The Burnt Orange Heresy

Posted on March 12, 2020 at 5:55 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexual content/nudity, language, drug use and violence
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, arson, murder
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 6, 2020
Copyright Sony Pictures Classics 2019

Paintings and movies can both be art or trash, and, in a completely separate binary, they can both be worth millions or pennies. Both forms of expression struggle with the balance of culture and commerce. But in one very important way they are opposite, an element that is literally material. The value in movies is in the experience of watching them, whether on film or in a digital print. The audience is unaware of the particulars of the mechanism of delivery; indeed, one of the great pleasures of film is that it is immersive, designed to be seen on an enormous screen in a dark room so that the line between the art and the audience is nearly dissolved. But for a painting or drawing, the value, the monetary value anyway, is in the unique distinction of the object. Try asking the Metropolitan Museum of Art whether they would swap a Picasso for an exact digital replica of the original. For this reason, the premium attached to the physical object is more important, at least when it comes to price, than the aesthetic merits of the image. A movie is made by dozens, maybe hundreds of people, many of whom never see each other. A painting (except for the high-end conceptual variations) is made by one person whose individual touch contributes immeasurably to its authenticity and value.

Perhaps this is why some movies are so fascinated with gallery art like paintings. Danish actor Claes Bang is appearing in his second film in three years about the conundrums and hypocrisy of the art world (third if you count “The Last Vermeer”). In the trippy “The Square” he played a museum director. In “The Burnt Orange Heresy” he is James Figueras, an art critic working in Italy who might have preferred to be an artist himself, or a curator. And in his first scene, we see he is also a liar. Speaking to a group of American tourists, James describes the story behind the painting depicted on a slide showing on a screen in the front of the room. It was the last painting from a Holocaust survivor, and as he tells them the story of the artist and his sister, we and the audience he is speaking to look at the image of the painting with increased interest and respect. He asks who wants a print and hands go up. Then he tells them it is a lie. He did the painting himself. Lesson: beware of critics, especially when their comments determine the authenticity or value of a work of art.

One American tourist at James’ talk is Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki). She and James have sex and he impulsively invites her to come along on a visit to the opulent home of a wealthy art dealer Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger, brimming with wily charm). Cassidy has an irresistible offer for James, a chance at the biggest art story in years, which could bring him fame, fortune, and the credibility he had been seeking since he lost his job at a museum over a little bit of embezzlement. The world’s most famous art genius recluse, a sort of J.D, Salinger of oil painting, lives in a small house on Cassidy’s property. He has not given an interview or allowed anyone to see his work for decades. If James interviews him, it will make his career. But Cassidy wants something in return — a painting. And if James should say no, well Cassidy is not above some almost-genteel blackmail.

The artist is Dabney (Donald Sutherland, deliciously courtly and eloquent, if opaque). It becomes a cat and mouse game with many players, and some surprises about who is the cat and who is the mouse, right up to the final shot.

The various mysteries, especially Berenice’s under-written backstory, are not always satisfying, though Debicki, who was superb in “Widows” and “The Tale,” is always entrancing. The settings, from the fabulous estate to the museum gala and the overall setting of the glamorous world of art museums and collectors, the provocative questions it raises about the uncomfortable relationships of art, commerce, and celebrity, and sharp, witty performances from Sutherland and Jagger make it enticingly watchable.

Parents should know that this film has explicit sexual references and a situation with nudity, very strong and crude language, drinking, smoking, drugs, criminal fraud, peril and violence including murder.

Family discussion: How did James’ story change your ideas about the painting in the first scene?

If you like this, try: “The Square” and “Velvet Buzzsaw” If you like this, try: “The Square” and “Velvet Buzzsaw”

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The Way Back

Posted on March 5, 2020 at 5:47 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence
Profanity: Constant very strong language used by adults and teens
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol abuse, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence, references to illness and tragic death of a chlld
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 6, 2020

Copyright 2020 Warner Brothers
Director Gavin O’Connor makes movies with hard outer shells, about sports (“The Warrior”) and assassins (“The Accountant”). But they have sweet, gooey centers, because he has the softest heart in Hollywood. Which is a good thing. A lot of people stayed away from “Warriors” because the main characters are MMA fighters, but it is a tenderhearted story of family and redemption. “The Way Back” (original title, “The Has-Been,” probably considered too down-beat) is not as powerful a story, and is too close to better films like “Hoosiers,” but it is a solid drama with the additional interest factor of the parallels between the actor and the role.

