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This Week's Film Reviews (Aug 9, 2019)

Best film opening this week is the social drama LUCE.

BEST FILMS PLAYING:

Best Comedy:

Booksmart

Best Drama:

Luce

Best Foreign: 

Museo (Museum)

Best Action:
Spider-Man: Far from Home

Best Doc:

Honeyland

Best Family:

Story Story 

Best Horror:

Midsommar

FILM REVIEWS:

THE KITCHEN (USA 2019) **1/2
Directed by Andrea Berloff

THE KITCHEN follows the premise of last year’s Steve McQueen’s WIDOWS where three women take control of their lives after their husbands are put away.  One succeeds and the other doesn’t.  In WIDOWS, the husbands are dead gone while in THE KITCHEN the husbands are put away in prison.  In the WIDOWS, the widows take on a  robbery while in THE KITCHEN the abused wives take  on being mobsters, collecting protection money and protecting businesses for their money.

THE KITCHEN is directed by Andrea Berloff who rose to fame with his STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON where he won the Oscar for Best original screenplay.  The trouble with THE KITCHEN is that it is based on a comic book series which means that it should not be taken too seriously, which it does.  Both Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish are dead serious establishing the fact that they can be credible mobsters.  Are both scary?  Would one pay protection money to these two?  Would other mobster heads give in to these two?  Hardly.  This is the prime reason the film fails.  If the script was to that the material more lightly, then the audience would forgive the credibility factor.  Fortunately the Elisabeth Moss character is more concerned with her lover (Domhnall Gleeson) than anything else.

The story is set in the late 70’s in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen, and hence the film’s title.  It is not a very inviting title - and Sylvester Stallone had to rename his movie PARADISE ALLEY instead of HELL’s KITCHEN in his first non-ROCKY movie.   The three 1978 Hell’s Kitchen housewives have mobster husbands are sent to prison by the FBI.  Left with little but a sharp ax to grind, the ladies take the Irish mafia’s matters into their own hands—proving unexpectedly adept at everything from running the rackets to taking out the competition…literally.

THE KITCHEN is clearly a female oriented movie.  From the very start of the movie, the theme is obvious as the song “It’s a man’s world is heard on the soundtrack.  As in Alfonso Cuaron’s ROMA and the upcoming AFTER THE WEDDING in which the words :  “We women have to stick together”, the words: “They f*** us up every time..” are uttered.  The male roles in THE KITCHEN are written so that they become second-class citizens to their female counterparts.   These are too obvious to be credible.  The film contains too many scenes where the males are speechless at a loss in front of women.  But if taken lightly, it can turn into good fun.

Berloff’s film plays as if it is based on true events.  This is how serious his film gets.  By comparison, McQueen’s WIDOWS knows when to be serious but mainly knows when it need to be fun.

It is good to see McCarthy venture out of comedy with her more serious roles as in this flea and the recent  CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? and likewise for Tiffany Haddish.  Elisabeth Moss succeeds more comfortably in her role having playing similar roles as in THE SQUARE and THE HANDMAID’S TALE.

Could have been better, THE KITCHEN ends up a missed opportunity.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YlcyEDZVYkw

LUCE (USA 2019) ****
Directed by Julius Onah

Though based on a play, the film co-written by the director an J.C. Lee, seldom feels like one due to director Onah taking the audience out of one scene and moving the action around interiors, exteriors and intercutting the acts so that thee are frequent scene shifts.  It is a good tactic which works well.

An all-star high school athlete and accomplished debater, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a poster boy for the new American Dream.  As are his parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), who adopted him from a war-torn country a decade earlier.  When Luce’s teacher, Miss Wilson (Octavia Spencer) makes a shocking discovery, finding dangerous fireworks explosives in his locker, Luce’s stellar reputation is called into question.

The most satisfying element of the film is the way the story and characters grab the audience form the start and never let go.  What ever is revealed is just sufficient to get the audience anticipation going and wanting for more  It is difficult to keep the momentum going and the film thus slag, but jut a little in parts.

The script (and play) also leaves ambiguous points unresolved so that the audience can make up their minds on what actually happened - for example whether Luce actually had fireworks in his locker or was it his friend’s who shared the locker with him.  The answer is irrelevant to propel the story but curiosity is till there with the audience.

Performances are excellent all around, especially that belonging to Octavia Spencer as the history teacher, Miss Wilson.  Spencer displays both he strength, courage yet vulnerability of her character.  As she is finally dismissed as a result of her stand, her loss might turn into another Oscar win fo Spencer who has already won an Oscar for a supporting role in THE HELP.  Waits and Roth are both excellent as the often divided couple but they carry the strength of their roles magnificently.  This is not the first time they play a coupe together.  They id in Michale Hanake’s FUNNY GAMES year back as a couple whose ho i invade by psychotic young neighbours.  Last but not least is the performance by newcomer Sim Sim whose first performance as disturbed young black man is reminiscent of Will Smith’s role in SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION.   It is at this point that the film feels like a play fuelled by great  performances. 

Director Onah also demonstrates his sense of humour.  Right after a suspenseful remark is made in the film, the next scene is quick shifted to Miss Wilson having a shower withe the water spraying for the showered, Hitchcock’s PSYCHO-style.  Miss Wilson has a shower can and has a towel wrapped around her as i waiting for something ominous to happen.

