Run Time: 2 hours 1 minute
Stars: Sterling Hurst, Emily Dunlop, Matt Chastain
Writer/Director: Matt Chastain
In Select Theaters and on Most Streaming Services
One of the reasons faith-based movies don’t ordinarily clean up at the box office is because the faithful too seldom see themselves accurately represented in them — and also because to the uninitiated, believers in these movies seem kind of, well, weird.
Those opposing perceptions are attacked head-on in Small Group, a good-natured faith-based comedy that explores the tentative dance Americans choreograph every day as the faithful and faithless try to find common ground without sacrificing their core beliefs — or lack thereof.
Sterling Hurst stars as Scott, a documentary filmmaker who’s been hired by a sleazy film producer (Robert Riechel Jr.) to make a movie that rips the cloak of hypocrisy from a community of Atlanta Christians, revealing them to be the fakers he’s convinced they are. A generally good-natured agnostic with no religious axe to grind, Scott at first resists. But a job is a job, so he dons a pair of Google Glass-like camera/eyeglasses and embeds himself in the fellowship, recording every interaction along the way.
The film merrily skirts the probability that this sort of Candid Camera scam would most likely land someone in jail. But Hurst is such an appealing actor, reminiscent of Daniel Stern in his goofily clueless Home Alone days, that we immediately give his character the benefit of the doubt. Along for the ride is Scott’s wife Mary (Emily Dunlop of TV’s Doom Patrol), trying to be supportive but uneasy about making “friends” with the subjects of her hubby’s guerrilla documentary.
Small Group wrings its laughs — and a few thoughtful moments — from the couple’s fish-in-baptismal-water experiences. An uncomfortable Sunday service seems to them more like a rock concert than a worship event, and they’re distressed when their brand-new red letter Bible proves no match for the digital Scriptures their pew mates wield on their smart phones.
Of course, once they’re enlisted into a small group of church members, the couple soon discover this is not the flock of weirdos they’d expected. And once Scott’s ruse is inevitably discovered, his enraged subjects have to decide whether or not there’s a place in their hearts for unbelieving — and occasionally duplicitous — outsiders.
It’s all as light as an Easter morning balloon launch — until the film takes an unexpectedly dramatic, almost documentarian turn when Scott is invited to accompany the men folk on a mission trip to Guatemala City. There, writer/director Matt Chastain (who also plays one of the small group guys) turns his camera on the real-life squalor of the city’s slums — and the work of Engadi Ministries, a program that tries to save young men from hurling themselves into the dead-end violence of local street gangs. Through Scott’s eyes, we meet several of these youngsters — their bodies covered with tattoos, their eyes ablaze with suspicion and anger — playing themselves with riveting intensity.
It’s quite a transition, admirably pulled off by first-time director Chastain, who momentarily sheds the friendly confines of an off-kilter Sunday School comedy to dip his toes into a kind of street-smart cinematic realism that owes more to Rossellini’s Rome: Open City than to Heaven Is for Real.
Too often, faith-based movies get written off as second-class cinematic citizens. But the genre has given us some of Martin Scorsese’s most thoughtful work (The Last Temptation of Christ; Silence), more than a few Best Picture Oscar Winners (Chariots of Fire and A Man for All Seasons among them), and even a classic comedy (Jim Carrey’s Bruce Almighty). Small Group doesn’t quite breathe that same rarified air, yet it succeeds in using film to explore the kinds of crosstalk that can build bridges among people of all faiths — or no faith at all.
Featured image: Still from Small Group (Limesoda Films)
Herb Alpert Is…
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
Stars: Herb Alpert, Sting, Billy Bob Thornton, Lani Hall, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendez
Director: John Scheinfeld
In Theaters and on Video On Demand
It’s always a good feeling when a movie offers reassurance that you are, despite your darkest suspicions, absolutely normal. That’s how I felt while watching the new documentary about Herb Alpert, the now-84-year-old trumpeter who revolutionized popular music in the 1960s with his Tijuana Brass.
The affirming moment comes about a half-hour into the film, at the point where Alpert releases his 1965 record Whipped Cream and Other Delights, the album that featured on its cover model Dolores Erickson wearing nothing but a mound of whipped cream. She was, as they say, quite something.
“I was obsessed with that woman,” says Police frontman Sting, who was an adolescent at the time.
“I actually had guilt,” confesses Billy Bob Thornton. “I would sneak into my mom’s room and look at the cover of that album when she was in the kitchen.”
And no, it does nothing to dim my fevered recollections of that time when, in the film, Alpert reveals that the model was covered not with dessert topping, but shaving cream.
The music was pretty good, too. I would defy anyone, no matter their age or musical inclinations, to sit through Herb Alpert Is… and resist tapping their toes, humming along, or even rising to their feet for a dance or two. “The Lonely Bull,” “Tijuana Taxi,” “Taste of Honey,” “This Guy’s in Love With You,” along with dozens more Alpert instant standards, jockey for position in a soundtrack that is so infectious at times you wish everyone would stop talking (even when the talking heads include the likes of Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendez, Quest Love, and Bill Moyers).
