egoyan continues his lifelong exploration of themes of isolation and alienation via two vivid characters in a new memory story. Restaurant inspector Jim (an exacting and austere David Thewlis) and his daughter Veronica (intriguing Laysla De Oliveira), a music teacher, attempt to unravel their complex histories and intertwined secrets in Guest of Honour (C), but the most effective elements are often undermined by head-scratching detours. A weak framing device with a miscast Luke Wilson as a priest does no favors for Egoyan’s meditation on perception and penance, memory and forgiveness. The father-daughter puzzle is complicated by infidelity and a hoax with high schoolers leading to jail time. The film’s most original element is its glimpse at Jim’s culinary certification profession and how he wields his minor power in crafty ways. Thewlis is solid in the role, but the story sometimes descends into mawkish melodrama. It’s disappointing with the talent involved that the stakes aren’t higher.
Hollywood has a history of journeying down Vietnam’s rivers and through its jungles to heal the heartbreak shrouded in the ruins of war. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (B) starts innocently enough with a quartet of affable modern-day African-American veterans reuniting in a Ho Chi Minh City hotel to embark on a search for the buried bones and bullion left behind by a fallen platoon leader, played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman. This memory film’s twisty heist plot is also a bit of a Western, as in a commentary on Western Civilization, always urgent even if occasionally overreaching or delving into myriad detours of flourish. Delroy Lindo gives a forceful, hot-headed performance as the primary old timer, the MAGA hat wearing Paul, who like his comrades, also plays himself at an earlier age without the magic of de-aging special effects. Lindo gives an astonishing muttering monologue after a critical series of action sequences that’s career best. He’s like a land mine one step away from self-actualization, and he’s fascinating to watch in his masterclass of acting. Lee’s crisscrossing techniques through history gracefully bridge past transgressions to a tableaux of modern topics ranging from imperialism to contemporary class and racial politics. The movie comes most alive in its celebrations of brotherhood and fatherhood; Jonathan Majors is memorable and moving as Paul’s estranged college son. Terence Blanchard’s music is stirring accompaniment to action and ache, with occasional soothing echoes of Marvin Gaye. After his brilliant BlacKKKlansman, Lee’s follow-up is a bit more narratively sprawling but thematically daring. The thoughtful director’s change of venue from American soil enables no less a promised land of issues to travel and unravel.
A new HBO film throws the book at a public school scandal but takes a little while to get to its thesis. Cory Finley’s Bad Education (B-) tells the true 2002 story of a corrupt Long Island village school superintendent responsible for the sector’s largest embezzlement in U.S. history. In this central role, Hugh Jackman plays against type: an exquisitely controlled performance of a vain, dark and diabolical heart. Viewers are left wanting more insight into what drives this man, additional details about his relationship with his financial enabler (played with relish by Allison Janney in an all too brief role) and any contours about what drives a teenage journalist protagonist (impenetrable performance by Geraldine Viswanathan) who unearths the malfeasance. Finley’s compositions of bureaucratic bungling and many droll line readings are delightful, as is the jolting, percussive score by Michael Abels. But if there were an open-ended essay pop quiz every few minutes about what makes this film more distinctive than others in the genre, creative answers would be difficult to conjure. It’s an engrossing and watchable drama nonetheless, worth watching for Jackman’s performance alone. It’s now available on HBO streaming services.
This is one of the great romances. Writer/director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) (A+) is a French historical drama tracing the contours and the canvas of an enduring love. Set in France in the late 18th century, this masterwork obeys the conventions of period romances with its windswept coast and Gothic homestead but upends the typical narrative rules in tracing a truly scorching and revolutionary tale. Noémie Merlant plays the commissioned painter and Adèle Haenel her aristocratic subject, and both actresses are spellbinding in their passion for detail and commitment to superb tandem acting. Merlant’s character is told her subject is unwilling to be sketched and thus must be painted in secret, and thus begins an observation period with flourishes of the forbidden. Sciamma creates indelible characters in a ravishing work and weaves an intoxicating chronicle. This feisty and fiercely feminist film rewards those who are patient for character studies and relish movies with the heart of a classic text. This is one of the great sleeper films of 2019 and one adventurous cinema lovers should seek out and see.
The Erwin Brothers create faith-based movies filled with inspiration and hope. And while their latest Christian-centric biography based on a chapter in the life of worship musician Jeremy Camp, I Still Believe (C), accomplishes its goal of showcasing a moving real-life romance forged against the odds, it largely misses the mark in terms of originality and craft. KJ Apa and Britt Robertson offer earnest enough acting in their central romance filmed in a Hallmark-worthy glow but are written with such cherubic reverence that they don’t often register completely as real characters. Supporting actors Gary Sinise and Shania Twain are so underused as the leading man’s parents that it feels like they were loaned for just a day or two on set. Only Nathan Parsons as a friend, mentor and near hypoteneuse of a chaste love triangle registers as an actual conflicted human being. For a film ostensibly about overcoming illness with faith-restoring music, the film doesn’t really pulse with much of a flair for either medicine or music. When compared to a performance sequence in A Star is Born or Bohemian Rhapsody, for instance, the big concert numbers appear strangely detached, like the crowds weren’t even filmed in sync with what’s happening on stage. It all means well, of course, and the purity of the romance at the center is really what it’s all about. But for a film that praises risk-taking, it sure plays it safe.