Ben Affleck has been doing interviews about his struggles with substance abuse as he is promoting his new movie about a man who struggles with substance abuse. Even he is not clear whether this particular role was therapeutic or not. But he certainly inhabits the character with feeling.

Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a one-time high school basketball superstar who is now a construction worker who is alone, miserable, and alcoholic. He takes a swig in the car before going inside his sister’s house for Thanksgiving with her family. He pours booze into his coffee cup at work. In his dingy apartment, the refrigerator is filled with beer. He has a system. He takes a can out of the freezer to drink and brings one up from the lower compartment to freeze it so that it will be perfectly chilled as soon as he finished the first one. He spends every night at the local bar.

And then he gets a call from a priest at his old school. The basketball coach is ill and they want him to come back and take over. Everything Jack does has one goal — numbing him from any kind of feeling or connection or memory of what he lost. He practices over and over how to say no. But he says yes. And soon he is in the gym, looking at a bunch of teenagers who need training, discipline, pride, and, most of all, a role model.

It might be possible for Jack to provide some of those things, but beginning to care brings up all of the feelings he has put so much effort into suppressing.

The focus is on Jack here. This is not one of those movies where the new coach steps in to give each of them important life lessons. We don’t learn much about his fellow barflies or his family. We do learn about his relationship with his ex-wife, the tragic circumstance that drove them apart, and Jack’s history of bad choices, especially the choice to hurt others by hurting himself. It’s okay that Jack is still a work in progress. But movie hint at possible recuts, with some abruptness and imbalance in the storytelling, which makes the movie feel that way, too.

Parents should know that this film includes constant very strong language used by adults and teenagers, crude references, very sad (offscreen) death of one child and terminal illness of another, alcohol abuse, smoking, and drunk driving.

Family discussion: Why did Jack hurt himself to hurt his father? Why did Angie and Jack respond differently to a tragic loss? Why did he want to coach the team?

If you like this, try: “Warriors,” from the same director, and “Hoosiers”

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I Still Believe

Posted on March 5, 2020 at 10:33 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Terminal illness
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 13, 2020

Copyright Lionsgate 2020
If a movie is called “I Still Believe,” you can be pretty sure it is aimed at those who already believe. Based on the real-life love story of Christian musician Jeremy Camp, it is set in a world of believers and very much in the tradition of Christian testimony, where tragedy is overcome or at least understood through faith. It is also a sincere and tender love story with attractive stars, tuneful songs, and a score by John Debney.

Jeremy Camp is played by K.J. Apa, who plays Archie on “Riverdale” with dark, handsome features that look like a cross between 90s-era Josh Hartnett and Wes Bentley. He is the oldest son of a loving family. As he leaves home for college, we see that he is kind and patient with his developmentally disabled youngest brother, and honorable and generous. His father offers to let Camp take his own guitar to college, saying that “for me, music is a hobby. For you it is a gift.” But there is a surprise. His parents bought him a brand new guitar, a sacrifice that will mean no Christmas presents. They knew he would be too thoughtful to leave his father without music.

Jeremy arrives at a small Christian college where Kry, a Christian musical group he admires, is performing, and he sneaks backstage to meet the lead singer, Jean-Luc La Joie. He asks for advice about “making it.” La Joie says, “It’s not about making it. It’s about what the songs give to people. What do you want to give to people.” He tells Camp to write what he cares about. La Voie writes “love songs to God.” But lately, he’s been writing one to a girl. Jeremy will learn what that means when he sees the girl for himself and is immediately drawn to her.

Melissa (Britt Robertson), and like Jeremy her life is committed to faith and to music as a way to express and strengthen her faith. This is a movie where the usual falling-in-love montage includes not just walking on the beach but service to others as a way for the couple to connect. It is difficult for her to admit her feelings for Jeremy and that creates stress in their relationship. They are on something of a break and he is back home with his family when he gets a call — she’s in the hospital with cancer.