Still, in the hands of director John Scheinfeld (The Happy Days of Gary Marshall, Who is Harry Nilsson?) the story of Herb Alpert is a lot more than a snappy greatest hits collection; it’s a deep dive into the agonies and ecstasies that drive profoundly creative people like Alpert — a guy who not only recorded some of the 20th century’s most memorable music, but also made his mark in the fields of painting and sculpture.
Narrating his own story, Alpert is an affable, if somewhat selective guide. For reasons known only to him, he glosses over the early days of Tijuana Brass, essentially ignoring the rather remarkable fact that the first TJB records consisted primarily of Alpert alone, recording in his garage, relentlessly overdubbing his own trumpet solos to create the illusion of a full band. Only when audiences began demanding live performances did he hire a team of crack studio musicians to play with him.
Besides his music wizardry, Alpert also possessed a keen nose for talent, and along with his partner Jerry Moss (the “M” in their label, A&M Records) he released albums by a Who’s Who of ’70s and ’80s legends including Carole King, The Carpenters, Peter Frampton, Janet Jackson and Chuck Mangione. Many of A&M’s titles still reside on the list of best-selling albums of all time.
Still, Alpert insists, there was a dark side to his fairy tale.
“I’m famous, I’m rich,” he recalls thinking at the height of his fame. “But I’m miserable.”
Admittedly, it’s hard to really feel bad for a guy whose chief problem is he’s too successful. Still, a gallery of archive footage does seem to reveal a man who pastes on his dimpled smile while cranking it up onstage, but whose demeanor crashes the moment the curtain closes.
He ultimately found happiness sharing his success — with his clearly adoring wife, singer Lani Hall, and a growing circle of charitable groups. Aside from the soundtrack you never want to stop, Herb Alpert Is… becomes most satisfying in its coda, exploring the musician’s latter-day obsession with promoting arts in America’s schools. Reading in a newspaper that Harlem’s storied School of the Arts was going under due to a lack of funding, he rode to the rescue with a half-million-dollar grant — just one installment in the more than $150 million he’s donated to non-profits over the years.
Here the camera follows Alpert through the halls of the Harlem campus, stopping in classrooms to hear students feel their way through compositions classical, jazz, and pop.
To these kids, he’s a nice old man who has taken an interest in their aspirations. To the rest of us, Herb Alpert emerges as a reminder of our youthful passions — and our responsibility to help today’s kids realize theirs.
You can do that, Herb Alpert Is… says — even if you haven’t sold 72 million records.
Featured image: Still from the documentary Herb Alpert Is…(Abramorama)
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Featured image: kchiu / Shutterstock
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
Stars: Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan
Writer: Christian Thorpe
Director: Roger Michell
Blackbird, the story of a terminally ill woman (Susan Sarandon) summoning her family for one last weekend together, doesn’t take us anywhere we haven’t been before — but with a cast that boasts 12 Oscar, 13 Golden Globe and 5 Emmy nominations among them, it’s one first-class ride.
Matriarch Lily (Sarandon) is suffering from one of those undisclosed movie illness that is progressively but rapidly weakening her body. Right now she’s having trouble walking and one arm is useless, but as more than one character observes, “She’s not so bad.” Lily is bad enough, however, that she and her physician hubby Paul (Sam Neill, whose piercing eyes nearly match Sarandon’s in laser-like intensity) have decided she should end it all now, while she can still lift her own glass of hemlock (actually, phenobarbital).
But first, of course, there must be a final, not-so-fun family weekend at Lily and Paul’s plush seaside home — for all movies about life and death must take place by the water.
The kids arrive one by one. Here comes Jennifer (Kate Winslet), the “good” girl who has spent her entire life desperately trying to measure up to her mother’s expectations — and projecting those same unreasonable goals onto her son Jonathan (Anson Boon). Jennifer has a nebbish husband (The Office’s Rainn Wilson) who is a font of historical and scientific trivia but clueless when it comes to making actual human connections.
Next comes Anna (Mia Wasikowska) with her girlfriend Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus) in tow. Anna is immediately confronted with questions about why she almost never has contact with the rest of the family. Don’t worry — we’ll get the answer soon enough.
And finally there’s Liz (Lindsay Duncan), Lily and Paul’s oldest and closest friend. Just how close? Patience. That particularly juicy reveal will have to wait until just before Lily’s fatal gulp.
For reasons known only to Lily, the weekend must include a non-chronological celebration of Christmas, complete with presents and a freshly chopped-down Christmas tree. Unfortunately, Lily’s Christmas soon devolves into a high-stakes version of Frank Costanza’s Festivus — with an emphasis on the traditional Airing of Grievances.
Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Hyde Park on the Hudson) is just the guy to corral all this histrionic star power. He gives each cast member ample time to strut their stuff in the service of a cluttered script that bristles with long-simmering family conflicts — all standing patiently in line, waiting to be tackled one-by-one as the film’s brisk hour-and-a-half proceeds apace.
In lesser hands, Blackbird (the meaning of the title is, to my knowledge, never really addressed) would rank little higher than your standard issue high-calorie, low-protein Hallmark Channel movie. But the entire cast hurls itself into this sentimental stew with such abandon you come away from Lily’s farewell party unexpectedly sated.
