Small moments define Oscar-nominated documentary

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Beekeeper Hatidze Muratova tends to one of her hives while a young neighbor watches in a scene from Honeyland.

By Marilyn Fais and Richard Ades

Note: Guest critic Marilyn Fais helps review Honeyland, a film from North Macedonia that has been nominated for Academy Awards in two categories: Documentary and International Feature. Directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, the film originally was meant to be a short documentary about the land surrounding a river in the country’s central region. Then the filmmakers met Hatidze Muratova, a 50-something woman eking out a living as a beekeeper, and they ultimately decided to focus their lens on her unusual life.

If you decide to see Honeyland, don’t expect any big moments, but expect to be captivated by many small moments. Taking place in a remote area of North Macedonia, the film follows one woman, Hatidze Muratova, as she goes about her subsistence life as a beekeeper.

She’s in her mid-50s and lives with her ailing mother. They have no neighbors, and it appears they’re the only people around for miles.

Then they get neighbors—a large nomadic family led by Hussein and Ljutve Sam—and the interactions that follow add new complications to Hatidze’s difficult existence. Between her reactions to these newcomers and her brief but poignant talks with her mother, viewers gain new insights into Hatidze’s life and philosophy.

In the process, they also gain insights into the challenges faced by anyone attempting to live in harmony with the natural world. These make this unusual film both intensely personal and sadly universal.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Honeyland opens Feb. 7 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus.

Russia as seen through the eyes of a Putin-hating oligarch

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Mikhail Khodorkovsky (right) faces the consequences of being on the wrong side of Vladimir Putin in Citizen K. (Zachary Martin/Greenwich)

By Richard Ades

Early in the documentary Citizen K, Mikhail Khodorkovsky recalls Russia’s own “Wild West” era. It occurred during a roughly seven-year period following the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent decline of communist authoritarianism.

The resulting legal vacuum allowed Khodorkovsky and other enterprising individuals to make their fortunes through often-shady means. It also allowed many of these so-called “gangster capitalists” to be killed for their money while Moscow turned into the “murder capital” of Europe.

Fortunately for Khodorkovsky, he managed to avoid the assassins, though he soon made an enemy who was equally ruthless: Vladimir Putin.

Written and directed by Alex Gibney, Citizen K is a history of modern Russia as seen through the eyes of Khodorkovsky, who amassed billions through his ownership of a major oil company. It describes the ways he and other self-created capitalists attempted to remake Russia for their own benefit. It also describes how Putin, once an out-of-work KGB agent, rose to power by appealing to people’s nostalgia for Soviet power and influence.

Finally, it explains how Khodorkovsky and others found themselves working at cross-purposes with Putin, putting a target on their backs. Some are alleged to have paid for this with their lives. In Khodorkovsky’s case, he was put on trial for financial crimes and ended up spending 10 years in a remote prison.

Majestically photographed by cinematographers Mark Garrett and Denis Sinyakov, with an equally grand score by Robert Logan and Ivor Guest, Citizen K is an impressive piece of filmmaking. It’s also an invaluable history lesson for any who want to understand how Russia became the dangerous adversary it is today—and why President Trump’s apparent failure to recognize that fact is so concerning.

If there’s one thing the documentary lacks, it’s someone to root for.

The thousands of stories based on America’s lawless Wild West generally gave us a hero who showed up to save the day. In this tale of Russia’s “Wild West” and its aftermath, it’s hard to decide whether our protagonist deserves that label.

In an archival interview, a young Khodorkovsky proudly admits that greed is his chief motivator. Other historic footage makes it clear that he was willing to lay off thousands to achieve his financial goals. It’s even suggested that he may have resorted to tactics such as bombings or murder.

Only later, after being released from prison, does Khodorkovsky take on a task that doesn’t seem entirely self-serving: From his new home in the UK, he funds efforts to promote democracy in his homeland. That does seem heroic.

By this point in the film, however, we’ve learned enough about the way “politics” work in Putin’s Russia to suspect that it’s also a quixotic exercise in futility.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Citizen K opens Feb. 7 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus.

Soulful performances elevate cartoon-based musical

Jake Levy (Dmitry) and Lila Coogan (Anya) in National Tour of ANASTASIA. Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade
Dmitry (Jake Levy) tutors amnesiac Anya (Lila Coogan) in the national tour of Anastasia. (Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade)

By Richard Ades

An orphan’s attempt to reclaim her royal identity leads to many glorious moments in Anastasia. True, there are other moments that are less than glorious, but the touring version of the Broadway musical makes up for them with fine performances and eye-catching scenery.