They face it together and get married, against the advice of his family. They are very young and this is a daunting challenge at any age. But as the title tells us, their faith endures.

Those who are not believers in this particular kind of Christianity may question the unquestioning faith of these characters. There are many faith traditions that would see these incidents differently, and the movie has a closed and circular perspective some audience members will find reductive and exclusionary. But Robertson and Apa make a sweet couple and their commitment to God and each other gives their story a tenderness that even those with different beliefs will find touching.

Parents should know that this movie includes a very sad terminal illness, with scenes of medical treatment and suffering and a tragic loss.

Family discussion: What do we learn about Jeremy when he turns down his father’s guitar and gives his brother his phone? Should Melissa have told John-Luck sooner? When you can’t decide what to do, what helps you?

If you like this, try: “A Walk to Remember” and “I Can Only Imagine” and the music of Jeremy Camp

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Downhill

Posted on February 13, 2020 at 5:37 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual material
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, tense family confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 14, 2020

Copyright 2019 Searchlight
It’s a movie about marital dysfunction on a family ski trip. So, “Downhill,” get it? Directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, are the screenwriters of “The Descendants” and writer/directors of “The Way Way Back.” The key element that made those films remarkable was a blending of wry humor with heart-breaking family tensions and conflicts. But here, co-scripting with Jesse Armstrong (“In the Loop”), that is where it fails. Both elements are present, but the film and its performers never seem to know which part they are in.

Perhaps one problem is in the casting and marketing of the film, with two of the most beloved comic actors of all time creating an expectation that we are there to laugh at them. Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus are equally good in serious roles, but having them in a film that tries to make us laugh at their struggles and feel sympathetic to them or at least recognize something of ourselves in them is more than even the most adept performers can manage. It does not help that the trailer makes it seem like an outright comedy, so the audience arrives with expectations that make it difficult to locate the movie’s tone.

It is based on the Cannes-jury prize winning Swedish film “Force Majeure.” The name is a legal term meaning a supervening event that makes it impossible to fulfill a contract, like a catastrophic storm. In this version, it is an American family with two sons who arrive at an Austrian ski resort for a family vacation. Peter (Will Ferrell), is still mourning his father who died eight months earlier and is questioning his own life, whether he is missing something he might never find time to have or do. Billie (Julie Louis-Dreyfus) is a lawyer looking forward to quality family time and her husband’s undivided attention. The opening scene (also in the original) is reminiscent of “Ordinary People,” making clear the family’s inability to get together for a photograph, demonstrating the deepening divide between the way they want to appear and the way they are.

On their second day at the resort, a controlled avalanche on one of the mountains briefly looks as though it will cover the balcony cafe where the family is eating. In that split second, instead of protecting his family, Peter grabs his cell phone and runs for cover. Billie and the boys are badly shaken but say nothing at first. As the vacation continues, Billie’s feelings: abandonment, anger, contempt, bubble up, revealed in ways that range from passive aggressive to micro-aggressive to outright, pull out all the stops aggressive.

Louis-Dreyfus, who also produced, navigates this range of moods with extraordinary sensitivity as Billie struggles to do what is best for her sons’ sense of security and respect for their father and her fury, fear, and frustration with Peter first for his cowardly, selfish act and then for denying it and trying to blame her for talking about it. It all erupts into a painful and humiliating series of accusations and denials in front of Zach, one of Peter’s colleagues from work (Zach Woods) and his free-spirited new girlfriend (Zoe Chao). There is an intriguing idea there about what Peter hope to appear or be for Zach and why, but instead of exploring it we get Miranda Otto in the thankless role of a resort liaison whose job seems to be welcoming guests with the very definition of sexual TMI. The same goes for brief flirtations with flirtation by both Billie and Peter. Yes, middle-aged people sometimes wonder where their youth has gone and long to be seen as new and desirable. That point has been made much better many, many times.

Even with a brief running time and deft performances, the movie never settles on a tone or perspective.

Parents should know that this movie includes some peril and extended family dysfunction, tension, and arguments. There are very explicit sexual references and a situation and a reference to drugs.

Family discussion: Why did Billie want her sons to see Peter do something good? What would you do if you were faced with Peter’s decision? How do you know? Why was it hard for him to tell the truth?