Just don’t drink the digestif.
Featured image: Rainn Wilson as Michael, Sam Neill as Paul, Bex Taylor-Klaus as Chris, Mia Wasikowska as Anna, Lindsay Duncan as Liz, Susan Sarandon as Lily, and Anson Boon as Jonathan. Blackbird arrives in theaters and on demand on September 18, 2020 from Screen Media. (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Screen Media)
The Library That Dolly Built (September 21)
There’s a smattering of classic songs in this documentary about country icon Dolly Parton, but the focus is on the star’s offstage work for the past 25 years: her Imagination Library. Summoning a powerful cocktail of charm, determination, and shrewd business sense, Dolly mounts a small program to put more than 100 million free books into the hands of children, first in her hometown of Sevierville, Tennessee, but soon marshaling an army of allies to expand far into the English-speaking world. Yes, it’s an adoring portrait. But doggone it, the lady’s just plain adorable.
Belushi (Showtime, November 22)
Nearly 40 years after John Belushi’s death of a drug overdose in an L.A. hotel, documentarian R.J. Cutler (The September Issue) collaborated with the Saturday Night Live star’s widow, Judith Belushi Pisano, to mount this definitive look at the tragic star’s meteoric career. Through previously unreleased interviews, voice recordings, and archival footage, the film not only explores Belushi’s uncommon success (he simultaneously had a top-rated TV show, a No.1 music record, and the nation’s top box-office film) but also his enduring impact on comedy and music. (Note: The film’s premiere shifted from September to November as we were going to press.)
Mystery Road (Acorn TV, September)
No Country for Old Men meets True Detective in the second six-episode series of this dust-choked, death-soaked drama set on the craggy coast of western Australia. It starts with a decapitated body floating among the mangroves and ends with an epic shootout, and in between, Aaron Pederson mesmerizes as a brooding indigenous cop. Directors Warwick Thornton and Wayne Blair, themselves indigenous Australians, pause to contemplate Australia’s complex social structure — fractured in ways that often echo the American experience.
This article is featured in the September/October 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Courtesy Land Grant Films
Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Director: Mary Wharton
Stars: Jimmy Carter, Garth Brooks, Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Larry Gatlin
In theaters and virtual theater video on demand
Bill Clinton may have been the first U.S. President born after World War II, but as this tuneful, nostalgic documentary reminds us, it was Jimmy Carter who first harnessed the energy of rock and roll to catapult himself to the highest office in the land.
James Earl Carter, born in 1924, went to war to the music of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey — but he was a Georgia boy whose childhood soundtrack was dominated by the gospel tunes he sang in church and the barn dance music that crackled through the air from the Grand Ole Opry.
By the time he ran for President in 1976, Carter’s musical tastes had already morphed into a love of country-tinged rock and roll, and he brought that sensibility to his campaign.
In fact, if not for his rockabilly roots, the film suggests that Carter might not have become president at all. Director Mary Wharton — a long-time producer/director for PBS’s American Masters series — explores how, in the early days of his campaign, the candidate would come up with desperately needed cash simply by calling on the likes of The Marshall Tucker Band or the Allman Brothers to drop what they were doing to mount a fundraising concert.
“We’d have a concert on Saturday,” a former campaign worker recalls, “and use that money to buy advertising on Wednesday.”
As Carter himself tells Wharton, “It was the Allman Brothers who put me in the White House.”
The film makes clear that Carter was no simple opportunist; his love of music infused every aspect of his life, from the spiritual to the political. Bob Dylan marvels that on their first meeting in the White House, Carter recited many of the songwriter’s lyrics, weaving them into a personal and religious testimony.
“I realized my songs had reached into the establishment world,” Dylan tells the camera. “It made me a little uneasy.”
After his arrival in the White House, Carter filled those historic halls with music of all sorts: giants of classical, rock, gospel, and jazz all took their turns on the stage. One of the film’s most disarming passages involves trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie coaxing the prez, who famously got his start as a peanut farmer, into sort-of singing an awkward rendition of “Hot Peanuts.” Carter hosted the likes of Herbie Hancock, Diana Ross, Dolly Parton, Cher (who drank from her finger bowl) and Willie Nelson (who came to D.C. straight from incarceration after a drug bust in Jamaica).
If music enlivened Carter’s White House years, it also saw him through his darkest hours as president: At the height of the Iran hostage crisis he closed himself into his office and listened to Willie Nelson sing gospel songs.
In the end, the Carter/music connection was not enough to save his presidency. Still, there’s the sense here that it is music that continues to feed his soul — and has helped him become our greatest ex-president.
“I think music is the best proof,” Carter concludes, “that people have (at least) one thing in common, no matter where they live, no matter what language they speak.”
Featured image: Jimmy Carter with Willie Nelson, 1980 (Credit: Courtesy The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)
The Personal History of David Copperfield
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
Stars: Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Morfydd Clark, Rosalind Eleazar
In theaters; streaming dates to be announced
Forget every Charles Dickens screen adaptation you’ve ever seen — Armando Ianucci’s take on David Copperfield is the funniest, freshest, most fulfilling cinematic foray into Victorian England since, maybe, ever.
