Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis play sisters living together in a summer cottage. There's no real plot to speak of; it's a character piece in which these two elderly women rehash old rivalries and parse old hurts and old conversations, and maybe make some peace with lost time. Mainly, it exists as an excuse for two great performances by two of the greatest actresses of all time, and in that capacity, it's a delight to watch. Also good in the movie: Ann Sothern as a friend of theirs, and Vincent Price as an old gigolo who still observes Old World manners. A very nice movie. ***

The head of a Jewish family dies, and his wife and children sit shiva and go through their catalog of how life hasn't turned out the way they hoped it would. There's potential here, but it would rather be safe, obvious and gentle, and so it falls back on jokes about masturbation or how mom has a new set of tits. Pretty good cast moving through this, and they're the only reason to see it one time: Jane Fonda, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Adam Driver, who I love. Connie Britton appears, but is wasted. And Jason Bateman stars; I find it pretty much impossible to root for his characters, because he just comes across like such a tool. A firm meh. **1/2

Pastor Malcolm Jamal-Warner is killed; his daughter suspects it wasn't an accident. This is easily one of the most enjoyable Lifetime movies I've ever seen, because it starts over-the-top and quickly goes off the rails the way you always hope these things will. No self-important moralizing, just pure soap opera hysteria. **1/2

Surprisingly enjoyable movie, but the ending is so nonsensical and disappointing that it made me resent it. I loved how it worked on video game logic, and how funny it was, but in the end I think they sacrifice clarity to have a happy ending, and it just makes the whole thing fall flat. That ending should have been where the whole thing was made worthwhile, and it looked like they were going for some kind of cool mindfuck twist, but instead it just falls apart. It retroactively ruins all of the stuff that actually worked, which is about nine-tenths of the movie. All of the sacrifice, all of the heroism, all of the character growth, none of it matters now. And if you think about it too much, the set-up for the situation comes out of nowhere and makes no sense, either. I thought the movie would eventually make sense of that, but no. So in the end, it's just an exercise, and the sharp, witty movie that exists for most of its running time is just completely ruined. Disappointing. **1/2

BESSIE (2015)
A flawed biopic of Bessie Smith, which falls into a little too much of the rush and focus on big moments a biopic often does, but Queen Latifah's performance as Smith is so poignant and powerful that I was riveted to her. It works better as a character piece, and this performance deserves its showcase. The film isn't bad, by any means, though; it's a stylishly made film about a woman who didn't take shit and sometimes overpowered everyone else in her life, perhaps because she saw vulnerability as a weakness. No one--not even the film itself--really gets into Bessie Smith in a revealing way, but maybe that's part of the movie's point. I've always like Queen Latifah as an actress, but here she goes beyond anything she's ever done. Great cast, including Michael K. Williams, Khandi Alexander, Mike Epps and Tika Sumpter, and Mo'nique as Ma Rainey proves that her Oscar wasn't a fluke. What impressed me most about the film is that it treated its character and her complexities and contradictions with integrity, and that's powerful. Too often, biopics just go with the hagiography and legendarium. Queen Latifah's Bessie Smith is a woman who knows people but can never quite be a part of them. I found that moving. ***1/2

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