The World War I film 1917 (B+), directed by Sam Mendes and photographed by Roger Deakins, relies on an enormously effective and immersive magic trick of appearing like one continuous camera take, achieved with a mix of practical action and digital sleight of hand. It’s an incredible adventure spectacular even though the parade of set pieces and escalating stunts feel a bit too convenient at times. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman are very empathetic as lance corporals in the British Army tasked with getting a message to a fellow battalion to thwart a German trap. The film’s you-are-there aesthetic is nothing short of masterful even though it shortchanges character development and deeper themes in service of its technical priorities. Still, the action sequences are visceral and propulsive, as if the journey of Apocalypse Now were given the lilt and momentum of Run Lola Run. Mendes marshals splendid elements ranging from majestic music to earthy atmosphere and gorgeous shots of Northern France in various stages of terror. Go for the war movie, stay for the action ride.
Josh and Benny Safdie’s new verité thriller should come with a warning label that it will most assuredly produce anxiety in its audience. It is both a blessing and a curse that these sibling writer/directors fill every mise-en-scène of the paranoid action drama Uncut Gems (B) with such realistic and resounding cinematic finesse. This potboiler of a film constantly raises the stakes and develops a preternaturally tense atmosphere not to be underestimated by the faint of heart. The brothers’ mastery of charged objects nearly out-Malteses every falcon frame. Adam Sandler is incredible in the meaty antihero role at the film’s center, and the plot basically traces his diamond district hustler character through the constant ups and downs of being over leveraged. It’s not necessarily a cautionary tale since the main character was pretty corrupted from the very beginning, but it’s fascinating to see the compounding effects of his actions as he juggles bribes, bets and bids into a nearly untenable position. The central character so dominates the movie that there’s really little oxygen for others in the ensemble, so it’s difficult to want much more than a speedy resolution for all of them. It’s amazing filmmaking buoyed by a pulpy performance, but you may like it best once it’s over.
Filled with autumnal beauty, radiant performances, fierce dialogue and timeless themes, writer/director Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (A) breaks through the barriers of the work’s familiarity to speak an empowering message to modern moviegoers about truly heeding one’s instincts. This is the eighth adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age novel written more than a century and a half ago, and Gerwig finds extraordinary resonance in the story for contemporary times. She re-invents the piece a bit with a non-linear format and even a meta interplay with the book’s author, and the playfulness with chronology helps the work echo even further with delight. A quartet of curious and talented sisters led by protagonist Jo March, played by Saoirse Ronan, experience the highs and lows of growing up and discovering their individual female powers in a changing America during the aftermath of the Civil War. A luminous Ronan anchors the film, with Florence Pugh, Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen each adding depth and appeal to the ensemble. Pugh in particular gets to shine. Laura Dern is splendid as the vulnerable mother holding down the family fort while father is away fighting, and Timothée Chalamet is a charismatic and ideal match for the sisters who are weighing the joys and costs of male companionship in both flash forwards and flashbacks. It’s telling how high quality every aspect of the film is that one can almost forget Meryl Streep is also in the movie and incidentally excellent as the misanthropic aunt. The film is sumptuous and idyllic in its depiction of the March family’s story and snappy in its defiant points of view. There is real and ribald sibling rivalry, sensational depiction of true sisterly bonds, genuine glass ceilings to smash and sheer delight to behold in every picturesque frame. Gerwig has made an essential version of this tale with a feminist vantage point which is inclusive and insightful. Her warm film is highly recommended to anyone looking to forge a path against the odds.
Two master actors chew the Sistine scenery in the often insightful, sometimes humorous The Two Popes (B), directed by Fernando Meirelles. Anthony Hopkins plays Pope Benedict, making the stunning decision of recanting his papacy, and Jonathan Pryce portrays the future Pope Francis, visiting Vatican City and Benedict’s summer home in a moment of crisis for the church. Both actors are at the top of their game reflecting two very different world views. The film works best in depicting the two men discussing conflicting interpretations of church teachings in the world and debating nuances of God’s authority (a veritable tennis match of lobbing insightful dialogue back and forth like a tennis match) and is less effective in addressing topical issues of church scandals or even delving into some mysterious flashbacks. The film has some fun with behind the scenes glimpses of the men following World Cup matches and other personal moments humanizing their lives while wrestling with Big Issues. It’s an ultimately hopeful look at the good that men can do when balancing theological duties with a perspective beyond the insular workings of the church.