You would be hard-pressed to imagine a more appealing cast — from the top-tier stars to the smallest supporting players — than in this lush, sentimental retelling of Dickens’ ultimate up-from-the-gutter story. Effervescent where previous versions are stodgy; irreverent where others are ponderously deferential to the source material, this is a Copperfield for the 21st Century: energetic, sprightly, and all-embracing.
For those who were not compelled to read Dickens’ 600-plus-page 1850 novel in elementary school, the story involves a young man who, after an appropriately dark Victorian childhood in a British workhouse, finds his way into the home of some wealthy relatives and then forges his own place in the world. Dickens infused a lot of his own life into the story (He called the title character “my favorite child”), which makes it perhaps the most engaging of his novels. It’s also his most free-form work — Dickens had no idea how some plot elements would pan out even as he was still serializing it — a quality that writer-director Ianucci (The Death of Stalin) puts to excellent use. Through clever transitions and comically mannered delivery, he finds a subliminal chipperness in the material that has eluded other filmmakers (Although George Cukor did give it a go in 1935 when he cast W.C. Fields as young David’s kind-hearted benefactor Mr. Micawber). It’s a trick Baz Luhrman tried in his version of Romeo and Juliet, but while his effort felt shoehorned into the Elizabethan universe, here the ploy fits as nicely as a gentlewoman’s high-button shoes.
As the wide-eyed, ever-optimistic title character, Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) has us rooting for him from the moment he appears on screen. Even while employing an admirably diverse cast, Ianucci’s decision to cast an actor of Indian descent may seem bold. But it’s totally in line with Britain’s long history of trade with the subcontinent and the racially mixed families that settled in and around London at the time. In any case, Patel makes a perfect Copperfield, his wide-open face a palate on which he paints successive expressions of humiliation, wonder, and ultimately triumph. Tilda Swinton is adorable (yes, you read that right) as his eccentric aunt. And Hugh Laurie should be Oscar nomination-bound for his performance as David’s perpetually confused but ultimately sharp-as-a-tack uncle. As the unctuous-but-scheming Uriah Heep, Ben Whishaw is gleefully infuriating, his eyes beading menacingly from under a Dumb and Dumber haircut.
The undisputed all-time master of opening sentences, Dickens starts Copperfield’s narrative with this line: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
True to his source, Iannucci begins his movie with those same words. And as he squeezes every possible laugh from Dickens’ tale while leaving plenty of room for authentic sentiment, Iannucci becomes a hero of sorts himself, boldly throwing open new windows on a story we thought we already knew.
Featured image: Dev Patel and Hugh Laurie in the film THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD. Photo by Dean Rogers. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved
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Featured image: Oleksandr Fagaulin / Shutterstock
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Eve Hewson, Jim Gaffigan
Writer/Director: Michael Almereyda
In Theaters and Streaming at Video On Demand Cable
As the new biographical film Tesla unspools onscreen, there is a neat bit of synchronicity in realizing that, if not for the central character, you might not be watching a movie at all.
For while it is true that Thomas Edison is largely credited with helping invent the movies, it was his archrival Nikola Tesla who not only single-handedly devised the system of sending sound and pictures over the air, but who also invented the technology that still transmits electricity across long distances from power plants to transformers to the wires leading into your TV.
Ethan Hawke, one of the screen’s great chameleons, plays Tesla, a Serbian immigrant who arrived penniless on these shores in the late 1800s and promptly set about transforming the world — first as a staffer at Edison’s New Jersey invention factory and then as an associate of another giant of the early electrical age, George Westinghouse.
Like many singular geniuses, Tesla was not known for playing well with others. He was sullen, surly, and downright antisocial. Such characters can often be difficult to endure onscreen — why should we invest two hours of our lives in someone who seems congenitally incapable of forging human relationships? — but Hawke succeeds admirably in bridging the chasm between us and the inventor.
True, Hawke’s Tesla seems to grunt his words rather than enunciate them, and even as he is pursued by some of the most desirable women of the age (including kazillionaire J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne, played with smoky appeal by The Knick’s Eve Hewson) Tesla clearly prefers the company of the enormous sparks that crackle from his electric coil. At times, Hawke’s Tesla seems so physically twisted by his obsessive internal focus he threatens to literally fold in on himself. But Hawke’s remarkably physical performance elicits more sympathy than aversion. He is a man possessed, for sure, but he’s under the spell of both interior demons and the mysteries of a natural world that only he seems capable of comprehending.
Such a man is, of course, doomed to be chewed up by the world of commerce, and Tesla runs straight into the maw of America’s aging Boy Wonder, Thomas Edison. Kyle MacLachlan puts his perpetually cherubic face to excellent use here as the Wizard of Menlo Park; it’s a cheeky mask that barely conceals the all-consuming vanity that drives him. Sizing up Tesla, Edison realizes he’s dealing with a world-class genius — and he spends much of the rest of his life ruthlessly trying to bury him.
For a time, Tesla finds success under the wings of Westinghouse — played with surprising spirit by comedian Jim Gaffigan — but once again, soulless Big Business crushes the man who can envision sound waves that split the earth but who can’t see the danger of a rogue contract clause.
