REVIEW: “Percy vs Goliath” (2021)

It’s sad to say but there aren’t enough meaty roles out there for actors and actresses past a certain age. And unfortunately that means there are certain kinds of stories that simply aren’t being told. It’s a shame considering the wealth of incredibly talented performers this crappy trend ignores and the missed opportunities at exploring an often untapped segment of the human experience. That’s one reason it’s such a treat whenever a movie like “Percy vs. Goliath” comes around.

This biographical drama from director Clark Johnson sees 78-year-old screen legend Christopher Walken playing 73-year-old Percy Schmeiser, a Saskatchewan farmer best known for his headline-grabbing court battle with the multinational agrichemical company Monsanto during the late 1990s. This textbook David vs. Goliath story saw a modest lifelong farmer reluctantly become an international inspiration and spokesman for independent farmers rights. The screenplay by Garfield Lindsay Miller and Hilary Pryor hits all of the story’s high points, especially regarding the prolonged legal wrangling. As a result the more emotional elements don’t quite get the attention they deserve.

Image Courtesy of Saban Films

Walken is a natural fit for Percy, a proud and earnest canola grower who farms land that has been in his family for generations. He’s what you would call a seed-saver which essentially means he saves seeds from his successful harvests to use in future seasons. It’s the way his father farmed and his grandfather before him. But one day Percy is notified of a court order allowing representatives from agro giant Monsanto to take samples from his fields. They find traces of their own manufactured gene in his crops and end up suing him for patent infringement.

Percy hires local lawyer Jackson Weaver (Zach Braff) to handle his defense but they quickly learn it’s going to be an uphill battle. Monsanto’s team of bullish attorneys led by Martin Donovan use their client’s limitless resources to add both public and financial pressure. As the case picks up traction with the media, Percy is approached by an opportunistic environmentalist named Rebecca Salcau (Christina Ricci). She encourages him to go public which is far from Percy’s style. “Getting his drivers license photo is too much limelight for him,” says his gentle and loving wife Louise (a wonderful Roberta Maxwell) who really is the heart of film.

Soon Rebecca has Percy at speaking engagements, on television talk shows, even flying to India. A true grassroots defense springs up with checks and letters of encouragement coming in from farmers around the world who were forced to settle with Monsanto. Johnson’s film focuses just as much on Percy shedding his pride and seeking the help from others as it does the actual courtroom drama.

Image Courtesy of Saban Films

Unfortunately some of the story details fall through the cracks. There’s clearly some tension between Percy and his bitter and disgruntled son Peter (Luke Kirby) but it never gets touched. The movie acknowledges their rift but never gets into the root cause. We also get a handful of brief scenes referencing how Monsanto’s campaign to vilify Percy turns the local community against him. But the scenes are brief and leave a lot of potentially fertile dramatic ground unplowed (how’s that for a beautifully bad pun).

Still, there’s a lot of inspiration in the movie and particularly in Walken’s performance. He grounds Percy Schmeiser in a way that gives us an vivid image of a proud, honest man who through circumstances outside of his control becomes a reluctant hero to many around the globe. He’s an easy character to root for especially in these current days. So much more of Percy’s personal life is left begging to be explored, but the film gives us enough to gain a good understanding of how the little man can be strategically and methodically squashed by big corporate power. And as you watch this little man fight back you can’t help but be encouraged. “Percy vs. Goliath” opens today (April 30th) in theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

RETRO REVIEW: “The Prestige” (2006)

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It has been nearly 15 years since Christopher Nolan blew our minds with his period psychological thriller “The Prestige”. For those who haven’t seen it, a quick glance at the synopsis won’t really do the film justice. Yes, it’s about two rival magicians duking it out in an escalating game of one-upmanship. But like every Nolan picture there is so much more simmering under the surface both intellectually and creatively. And as always Nolan’s storytelling is both challenging and absorbing.