The characters are human ad subject to the foibles of human nature.  The love for their son forces the adoptive parents to abandon their good judgement of good and evil in order to keep the family together.  This is not what the audience wishes to see but is what is expected to happen in real life.  Feelings and motions often rule above principles.  The non-compromising non-Hollywood happy ending might not satisfy audience when the film ends, but it is an ending worthy of whether the film’s story is heading.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqzgDB1CMI4

MIKE WALLACE IS HERE (USA 2019) ***1/2
Directed by Avi Belkin

Documentaries have have often than not, had famous subjects who are talented, who have made a difference in doing good or mankind or those who have changed the course of history.  The new doc directed by Avi Belkin has a different kind fo subject - an obnoxious interviewer that may people did not like.  Mike Wallace is rude, plain nasty and not a very likeable person when he is in front of the camera interviewing people.  Wallace does his best to put his ‘victims’ on the spot by his questions,  to his credit and his team have done the research to dig up the dirt on the interviewee and thus enabling Wallace to do his nastiest best.

The doc follows the identical path of most documentaries.  They go far back to the subject’s childhood, what influenced them to become the persons they are, chart their rise to fame followed often by some tragic downfall and their redemption, if they do succeed in recovering from their fall from grace.

The doc goes back to Wallace when he was a child back in 1937.  His mother was strict and his father was an honest man.  How they affected Wallace is left untouched.  But the film then flashes the photographs of the celebrities that he interviewed in his lifetime.  These include Barbra Streisand, Kirk Douglas, Richard Nixon, Shirley MacLaine, and political leaders like Ayotollah Komeinini, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Vladimir Putin among others.  Later on in the film, there are footages of more details of these interviews. 
Among the film’s best segments, Wallace asks mobster Mickey Cohen how many people  he’s killed and ’80s era Donald Trump if he sees politics in his future.  He challenges movie stars (Shirley MacLaine, Barbra Streisand – both telling Wallace what they think of him), politicians (Richard Nixon, Vladimir Putin) and unexpected sorts like the Imperial Wizard of the KKK.  
Sometimes colleagues interview Wallace, who talks about his bouts of depression (which he hid) and the death of his son.
The film also covers two incidents that rocked the journalism world.  (1) A 1982 libel lawsuit filed against CBS and Wallace by retired U.S. Army Gen. William Westmoreland.  (2) A 1996 pushback when CBS’s corporate side tried to kill a story about tobacco industry whistleblower Dr. Jeffrey Wigand .

The film succeeds in giving audiences a slice of CBS history as well as demonstrate how important an interviewer can be in disseminating information to the public.

The magic question after watching the doc is whether Mike Wallace is a good person.  His interviewees say to him: ” “You don’t have to prove yourself.”  “You are good at what you do.”  When Shirley Maclaine confesses to believing in E.T.s, Wallace jokes that the E.T.s could have met her on her porch, Maclaine tells him: “You don’t have to be this unpleasant, this does not become you.”  The last statement clearly answers that magic question.  And Stresand tells him off; “You put all this toughness in this facade…”   Director Belkin tries to elicit some sympathy for the man with the segment of how he had lost his son.  But the tragedy should have made Wallace a better more considerate man and not the unpleasant interviewer that he had made himself a name of.

MIKE WALLACE is interesting and entertaining enough as a documentary questioning the integrity of the media while confirming the fact what kind of person the man really is.  Director Belkin has made a likeable (and insightful) documentary on a very unlikeable man.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDSq2fF9flk

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK (USA 2019) ***
Directed by André Øvredal

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is based on the series of three horror books for children written by Alvin Schwartz, the first of which bears the film’s title.  The three books each feature numerous short stories in the horror genre where author Schwartz draws heavily from folklore and urban legends as the topic of his stories, researching extensively and spending more than a year on writing each book.  The film comes with the praise of being a Guillermo del Toro production.  At best it is an excellent ghost story made up of other little ghost stories and at its worst slides into slasher type horror with the monster chasing a victim.

The film has the benefit of being set in the late 60’s.  The year is never explicitly stated but one can tell by the Richard Nixon election landslide as seen on a television set during the film. The setting is also reminiscent of the anthology ghost stories that were common in the 60’s and 70’s.

The film begins as a male film with the story concentrating on the boys going out on Halloween.  The boys and a girl take revenge on some bullies before the tide changes.  It is the girl in the group that survives and has to figure out what is happening and how to reverse the spell of the ghost.  The ghost is also female who had made an important discovery in the past and forced to keep silent against her will.

SCARY STORIES is an old fashioned ghost story where a ghost is stuck in the present.  This ghost is Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard) who was locked in a room in the house way back when.  The protagonist of the film is young Stella Nicholls (Zoe Margaret Colletti), who together with two male friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush), Chuck (Austin Zajur) and a new Mexican stranger in town, Ramon (Michael Garza) venture into a haunted house.  They discover the hidden room as well as a book that has a reputation.  Whoever reads a story from the book will die.  As it goes, the kids steal the book and unleashes the fury of the ghost as one by one is killed off.

The film has  a few impressive scary set-ups based on urban legends that many North Americans are familiar with.  There is the spider bite that grows and bursts leading to dozens of little baby spiders emerging from the bump.  This is a bit overdone but enough to make ones skin crawl.  Another is the scary scarecrow.  These set-ups are good enough without resorting to senseless violence.

The film squeezes a few issues into the story like bullying, environment pollution and father/daughter relationships.

But as the main characters are the kids with the film aimed at teens and younger adults.  Director Øvredal (TROLL HUNTER) does fairly good job at scaring the audience given the limited material. 

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rgzwt0DQujw

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