Befitting its maddeningly eccentric subject, Tesla is a decidedly off-kilter biography. Writer/director Michael Almereyda (Marjorie Prime) lets the story unfold largely chronologically, but occasionally he’ll throw in a time-bending curve, as when his narrator — Tesla’s frustrated paramour Anne Morgan — calmly produces a MacBook laptop computer to show us how many hits you get when you Google “Tesla.”
The gimmicks don’t always work — the film at times becomes as haughtily self-aware as Tesla himself is painfully clueless.
It might have been nice to see a film made about Tesla in the 1960s, the golden age of overblown biopics, when David Lean might have splashed Omar Sharif as Tesla across a giant screen, bedding heiresses and sending lightning bolts screaming into the Colorado foothills.
Such a film might not have been as authentic to the true person as Tesla is — still, it might have done more justice to the epic influence he’s had on all of our lives.
Featured image: Ethan Hawke in Tesla (Photo by Sean Price Williams, courtesy of IFC Films)
Made in Italy
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
Stars: Liam Neeson, Micheál Richardson, Valeria Bilello, Lindsay Duncan, Yolanda Kettle
Writer/Director: James D’Arcy
I’m all for any film that manages to pry a gun from the hands of Liam Neeson.
Made in Italy, the story of an estranged father and son rebuilding their relationship as they attempt to renovate an old family estate in Tuscany, isn’t up there with such classic father-son dramas as Life Is Beautiful, Big Fish, and Bicycle Thieves — but neither is it Taken, or The A-Team, or Commuter, or any of those other slam-bang shoot-’em-ups that make a lot of money for Neeson, but ultimately waste the talents of the man who is easily one of our most gifted screen actors.
Neeson plays Robert, a world-famous painter who abruptly retreated from the art world following his wife’s death in a car crash. He’s also backed away from his son Jack — played with earnest abandon by Micheál Richardson — to the point where the pair hardly speak, even though Jack is a successful art gallery manager.
Well, he was a successful art gallery manager — until the opening scene, when his business is abruptly yanked from him by his vengeful ex-wife Ruth. Jack decides to try and buy the gallery back from her, but that would mean cashing out his half of the family’s Tuscan villa — which would also mean approaching his distant dad.
Robert is surprisingly amenable to the plan, however, and just a transition scene or two later we are in sunny Italy, where the once-grand, now-dilapidated home awaits them. They get straight to work hauling weeds and painting — bickering endlessly but, admirably, never walking away from a tiff. Writer/director James D’Arcy — making his first feature film — offers a story with twists we can see coming like meatballs with spaghetti, but he has lucked into a cast that can still add some paprika to his otherwise bland piatto principale. Among the supporting players, Lindsay Duncan, the spirited English actress who was so spellbinding as the ever-hopeful wife in 2013’s Le Week-end, makes the most of her part as a pithy real estate agent and possible love interest for the artist. Not so fortunate is Yolanda Kettle as Jack’s bitter ex Ruth, who is so relentlessly angry we can’t help but think Jack did something absolutely awful to her.
We never do learn what happened between them — a major missing element in Jack’s backstory — but of course the entire film is building up to the revelation of why Jack and Robert have drifted apart. The moment arrives, fittingly, in the film’s best scene, a wonderfully acted dialogue that takes place in a dusty upper room, a place where Robert has secretly assembled an artist’s shrine to his late wife.
Shredding their facades of cordiality and tearing open their decade-old wounds, father and son brawl, bawl, and ultimately embrace not only each other, but the shared tragedy that has shaped their lives. It’s an extraordinary scene played with an intensity — and filmed with a tight focus — that reminded me of that shattering finale in Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Neeson and Richardson seem to be mining some vein of emotion that extends far beyond the movie set.
And of course, they are: Until this film, Micheál Richardson has been known as Micheál Neeson. They are father and son, and in 2009 Liam’s wife and Micheál’s mother, Natasha Richardson, died in a skiing accident. Now, dear reader, be advised your humble reviewer happens to be one of a rare breed who spends little time trafficking in celebrity news and gossip, and so I had not the slightest idea that these two actors were in any way related until I set about writing this review. I don’t think an artist’s craft should be judged by his or her private life (hence my stubborn appreciation of Woody Allen), but knowing what I know now, I am tempted to re-visit Made in Italy for a second look.
One scene can a movie make, and this one, coming just under the wire, makes Made in Italy more memorable than anyone might have expected.
Featured image: Liam Neeson and Micheál Richardson in Made in Italy (Courtesy IFC Films)
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
Director: Ron Howard
In Theaters July 31, Streaming Soon
An explosion of horrific immediacy launches Ron Howard’s documentary about the aftermath of the 2018 Camp Fire, a wildfire that consumed the town of Paradise, California. Making ingenious use of terrifying phone video footage and anguished audio recordings, Howard recreates the chaotic hours when some 24,000 residents went from dropping their kids at school and getting ready for work to racing for their lives through the very gates of a fiery, smoke-choked hell.