Set in late Victorian London, Nolan starts his story (which he co-wrote with his brother Jonathan) by hinting at its end – a magic trick gone bad, a murder trial, a man’s life hanging in the balance. But we quickly learn “The Prestige” is a movie full of illusions and in it Nolan steadily drops pieces of information for us to pickup and process. They’re all aimed at giving both context and clarity to those early teases.

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Photo Courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

The story of aspiring magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Borden) begins with the two men working as audience plants and stage hands for Milton the Magician (played by real-life illusionist Ricky Jay). Nolan favorite Michael Cane plays John Cutter, their mentor and the architect for Milton’s numerous stage devices. While doing a live water tank trick Angier’s wife Julia (Piper Perabo) drowns after Alfred tests a new knot when tying her up. Because of it, she’s unable to escape from the tank and Robert holds Alfred responsible.

The two become bitter rivals, both professionally and personally. Even as their individual careers begin to take off, neither can shake their obsession with the other. The animosity really amps up once Alfred unveils his masterpiece, a trick he calls The Transported Man. Audiences are amazed and a jealous Robert is consumed with figuring out Alfred’s secret regardless of the cost. If it takes ruining his relationship with his new stage assistant Olivia (Scarlet Johansson), so be it. Even if it takes spending gobs of money going to America to meet eccentric scientist Nikola Tesla (a fantastic David Bowie).

What starts as a rivalry quickly festers into deceit and betrayal. Those caught in the middle of their feud are little more than collateral damage. Whether it’s Olivia or even worse Alfred’s wife Sarah (Rebecca Hall). Nolan digs deep into the ugliness of such obsession, yet both Alfred and Robert are still characters of complexity and nuance. And as the story uncoils in a wave of final act reveals, you realize that Nolan (as he always does) has more on his mind than it first seems.

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Photo Courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

The casting couldn’t be more in tune and it starts at the top with Jackman’s ambitious American and Bale’s cocky Cockney. Both actors really dig into the layers of their characters (and there are many of them), using their faults and virtues to paint two murky yet utterly fascinating portraits. Great performances from Johansson and Hall help color in the two men they’re caught between. And David Bowie is magnetic in a small but unforgettable role.

“The Prestige” came out right on the heels of Christopher Nolan’s first big budget blockbuster (2005’s “Batman Begins”). But it proved that he still knew how to tell a deep yet tightly focused story. And it still looks amazing, both the cinematography and production design. It could come out this weekend and easily pass for a current day movie, rivaling anything else out there. It’s yet another testament to Nolan’s greatness and diversity as a filmmaker and storyteller.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Penguin Bloom” (2021)

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A seemingly perfect family life is upended follow a harrowing accident in “Penguin Bloom”, the new Netflix family drama from Australian director Glendyn Ivin. The film is based on the acclaimed book from photographer Cameron Bloom and New York Times bestselling author Bradley Trevor Greive. It tells a story so sweet and uplifting you’d swear it was fiction. But it’s actually based on a moving true story and brought to life through the sincere and resonant performances from Naomi Watts and Andrew Lincoln.

Sam Bloom (Watts) lives a fun and adventurous life. She loves to surf, loves nature, and loves to travel. She and her husband Cameron (Lincoln) have passed on their love for life to their three rambunctious but goodhearted young sons. But everything changed during a family vacation in Thailand. While taking in some local scenery from the roof of their hotel, an old wooden guardrail breaks sending Sam plunging 20 feet to the hard ground below. As a result of the fall Sam broke her back and was left paralyzed from her chest down.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

Back home following a long rehabilitation, Sam struggles to adjust to life in a wheelchair. Ivin along with screenwriters Shaun Grant and Harry Cripps make sure their film doesn’t sugarcoat Sam’s physical and emotional challenges. Watts, an Academy Award nominated actress, makes every aspect of it real for us, whether its something like her inability to roll over in bed or in visualizing the tortuous psychological toll which leads to a deep depression. Watts is too good of an actress to let her character sink into sentiment. Even as the movie hits us with its non-intrusive yet very familiar emotional cues Watts keeps her character grounded, never losing sight of the human element.