Opening on Broadway in 2017, Anastasia is based on the 1997 animated film, which itself was based on the popular legend that one young member of the Russian royal family—Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna—escaped being executed during the 1917 revolution.

The stage show keeps the film’s half-dozen Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty songs and adds several more. With a book by playwright Terrence McNally, it also replaces the flick’s supernatural villain, Rasputin, with Gleb, a Bolshevik army officer assigned to make sure the missing Anastasia never reappears.

Otherwise, the story remains the same: The grown-up orphan, now known as Anya and suffering from amnesia, is taken under the wings of two rapscallions determined to pawn her off as the real Anastasia in order to collect a reward from her aging “nana” in Paris. What they don’t know, of course, is that she actually is the real Anastasia.

The spark that brings this fanciful story to life is provided by its leads, who find relatable depth under the direction of Darko Tresnjak.

Lila Coogan is an endearing combination of stoicism, desperation and pluck as Anya, while Jake Levy is calculating yet decent as Dmitry, whose tutelage of the street sweeper eventually awakens feelings he tries to ignore. Both actors also sing beautifully, making the most of catchy tunes like “Journey to the Past” (Anya’s Act 1 closer) and even songs that are far less memorable.

Rounding out the top three leads, Edward Staudenmayer is engagingly outgoing as Vlad, who once masqueraded as royalty and now is Dmitry’s partner in the scheme to defraud a royal. Speaking of whom, Joy Franz brings dignity, warmth and a sweetly wavering voice to the role of the Dowager Empress, who is desperate to learn whether the rumors of her granddaughter’s survival are true.

The only prominent character who never quite gels is army officer Gleb, but it’s not entirely actor Jason Michael Evans’s fault. The Bolshevik is given the Javert-like task of chasing after Anya and even killing her if she turns out to be the real Anastasia, but he’s also saddled with so many mixed motivations that it’s hard to see him as a bona fide threat.

5 - Lila Coogan (Anya) in the National Tour of ANASTASIA. Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade.
Anya (Lila Coogan) celebrates her arrival in the City of Light. (Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade)

Some of the musical’s most visually impressive moments benefit from Donald Holder’s lighting design, Alexander Dodge’s scenic design and Aaron Rhyne’s projection design. (The latter won the original production’s only major awards.) Together, they create beautiful stage pictures depicting everything from a royal ball to a cross-country train trip.

Some of the less impressive elements may remind viewers of earlier works that were more effective. Besides the Javert-lite Gleb, there’s the Act 1 hymn to Russia, “Stay, I Pray You,” which calls up powerful moments from Fiddler on the Roof and Miss Saigon. Then there’s the comedy number “The Countess and the Common Man,” in which Vlad and former fling Lily (Alison Ewing) rekindle their romance with moves so reminiscent of old Carol Burnett-Harvey Korman skits that the show probably should pay royalties. (Full disclosure: Tuesday’s opening night audience ate it up.)

Being based on a less-than-great animated film, it’s not really surprising that Anastasia is a less-than-great musical. What is surprising is how often its cast and technical wizards turn it into a mesmerizing theatrical experience.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Anastasia through Feb. 2 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $31.50-$124+ (regular or verified resale). 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Different century, same misery

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Three plain-clothes cops (Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti and Djibril Zonga, from left) patrol a poor Parisian neighborhood in Les Misérables. (SRAB Films/Rectangle Productions/Lyly Films)

By Richard Ades

As Les Misérables opens, a group of dark-skinned youths joyfully celebrate France’s 2018 World Cup championship by taking part in a public event that includes a mass rendition of “La Marseillaise.” Director Ladj Ly’s apparent message: Despite being immigrants or the children of immigrants, the boys consider themselves just as French as those around them.

As Ly’s camera follows them back to their segregated Parisian neighborhood, however, we realize they don’t enjoy the same opportunities as their countrymen. This isn’t Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables—there’s no Jean Valjean, no Javert, no idealistic revolutionaries. But there’s more than enough injustice to light the fuse of revolt, just as it did in Hugo’s tale.

The question is: Will it? Leading up to the answer is a harrowing dive into the lives of modern-day immigrants.

The Malian-born Ly, directing and co-writing his first full-length film, doesn’t create a one-sided portrait of discrimination. Those who take advantage of the local residents include a racist white cop named Chris (Alexis Manenti), but they also include the neighborhood’s black “Mayor” (Steve Tientchev), who uses his power to line his own pockets. There’s also a group of thugs who consort with the police to further their illegal activities.