“Are we going to die?” a motorist asks a cop who has just informed her all routes of escape are engulfed. “My house is burning,” a patrolling cop reports as dash-cam footage reveals a ball of fire erupting under a cloud of smoke. “Please, God, help us! The windows are melting!” an unseen driver screams as she rolls uncertainly by the shells of burned-out cars.
And finally, after what seems like an eternity, an escaping family’s camera catches a glimpse of blue sky beyond the cloud of smoke.
“We’re going to make it!” the dad yells triumphantly. From the back seat comes the sound of a little boy crying hysterically.
It’s as powerful a 15 minutes as you’ll ever see open a film; Howard’s domestic answer to Steven Spielberg’s D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan — only in this case the cinematographers are ordinary people who had the presence of mind to record for posterity what could have been their final minutes.
Howard’s actual camera crew doesn’t arrive in Paradise until a week or so after the flames have burned themselves out, while the town’s displaced residents are still finding places to stay — sitting shell-shocked on cots in a gymnasium, settling in the basements of distant relatives, camping in tent cities on football fields. Their eyes are empty, their mouths slightly agape in did-this-really-happen disbelief.
But the director isn’t interested in telling a story of hopeless tragedy. With a faith in human resilience that has marked his films from A Beautiful Mind to Apollo 13, Howard seems assured of Paradise’s resurrection even before its resident are. Focusing on a handful of indelible characters, he chronicles their slow realization that even after everything changes, life goes on.
One of them is Steve “Woody” Culleton, himself a story in resurrection, the self-described “former town drunk” who dried out, turned his life around and eventually became mayor. Beloved by his fellow Paradisians, he’s among the first to declare he’ll never leave the town, and even before the ashes have cooled has already drawn up plans to rebuild his home.
We patrol the streets of Paradise — indeed, to a large degree only the streets remain — with local cop Matt Gates, an incredibly cool guy who should be played in the narrative version of this film by Deadpool’s Ryan Reynolds. It is he who witnessed his home collapse in flames while on patrol, but he wonders aloud, “I don’t know if it’s worse to have lost your house or be one of the few whose homes came through it.” In one of the film’s few lighter moments, he gestures to an empty lot he’s passing. “It’s cliché, I know,” he says. “But that used to be the donut shop.”
Another is Superintendent of Schools Michelle John, who despite the fact that some of the town’s school buildings are now smoking rubble, determines Paradise will retain its educational identity, setting up makeshift classrooms in houses, barns, and shopping malls. We meet her devoted husband Phil, who surrenders hereto the endless hours of duty while gently reminding her to eat and sleep. “You’re no good to anyone if you’re sick,” he cautions her as they sit in the living room of a distant cousin who has taken them in. As if to prove to the scorched landscape that Paradise will not be bowed, John vows to hold the high school graduation on the football field — intact after the fire but surrounded by towering dead trees that first need to be brought down (and which FEMA, helpful but a tangle of red tape, resists accomplishing on time).
The story of Paradise’s rebuilding is not a litany of improbable success stories. Many people leave town forever, unable to face the memories of that awful morning. At the moment of her greatest triumph — the football field graduation she dreamed of — John is struck with unspeakable personal tragedy. And even good-natured Officer Gates discovers the personal price a community-wide calamity can inflict when you’re not looking.
But this is a Ron Howard film, and in Paradise he has found the real-life crystallization of what he has proclaimed throughout a life on film: In the end, the human spirit will always rise, quite literally, from the ashes.
Featured image: A home burns as the Camp Fire rages through Paradise, CA on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018 (Photo by Noah Berger) (provided by Bill Newcott)
A Most Beautiful Thing
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
Director: Mary Mazzio
Now streaming on XFinity VOD; on Peacock September 1; on Amazon Prime October 14.
The best documentaries lull you into thinking they’re taking you for a nice float on a lazy stream — then abruptly suck you into a chasm of Class 5 rapids that have you holding on for dear life.
That’s the kind of ride we get in director Mary Mazzio’s new film, which starts out as the inspiring tale of America’s first all-African-American public high school rowing team — but has much more on its mind than warm feelies.
It’s the 1990s on the West Side of Chicago, where gang violence is tearing apart the student body of Manley High School. Enter a white Chicago businessman named Ken Alpart, who naively convinces administrators that what the school really needs is a rowing team. He puts a sleek crew shell on display in the cafeteria, offers free pizza to anyone who signs up — and waits to see who comes through the door.
What he gets is a random collection of rival gang members, kids barely holding onto their lives, much less their grades. We meet them in the present day: Grown men, now nearly 40, scarred by their harrowing youths. Foremost among them is Arshay Cooper, who recalls for us his daily adventure walking five blocks to school — and having to wear his baseball cap a different way each block, so as not to get jumped by the local street gang.
The guys laugh as they recall their first time sitting in the low, easily-tipped boat — terrified they might end up in the water.
Some were ready to quit before they got started until, as Cooper recalls, he asked them, “How can you deal with gunshots all day long in your neighborhood and you’re scared to sit in a boat?”