Hope comes in the most unlikeliest of places when their oldest son Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston) finds a baby magpie alone on the beach. He brings it home and names it Penguin. The family instantly warms up to Penguin except for Sam. But over time an unexpected attachment forms between the two. Soon Sam is caring for the young bird which in a thoughtful way represents her longing to be a mother for her own children the way she once did. And as Penguin overcomes her own adversity and learns to fly, Sam begins to realize that maybe she can too.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

While subtlety isn’t the movie’s strength it gets the family dynamic just right. Lincoln’s low-key performance makes for a nice fit. His character fills in the cracks of the story by offering a look at Sam’s struggle from the family’s complicated point-of-view. And young Murray-Johnston has a lot of appeal playing a boy trying to adapt but missing his mother terribly. “It’s like mom was stolen from us,” he says in narration. He also battles guilt, blaming himself for his mother’s fall since he’s the one who wanted to go up to the roof. Jacki Weaver is great but underutilized playing Sam’s overbearing but well-meaning mother Jan who often speaks without a filter.

“Penguin Bloom” is a life-affirming story about overcoming adversity and rediscovering the love for life. It’s biggest problem is that everything is pretty much by-the-book. Don’t expect any original ideas or big surprises. It follows a tried-and-true feel-good formula that hits the normal beats and ends right where you expect. Yet it still makes for good viewing because of the heart-warming true story and the wonderful performances that bring it to the screen. They make us care, feel empathy, and root for this family to not only cherish their old adventures but find new ones as well.”Penguin Bloom” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

SUNDANCE REVIEW: “Passing” (2021)

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Actress Rebecca Hall makes her directorial debut at Sundance with “Passing”, a movie based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel. Set predominantly in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, “Passing” is an elegant and poignant period drama about biracial identity in 1920’s. Hall, who comes from a biracial family, touches on several other more opaque themes. But the film works best as a story of friendship – one marred by jealousy, obsession, and betrayal.

Noticeable right from the start, Hall’s debut employs stunning black-and-white cinematography. It’s not used as a gimmick or a nostalgic choice. The monochrome images have an intriguing symbiosis with the narrative and is thematically in-tune with the type of story being told. Hall also presents her film in a 4:3 aspect ratio that is both beautiful and evocative while feeding the film’s themes of confinement and boundaries. Some scenes utilize the format to relay the idea of being trapped within the life you’ve created. DP Eduard Grau’s images are a huge strength and practically every visual choice was made with meaning in mind.

The film’s title comes sharply into focus during the opening scene. Irene (Tessa Thompson), a biracial woman, walks into a shop with a hat tight on her head and covering a portion of her face. It’s a shop where she would normally be denied entry simple due to her ethnicity. But by ‘passing’ as a white woman she’s able to make her purchase and get out unnoticed. Immediately the theme of suppressing you racial identity is vividly laid out.

Afterwards a parched Irene stops for a drink at a Manhattan hotel. As she nervously waits for the waiter she’s surprised to see Clare (Ruth Negga), an old friend who she hasn’t spoken to in years. Clare is also biracial but has scrubbed out any hint of her true ethnicity. Now she’s ‘happily’ married to a wealthy and garishly racist white man named John (Alexander Skarsgård) who has no idea she is black. So as Irene ‘passes’ just to enter stores or to get a drink, Clare does it for the lavish white-only high society lifestyle.

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As the two old friends reconnect they begin reevaluating their lives. Clare’s secret visits to Harlem makes her realize how much she misses her people and her culture. Her free-spirited boundary-less personality quickly makes her a hit in the neighborhood and in Irene’s home. Clare relishes the attention. Irene has done everything by the book. She’s married to a hard-working man named Brian (a terrific André Holland). They have two bright children and a nice Harlem home. But for Irene, seeing Clare’s independence and self-assurance highlights her growing feelings of dissatisfaction.