If you like this, try: the original film, “Force Majeure” and “Carnage”

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The Photograph

Posted on February 13, 2020 at 5:22 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexuality and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Sad deaths of parents
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 14, 2020

Copyright 2019 Universal
Of all the reasons to see a movie, there is none better than this: two gorgeous, immeasurably magnetic and talented actors falling in love on screen. And so, the universe (and Universal) have given us a luscious valentine of a movie, Issa Rae and Lakieth Stanfield starring in “The Photograph,” the kind of romantic drama audiences keep complaining they don’t make any more. From the steamy moments with a storm outside the window to an Al Green LP to flirtatious banter about the relative merits of Kendrick Lamar and Drake, the swoony romanticism is captivating all the way to the last moment.

Rae (who also co-produced) plays Mae, an art curator mourning the recent death of her mother, Cristina (Chanté Adams), a talented photographer who was, as she describes herself in a video interview, better at taking pictures than at love. Rae is sorting through her mother’s things, assembling a retrospective exhibit of her work. And she is sorting through her feelings about her mother, already complicated, with additional complications coming from a letter to “my Mae” she left behind. Cynthia’s instructions were for Mae to read the letter before delivering a second sealed letter to her father.

Stanfield, always a most thoughtful and charismatic actor, plays Michael, a reporter who happens on Cristina’s photos when he interviews a man who knew her before she left him and her home in Louisiana for a career in New York. He meets Mae when he is researching a story about Cynthia’s life. Stanfield played the break-up boyfriend in the popular Netflix films “Someone Great” and “The Incredible Jessica James,” (along with memorable appearances in “Short Term 12,” “Atlanta,” and “Sorry to Bother You””). He gets to be the romantic lead here, and his performance beautifully conveys his character’s confidence and vulnerability, and his immediate connection to Mae.

Both Mae and Michael are hurting from recent break-ups. And Michael has applied for a job in London, so that makes it difficult to start a new relationship in New York. But as always, the real obstacle to romance is the struggle between the yearning for intimacy, for truly knowing and being known, and the fear of exactly that. It may be lonely to be single, but it is safe, or it feels that way. “I’m comfortable” being unhappy and jaded, one of them says.

We go back in time from the present-day story of Mae and Michael to see the story of young Cristina and Isaac (Rob Morgan in present day, Y’lan Noel of “Insecure” in the past). They have a strong connection, but he is rooted in Louisiana and she has ambitions that can only be realized in New York. We see Cynthia’s conflicted relationship with her own mother (a terrific Marsha Stephanie Blake). We see her resolve, even after her heart is broken when she learns she cannot expect Isaac to wait for her forever.

But the heart of the film is the romance between Mae and Michael, with a suitably gorgeous score by Robert Glasper and lush cinematography by Mark Schwartzbard. I have complained in the past about the failure to light the skin of black performers correctly, especially when there are white performers in the same scene. Schwartzbard lights them beautifully, bringing out all of the rich, golden tones of their skin. Interestingly, most of the photos taken by Cynthia that we see are black and white, striking images, but all in shades of gray. We’re told she hated having her own picture taken, but we see one, taken by Isaac, tellingly a bit out of focus. And we see her take one self-portrait, holding then-four-year-old Mae in the Louisiana house she shared with her own mother. But we never see the image. Instead, we see them ourselves, through Schwartzbard’s beautiful cinematography.

Lil Rel Howery provides (as usual) some warm humor as Michael’s brother, with the always-wonderful Teyonah Parris as his wife, and up and coming star Kelvin Harrison Jr. is excellent in a small role as an intern in Michael’s office. Along with Chelsea Peretti as Michael’s boss and Courtney B. Vance as her sympathetic father, the cast gives the central characters the context of a larger world, where we see them as real people of accomplishment and confidence who have to learn how that fits with the vulnerability of allowing themselves to need and be needed in a romantic relationship.

“The Photograph” is a beautiful story, beautifully told, filled with heart and wise about love.

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and a situation, issues of paternity, sad deaths of parents, drinking, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: Why couldn’t Christine tell her daughter the truth? What would you ask someone to get an idea of who they are?

If you like this, try: “Beyond the Lights,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Love Jones,” and “Something New”

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Drama Family Issues movie review Movies Movies Romance
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