From here the narrative seems to be going just as we’ve hoped: On the water, the guys find a peace they’ve never known before. The former sworn enemies become a team. They enter their first competition, fail miserably, but learn from their mistakes. Finally, at the biggest race of the year, they not only earn the respect of other rowers, but they are celebrated by the entire city of Chicago.
It’s an engaging, feel-good story that seems tailor made for a Hollywood remake — you could probably do the casting yourself.
But something seems a little off here: We’re barely halfway through the film’s run time, and the kids are already graduating from high school. They say farewell to their rowing adventure. Everyone goes their separate ways.
It is now 2018, and the old teammates have just learned that an assistant coach from their high school days has suddenly died. They gather for the funeral, and Cooper hatches an audacious plan: Why not have a reunion row? It doesn’t take long for everyone to get on board with the idea.
It’s a decision that makes the second half of A Most Beautiful Thing even more inspiring than the first. For one thing, virtually none of the guys is anywhere near rowing shape. For another, it goes without saying none of the kids went on to Ivy League rowing glory; they returned to the ’hood where the familiar litany of misfortune awaited many of them: drugs, crime, poverty, and imprisonment. Skillfully and respectfully, Mazzio unfolds each man’s history, exploring the inner city dynamics that stacked the deck against them from the start (she cites a study that reports children from neighborhoods like these suffer higher rates of PTSD than combat soldiers).
Still, after a rocky start, the old teammates rediscover their rhythm. Cooper — who wrote the book on which this film is based, is a sought-after motivational speaker and has become something of a legend in the rowing community — even enlists Olympic rowing coach Mike Teti to whip them into shape.
But Cooper has more than a rowing reunion in mind. Recalling how the sport brought gang rivals together, he hatches an outrageous notion: Why not invite four members of the Chicago Police Department to row with them?
Now, Mazzio has just spent the last hour or so illustrating the tortured relationship between the cops and the ’hood. At this very moment, one of the guys is wearing an ankle bracelet after a run-in with the law. But they trust Cooper and reluctantly agree, leading to some of the most remarkable scenes of awkwardly effective bridge building you’ll ever see.
Finally, the team decides to enter one last official race, returning to the waters where they found high school glory. By now we’re beyond worrying about whether they’ll win or lose. We’re all friends here.
It’s hard to imagine a more stormy sea than the one this country is navigating right now, but the inspiring men from Manley High School have a couple of lessons for us all: First, don’t assume that everyone who’s not on your side is your enemy. And second, it’s possible to find common cause with just about anyone, even if you have to keep them at oar’s length.
Featured image: Richard Schultz/50 Eggs Films
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 46 minutes
Stars: Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke
Writer/Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
I usually don’t have much patience for films about how hard it is to be a movie star — I hear Starbucks is hiring — but there’s no denying the thrill of seeing the great Catherine Deneuve as a fading screen goddess coming to terms with movie mortality.
The French film legend plays Fabienne Dangeville, a bygone screen siren who has written her memoirs. It’s a selective account at best that scrupulously makes her look good at the expense of just about everyone she’s ever known — and that includes her long-suffering daughter Lumir, played by another uncontested member of French film royalty, Juliette Binoche.
Lumir lives in America — ostensibly to facilitate her screenwriting career but clearly to also keep an ocean between her and her mère. But now she has come roaring across the Atlantic to Paris in order to have a showdown over the book, which sugarcoats Lumir’s miserable childhood at the whims of a career-obsessed mother.
To make matters worse, Fabienne is currently filming a cheesy sci-fi flick in which she plays the elderly daughter of a beautiful young mother who never grows old — just the sort of role that reminds her (and her fans) of just how far she is past her sex symbol prime.
This is the kind of material you’ll often find young directors tackling to entice some past-their-prime actor to emerge from semi-retirement and pull out that tedious “Getting Old Sucks but I’ll Make the Most of It” routine. But The Truth is from the skilled hand of Hirokazu Koreeda, whose Oscar-nominated Shoplifters was one of the most sensitively realized films of 2019. Koreeda’s talent for treading the fine line between sentiment and mawkishness is on full display here: Deneuve’s Fabienne, flinty-eyed in the face of aging, never plays for our sympathy; in fact at times she seems ready to throw us out the door along with everyone else who’s ever cared about her. And as the daughter who partly wants to reconcile with her mother and partly wants to leave her stewing in her own soufflé, Binoche matches each eruption of self-centered bitterness with a dose of off-handed remedial dismissal.
That’s a lot of family drama, and it could become a bit overwhelming if not for the welcome presence of Ethan Hawke as Lumir’s good-natured husband, Hank. Even when the mother-daughter tempest is raging at Category 5, Hank keeps an even, bemused keel — largely because he doesn’t speak a word of French.
It all builds up to the filming of a climactic scene in Fabienne’s movie-within-a-movie, in which her character must offer an emotional, self-revelatory speech to her screen mother. Until this point, we’ve been suspecting that Deneuve, one of the great screen divas, might be slumming her way through The Truth, a film that has asked to this point only that she channel the fragile emotional state of a 76-year-old former sex siren.
But she proves otherwise in this one remarkable scene, offering a breathtaking master class in conveying a script’s text, subtext, and subliminal text as Fabienne suddenly comes to realize the truth that can reside in even the most pedestrian words.