From there the relationships fester with more complex emotions. Hall handles them all with a surprisingly nuanced approach. She doesn’t spell out how her characters feel from scene to scene, instead trusting her performers to convey to us what we need. Yet despite their great work, the emotions can be murky at times. For example Hall tries to wedge in a muddled sexual tension between Irene and Clare, but outside of a few arbitrary gazes there’s nothing there. These moments feel weirdly out-of-tune but it’s not because of the performances. Both Thompson and Negga dazzle, bringing depth and light to their characters. Thompson is more subdued and internal, her character slowly pulled under by a range of suppressed emotions. Negga infuses Clare with her own unique energy and verve despite being seen solely from Irene’s point-of-view. And both actresses give us plenty to ponder and piece together on our own.

“Passing” is an alluring work with great period detail, a delicate attention to character, and an invigorating trust in its audience. As Devante Hines’ delightful piano chords transition us from one scene to the next, Rebecca Hall uses her story to poke at various weighty issues and social constructs. But at it’s core “Passing” is an intimate look at a complicated friendship energized by two absorbing performances. It’s a slow-moving story, even meandering a bit in the middle, but it really comes together in a powerful way, coated in ambiguity and with a final punch that feels inevitable and earned.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Pieces of a Woman” (2020)

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Grief has proven to be one of cinema’s favorite themes to explore. And regardless of how many films have tackled the subject, we’re always finding potent new stories that plow this deeply human ground. One of the latest is “Pieces of a Woman” from Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó and screenwriter Kata Wéber.

The film premiered in September at the Venice International Film Festival where star Vanessa Kirby won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress. Strengthening its resume, Martin Scorsese serves as its executive producer and 3-time Oscar winner Howard Shore composes the movie’s beautiful and evocative score.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

But “Pieces of a Woman” always comes back to the performances namely Kirby’s. The English actress grabbed a lot of big screen attention for her appearances in the blockbusters “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” and “Hobbs & Shaw”. But “Pieces” sees her in a meatier leading role, working with heavy material and burrowing deep into an emotionally shattered character. Kirby gives a career-defining performance, one that delicately but truthfully examines various facets of loss with an honest and clear-eyed perspective.

The film opens with what will probably be it’s most discussed and debated scene. It’s a 20-minute-plus uncut child delivery sequence set in the apartment of a Boston couple Martha (Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf). The scene begins with Martha having mild contractions. The couple follow their well rehearsed home-birth gameplan and call their midwife but she’s tied up with another client. So she sends over a trusted colleague named Eve (played by an excellent Molly Parker).

Mundruczó shoots the sequence in one steady unbroken take, with camera movements so subtle they’re easy to miss. He follows every step of their carefully planned procedure while Kirby strips away any hint of glamour and artifice. The scene moves through the intensifying labor straight to child birth which ends in heart-shattering tragedy. The devastating effects of the film’s opening reverberates throughout the remainder of the movie as this once intimate couple crumbles under the weight of sorrow and loss.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

The bulk of the story chronicles Martha’s attempt to navigate her grief. The film does a good job portraying the crushing effects of psychological trauma as Martha attempts to regain some semblance of a normal life. But everywhere she looks she sees reminders of what she lost: a young girl in a department store, baby dresses on a mannequin. Meanwhile her relationship with Sean can’t quite get back on track. LaBeouf is really good as a blue-collar construction worker and recovering alcoholic. Sean has always clashed with Martha’s white-collar family especially her domineering mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) who feels her daughter could do better. Of course both Sean and Elizabeth have their own ideas of how Martha should handle the tragedy.

Mundruczó and Wéber have pieced together a thoughtful movie about a woman’s painful quest to not only put her life back together, but to find her true self in the process. Not to be who her husband wants her to be or who her mother wants her to be. But to truly find herself. There are some interesting but slightly uneven story turns especially in the second half. But the movie never loses its central focus and Kirby gives a knock-out performance that more people need to be talking about as we enter awards season. “Pieces of a Woman” premieres on Netflix January 7th.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Promising Young Woman” (2020)

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While Carey Mulligan has received her share of accolades and most consider her a good actress, in some sense she remains underappreciated and is rarely considered among the best of her craft. She’s certainly proven herself and her last four lead performances alone should be enough to quell any hesitation. Of the many things likely to come from her new film “Promising Young Woman”, hopefully one will be a deeper and fuller appreciation for just how good the 35-year-old London-born star really is.

