Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain is based on a book that’s apparently reduced plenty of readers to a puddle of mush since its publication in 2008. The film adaptation aims to do the same – and succeeds, to some degree. Complicit in the drive to unleash the waterworks is a cast that includes the king of the half-crooked smile, Milo “Jack Pearson” Ventimiglia (This Is Us) and a sweet, philosophical golden retriever whose mix of comical and poignant inner thoughts are voiced by Kevin Costner. It’s a heartfelt, bittersweet tale that pet owners can easily appreciate and relate to. But it’s also sad – and at times maddening. Way more so than I expected (having not read the book), especially for a film rated PG. Maybe that stands for ‘Pet Guidance’ suggested. So be sure and ask your dog if the material seems suitable for family viewing.

Quickie Review: Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Some films – like Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood – require a great deal of thought and dissection and debate. They are the full-course meal that swirls around the discriminating palate to be savored or rejected, or something in between.

Sometimes, however, you just want popcorn for dinner. And that’s where movies like Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw come into play. Bon Appétit!

Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I wish I could say I was a ‘Tarantino fan’. But sadly, I am not. Mostly because I’m generally squeamish when it comes to violence, and decidedly traditional when it comes to story structure. So imagine my surprise at finding several things to genuinely like (or at least, appreciate) in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, even though it doesn’t have much by way of story and does indeed take a bloody turn, albeit toward the very end of a decently-paced 2 hour, 40 minute epic. Quentin Tarantino films (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, etc.) are still very much an acquired taste, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood goes down somewhat easier for the non-fan, thanks to the stellar performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. They are a joy to watch as fading television western star Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Pitt), two guys struggling to adapt to changing times in “Hollywood” – the place, and the industry – in the summer of 1969.

Review: The Mountain

Set in the 50s, The Mountain is the story of Andy (Tye Sheridan, Ready Player One), a directionless young man. Early in the film his father dies and he meets Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum) who hires him to accompany him on the road as his photographer. The doctor is a lobotomist and they spend the rest of the film bouncing from mental hospital to mental hospital leaving pliant patients in their wake. But when the good doctor begins to find his services are going out of fashion as less drastic new procedures replace his, he spins a bit out of control, drinking and sleeping with random women, with Andy as his silent witness. And it seems to be building to something. But that something never really comes.

Review: For Sama

For Sama is a thoroughly engrossing and heart-wrenching documentary made by the mother of a baby born in Aleppo, Syria during the rebel uprising and daily bombings. Sama’s mother Waad al-Kateab frames the film as a letter to her daughter about the time and place in which she was born. An avid citizen journalist, al-Kateab was already documenting her world in 2011 while she was a student at Aleppo University when protests began against the corrupt regime of Bashar al-Assad. Her camera caught the beginnings of the student led uprising and the early optimism. And then all hell broke loose and she was right there in the middle of it, with her camera and a conviction that what was happening needed to be shown to the world. And it is harrowing, unlike any war correspondent’s version of life during wartime. During the five years of filming, she lived through nearly daily bombings and massacres, as well as marriage and the birth of her first child. It’s her own personal story, but also the story of the destruction of Aleppo at the hands of the Syrian regime with the aid of the Russians and the determination of the inhabitants to keep going. It’s a must see film.

Review: Luz

The classic horror film hasn’t entirely disappeared from the cinema landscape, but the current trend it to make more of it than just the easy jump out of your seat shriek-fest. Get Out, Suspria, and Hereditary have shown that there’s an audience for new kinds of horror. And Luz rides in on that wave with a minimalist demonic possession flick that takes place mostly in a police station.

Review: The Lion King (2019)

Can you feel the love again?

In the circle of life that is cinema, The Lion King is back in all its original story glory, with a couple of new songs and stunning visual effects. The “reimagining” of the 1994 animated classic blends live-action techniques with virtual reality tools and photo-real digital imagery to create an all-new computer-generated medium that resembles something of a cross between traditional animation, Animal Kingdom and Mr. Ed. The added layer of ‘realism’ makes the light stuff lighter – and the dark stuff darker – in and around the fictional landscape of Pride Rock, somewhere in Africa.

Review: The Farewell

In this bittersweet dramedy based on a real story from the writer/director’s own family, Billi (Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians) a struggling New York writer discovers that her Grandma (Zhou Shuzhen) back in China has cancer. It’s a huge blow since they’re really close, but Grandma doesn’t know and the family wants it to stay that way. But just so they can all see her before she dies, they concoct a wedding where everyone can get together with her back in Changchun. The Farewell boasts a fabulous ensemble cast in a story that while set squarely within its Chinese culture and location feels universal in its truths about family relationships and the lengths we’ll go to for someone we love.

Review: One Child Nation

Nanfu Wang has made a couple of my favorite documentaries of the past few years. Hooligan Sparrow followed a Chinese women’s rights activist’s journey and put both the subject and the filmmaker in danger. Her follow-up film I Am Another You took place in the US as she lived for a while with a charming young homeless man. In both films she was as much a part of the story as her subjects. In her newest film, which she co-directed with Jialing (Lynn) Zhang, she returns to China with her new baby to peel back the curtain on the country’s horrifying one child policy and the toll the decades long social experiment took on the women of China. From 1979 through 2015 the Chinese government decreed that women could only have one child, and to that end millions of women were forced to have abortions, be sterilized, or abandon their children to human traffickers. It’s a harrowing film as you hear the stories from many of the perpetrators who still think the policy made sense.

Review: Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love

Oh, to be a great man’s muse! To have him write poetry and songs about you, to you, for you. And all you need do is sit at his feet and adore him while he creates! This is the story of Marianne and Leonard. Marianne Ihlen was a Norwegian single mom living on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s, when Leonard Cohen came into her life. It was a love that would last both their lifetimes and would be responsible for many of his most memorable songs. Sadly though, what this documentary fails to tell us is who Marianne was. Her presence is only a means by which to tell the story of Cohen and his rise from writer/poet on a Greek isle to global folk music star. And while I did learn a few things about Leonard, the long stretches of the film with Marianne sitting on a boat or with people talking about her were actually boring. And at the end, you’re left with nothing of her to hang onto.