Quick Reviews: “The Hero” “Little Hours” “Band-Aid” “Maudie” “Columbus” “Whose Streets” “Norman”

By | December 18, 2017

Some final reviews of indie character studies (some are gems, others not) before delving into films currently in theaters that more people care about…

The Hero…In a just world, the great Sam Elliot would be a serious Best Actor contender for what is some of his finest screen work here. In the world we live in, neither he or “The Big Sick”‘s Kumail Nanjiani are likely to get nominated over less deserving Best Actor contenders in an unusually weak year for that category. Still, lucky viewers can still find Elliot’s superlative work (as an aging Western star slowly waking up due to a cancer diagnosis and an unlikely—even to him—relationship with Laura Prepon’s soulful comedienne) on DVD or Hulu, and I highly recommend checking this out, and staying with it through the (deliberately) slow beginning until the ending–which is absolutely perfect. One of the most subtly moving small gems of the year. Grade: A

Little Hours…This looks like irony-soaked hipster trash in comparison, but it is a kick to watch cutting-edge millennials like Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza wear period-nun outfits and abuse “peeping Tom” workers that haven’t actually done anything wrong. There’s a message buried in here about how societal (and religious) repression can simmer and manifest into bursts of violence, but this film seems almost afraid of its own ideas, constantly pulling back. And the ending between John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon’s characters is sweet and uplifting, but a little unearned considering we’ve barely seen them in the movie that preceded it. Grade: C+

Band-Aid…How much you enjoy this movie (about a couple that turns their fights into songs) will largely depend on how much you enjoy the romantic pairing of Zoe Lister-Jones and Adam Pally. I found them to have a creepily sibling-like vibe that pretty much took me out of the movie, and really undercut how invested I was in seeing them work out their problems. And it doesn’t help that–for me–the songs weren’t that good or memorable. There’s a small scene with “Curb Your Enthusiasm”‘s great Susie Essman where she explains the difference in male and female thinking that really works, although the fact that this is one of the few scenes Pally and Lister-Jones don’t share together only underscores the film’s central problem. Grade: C-

Maudie…It’s been a big year for Sally Hawkins, an almost certain Best Actress nominee for “The Shape of Water,” and if she wins, people may be partly rewarding her fantastic work here as Maud Lewis, Canadian folk artist who practically stumbles into artistic recognition by painting beautiful cards that her nearest and dearest seem surprised sell as well as they do. This is a light film about a heavy subject matter: “Maud”‘s employer and eventual husband (played by Ethan Hawke) is an occasionally abusive, soul-crushing grouch (at least at first), and her family sounds casually horrific, including a brother that sells her baby without her knowledge (he tells her it died early on from being malformed), but still presents himself as a respectable good guy. To say that you’re rooting for Maud is an understatement, but it’s not until the film’s second act (and Maud’s artistic success) that things begin to get a little more interesting, and whether or not you make it that far may depend on how intrigued you are to see Hawke (usually the loosest, freest actor in a scene) play a repressed, sour workaholic. Grade: B

Columbus…I hate to go against the critical consensus—actually, no I don’t—but this patience-trying indie set in Columbus Indiana (of all places, and if you care about the difference between that place and Columbus, Ohio you’ll be one of the 50 non-film critics that will love this film) is too quiet and uninvolving by half. John Cho’s scholar (who lives and works in Korea but is from America) comes to this small, architecture-heavy town to grieve over his estranged architect father—not dead but on life support in a hospital—but strikes up a relationship with a young girl who dreams of becoming an architect. It’s a touch of originality that the film is centered around architects, but you may soon discover why more films don’t center around them: the phrase “modernism” is dropped into conversations more casually and frequently than any non-architect could reasonably find interesting. And too much of the movie is spent waiting for moments that don’t arrive, like a long-planned dream building that sits half finished. Grade: C

Whose Streets…Before Ferguson, Missouri, Trayvon Martin, and the other (filmed) police shootings that started the “Black Lives Matter” movement, police militarization was one of the most stealthily ignored issues of our time. [Police tanks and small town SWAT teams just became the norm seemingly overnight.] And if you’re like me, you may still be waiting for a documentary half as good for that issue as the doc “The House I Live In” was for over-incarceration and the prison industrial complex. “Whose Streets” is a fly-on-the-wall account of Ferguson protests, riots, and the near martial-law that was imposed on the town (curfew included) following. It doesn’t provide much context at all—Michael Brown’s name is mentioned often, but you won’t learn much about him other than how he died—and at least a few of the featured protesters (like a single mom that says she dropped out of school to protest more fully, teaches her very young daughter how the system is rigged against black people, and stages a protest on a busy highway seemingly hoping someone gets run over) seem a little too addicted to the stage show and pageantry of protesting over affecting actual change. [One man admits he’s never voted and criticizes Obama, saying “I’m still waiting on a real black President” but many of the people he’s protesting are elected officials the majority-black citizens of Ferguson could probably vote out.] Grade: C

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer…Richard Gere now mostly has to star in indies, after getting black-balled out of most major Hollywood films by China (who resent Gere’s criticism of their handling of Tibet), but “Norman” is better than most of his recent offerings. It’s about a Jewish-American “fixer” who tries to attach himself to the rising star of an Israeli politician that eventually becomes Prime Minister. The supporting characters are just so-so, but Gere practically breaks your heart as Norman, a barely-connected guy whose entire business is based on connections. [The scene where he is relieved to get seated at an exclusive dinner party, only to be forced to leave only moments later is both triumphant and devastating.] You’re rooting for Norman to get a taste of the good life, even if it’s not entirely clear what business he’s in or even if Norman is crazy (certain parts of the film are a little vague as to whether Norman even has a business or is just a homeless striver). Grade: B+

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