“Promising Young Woman” is the feature film debut for director and screenwriter Emerald Fennell. The actress and author (currently appearing as Camilla in the hit Netflix series “The Crown”) has crafted a blistering #MeToo era revenge fantasy that defies all labels and expectations. It’s a wily and rightfully angry thriller soaked in style and with a disarming candy-colored coating. At the same time it’s darkly funny and its humor often hits at the most unexpected times. And all of it is anchored by Mulligan’s fierce and uncompromising lead performance.

Storywise Cassandra Thomas (Mulligan) had everything going for her. She was a college medical student with top-of-her-class smarts and a promising future ahead. But then something happened on campus, a sexual assault involving her childhood friend and med school classmate Nina. It led to both Cassie and Nina dropping out while the perpetrators went unprosecuted, graduating magna cum laude and set for a life of upper-class bliss.

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Image Courtesy of Focus Features

That was seven years ago. Now the 30-year-old Cassie works at a dead-end coffee shop, still living with her parents (wonderfully played by Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) and with no ambition or real relationships to speak of. The details of Nina’s fate trickle out over time but they have clearly left Cassie in a dark hole. They also fuel what you might consider her unconventional night job.

Roughly once a week Cassie enters a nightclub dressed to the nines and pretending to be so drunk she can’t stand on her own. Wielding her beauty like a weapon, Cassie lures in self-proclaimed “nice guys” who feign compassion and offer to help her home. To no surprise they magically end up taking her to their apartment. Once their poorly veiled predation reaches a certain point, Cassie snaps out of her faux drunkenness like a bear jolted from its hibernation, forcing the offenders to reckon with their deeds.

Enter comedian Bo Burnham playing Ryan, an old college classmate who has always had a thing for Cassie. He’s a self-depreciating and playfully charming guy; the kind that might actually break through Cassie’s hardened defenses. It helps that there is a tangible chemistry between Burnham and Mulligan. They’re also really funny together. It’s quite the opposite with Cassie’s secret darker side which sees her moving away from catching random slugs in a bar to targeting all those who wronged her friend in school. Fennell digs equally into both sides of the character, leaving us wondering which will ultimately win out.

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Image Courtesy of Focus Features

But none of it works without Mulligan who is convincing at every turn. Whether it’s a moment of vulnerability revealing glimpses of potential happiness or when she’s the unhinged antihero uncoiling in front of her prey with sociopathic glee. Mulligan never overacts or underplays which isn’t easy with this kind of material. And it helps to be surrounded by such a well-tuned supporting cast. In addition to the terrific Burnham is a number of familiar faces: Adam Brody, Alison Brie, Alfred Molina, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Connie Britton to name a few.

“Promising Young Woman” is a movie full of misdirections and ruses. One of my favorites is the film’s undeniable girly aesthetic set atop of its grittier subject matter. Deliciously snide confections like an intentionally corny pharmacy scene playing out to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind”. It’s a scene that could be yanked from any number of cookie-cutter rom-coms. And how can you not appreciate a film that gleefully kicks in the groin any notion of expectation? One of the real treats from Fennell’s film (much like its main character) is the utter unpredictability. And there are so many fun comedic touches. Such as Cassie’s parents spending an evening watching Robert Mitchum’s “Night of the Hunter”.

Without question Fennell takes her subject seriously but she’s also having a wickedly good time. Occasionally the tones clash a bit, but I do enjoy watching a filmmaker buck conventions and stick with original ideas. And Fennell has plenty of ideas, from the way she shoots the movie to the way her story is told. You also have to admire a movie that can land this many well-placed shots at such a slimy and abusive subculture. “Promising Young Woman” opens December 25th.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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