After 63 years in the movies, she knows what she’s doing.
Featured image: Scene from The Truth (courtesy IFC Films)
Run Time: 1 hour 49 minutes
Stars: Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Yvette Feuer, Aneurin Barnard
Writer: Jack Thorne
Director: Marjane Satrapi
Streaming on Amazon Prime
Tackling the life story of pioneering nuclear scientist Marie Curie, Rosamund Pike continues her recent explorations of tough-to-pin-down historic women — pithy females who tossed aside their cultures’ expectations and plunged stubbornly forward, either failing to hear the cries of objection or simply choosing to ignore them.
In A United Kingdom she played Ruth Williams, a London woman who defied the social norms of two countries when she married an African king in the late 1940s. She chain-smoked and growled her way through A Private War, painting an uncompromisingly coarse portrait of war correspondent Marie Colvin. And here in Radioactive, playing the Mother of the Atomic Age, Pike strikes yet another defiant pose as a woman who, despite her obvious brilliance, battles at every turn to make her mark in the male-dominated scientific world of the early 20th century.
It’s a startling performance that commands virtually every moment of the film’s run time, as Pike’s Curie runs into one institutional blockade after another.
Unmarried and fighting to keep her position at a Paris laboratory, in one early scene Curie storms into an all-male (of course) board meeting to demand more lab space — and ends up fired. Facing professional ruin, Pike’s face swims with conflicting emotions: fury, surprise, hurt, and dread fear. But even as her expressions flit from one state of mind to another, she seems to grow in stature to the point where the guys with the cigars — and we — begin to wonder if she’s going to leap at them from across the conference table.
So prickly is Pike’s Curie that we almost gasp in astonishment when she lowers her stoic resolve long enough — but just barely so — to fall in love with and marry Pierre Curie, an uncommonly open-minded fellow scientist (Sam Reilly, channeling the same suave charm that made him the perfect alt-world Mr. Darcy in 2016’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).
Iranian director Marjane Satrapi — Oscar-nominated for her animated film Persepolis — knows she’s got a good thing going in Pike. When’s she’s not simply turning the whole film over to her star she’s taking devilish delight in depicting the world’s turn-of-the-century radiation mania — depicting with dark glee such products as radioactive toothpaste and chewing gum. Of course, the fun is all over when Marie, Pierre, and their fellow scientists start coughing up blood, signaling the awful realities of unchecked radiation.
Screenwriter Jack Thorne (Wonder, The Aeronauts) makes the risky choice of repeatedly flash forwarding to the decades following Curie’s death, reminding us of the world her discoveries created, from the atomic bomb to radiation therapy to Chernobyl. Indeed, at times he literally injects Madame Curie herself into these scenes, a ghostly witness to her complicated legacy. It doesn’t always work — Curie’s life is compelling enough without resorting to a tricked-up narrative — but the ploy does serve to remind us that although the events here unfolded more than a century ago, some of the modern world’s most profound dilemmas harken back to that dusty, irradiated laboratory in pre-World War I Paris.
In any case, all is forgiven whenever Pike is on the screen. History is always more fun when filmmakers leave the rough edges intact, and Radioactive does just that — thanks mainly to the superb work of an actor who thrives on showing those edges in stark, supremely human, relief.
Featured image: Rosamund Pike in Radioactive (Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham; StudioCanal/Amazon Studios)
See all Movies for the Rest of Us.
Featured image: Bill Newcott appears in “Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott: The Best Beach Movies
Who could resist the notion of Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins as the heads of a family of small-time grifters — with Westworld’s Evan Rachel Wood as their socially inept daughter? In writer/director Miranda July’s off-kilter family drama, Mom and Dad have raised their daughter as an essential cog in their two-bit heist lifestyle. Then comes an ambitious newcomer (Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez), who topples the family’s low-rent dynamic with dreams of a bigger score. July is a master of the out-of-left-field twist, and her characters are stubbornly endearing.
I usually don’t have much patience for films about how hard it is to be a movie star, but there’s no denying the thrill of seeing the great Catherine Deneuve as a fading screen goddess coming to terms with movie mortality. She plays Fabienne Dangeville, a bygone screen siren who has written her memoirs — a selective account at best. Now her daughter (Juliette Binoche) has come to Paris with her hubby (Ethan Hawke) in tow, fuming because Mom’s book totally sugar-coats her miserable childhood. To make matters worse, Fabienne is currently starring in a cheesy sci-fi flick in which she plays the elderly daughter of a beautiful young mother who never grows old.
In 2014, 20-year-old U.S. filmmaker Charlotte Juergens traveled to France for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Her initial intent was to trace the steps of her late great-grandfather, who was part of the Normandy invasion — but she soon became swept up by the stories of the surviving veterans with whom she traveled. In a disarmingly sweet film that is part historical documentary, part home movie, Juergens provides the men with a chance to make one final plea that the world not forget the things they did and saw. She proves to be a charming intermediary: One vet calls her “Dear Heart”; another starts introducing her as his granddaughter.
This article is featured in the July/August 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Kajillion (Sundance Institute)