We’re introduced to the resulting cauldron of resentment through the eyes of newcomer Stephane (Damien Bonnard), a divorced cop who’s moved to Paris to be closer to his young son. He’s assigned to ride along with Chris and his Malian-French partner, Gwada (Djibril Zonga), and soon becomes appalled by the liberties Chris takes with residents—for example, finding excuses to body-search teenage girls.

But before he can decide how to respond, Stephane and the others are thrown into the middle of potentially explosive situation brought on by a seemingly small crime: the theft of a lion cub from a traveling circus. This brings them into contact with two local boys—the trouble-prone Issa (Issa Perica) and the drone-flying Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly)—as well as a devout Muslim restaurateur named Salah (Almamy Kanoute). Thus begins a chain of events that results in unforeseen consequences for all concerned.

Why name this contemporary tale Les Misérables? That’s spelled out when the film ends with a quote from Hugo: “There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”

Viewers may quibble about whether Ly has proved the maxim, just as they may differ on whether it should win the “International Feature Film” Oscar for which it’s been nominated. (Probably not, as South Korea’s Parasite seems a worthy shoo-in.) But they’re likely to agree that Ly has created an exciting cautionary tale and an impressive full-length debut.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Les Misérables (rated R) opens Jan. 24 at the Drexel Theatre and Gateway Film Center.

‘Dolittle’ does too much, and none of it well

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The title physician (Robert Downey Jr., right) sets sail with a timid gorilla (Rami Malek) and other animal friends in Dolittle.

By Richard Ades

Talking animals are fun. Robert Downey Jr. is fun. When they’re combined in Dolittle, though, they seem to cancel each other out.

Maybe it’s because the CGI critters steal the spotlight from Downey’s title character. Or maybe it’s because Downey is so preoccupied managing a melodic Welsh accent that he has trouble bringing his character to life.

Then again, maybe it’s because director Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) and his committee of co-writers try to do too much. After beginning to tell the touching tale of a doctor who’s avoided human contact since losing his beloved wife, they bury it under a busy plot involving royal intrigue, an aspiring apprentice, a vengeful father and even a dragon with dyspepsia.

Along the way, the doctor gets upstaged by a host of animals with assorted quirks and phobias: among others, a gorilla who’s always afraid (Rami Malek), a polar bear who’s always cold (John Cena), an ostrich who hides from reality (Kumail Nanjiani) and a squirrel who carries a grudge (Craig Robinson). All of these psychological challenges are played for laughs that seldom come.

Example: While discussing absent fathers with an animal friend, the polar bear recalls that one night his own dad went out for a “pack of seals” and never returned. At the screening I attended, the joke failed to elicit so much as a chuckle, even from those old enough to understand it.

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Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) becomes an admirer of Dr. Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) after asking him to heal a wounded squirrel.

The busy plot is set in motion when two young people coincidentally arrive at Dolittle’s British animal hospital/preserve at the same time. Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) wants the doctor to heal the aforementioned squirrel, whom he accidentally shot; and Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) wants him to travel to Buckingham Palace to treat Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), who has come down with a mysterious illness.

Urged on by his maternalistic parrot pal (Emma Thompson), Dolittle reluctantly agrees to both requests. The latter ultimately sends him and his friends across the ocean and into a series of perils involving the dastardly Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent), the vicious King Rassouli (Antonio Bandaras) and a really pissed-off tiger (Ralph Fiennes). Unfortunately, the resulting action scenes are filmed so haphazardly that they’re likely to leave viewers as unmoved as the film’s feeble attempts at comedy.

Under any circumstances, Dolittle would be a disappointment. Considering it boasts a huge cast of top-tier actors and an even bigger budget (reportedly $175 million), it’s a disappointment of monumental proportions.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

Dolittle (PG) opens Jan. 16 or 17 at theaters nationwide.

‘Parasite’ occupies top spot at 18th annual Columbus Film Critics Association awards

Columbus Film Critics Association logo

Director/co-writer Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (Gisaengchung) has been named Best Film in the Columbus Film Critics Association’s 18th annual awards, which recognize excellence in the film industry for 2019. The thrilling film about a struggling family that schemes to obtain lucrative jobs in a wealthy household also claimed three other awards. Parasite was named Best Foreign Language Film, and Bong was honored as Best Director and for Best Original Screenplay with his co-writer Han Jin-won.

Two other individuals won multiple awards. Adam Driver was named Best Actor for Marriage Story and Actor of the Year, which recognizes his exemplary 2019 body of work that also consists of The Dead Don’t Die, The Report and Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker. Florence Pugh was tabbed as Best Supporting Actress for Little Women and Breakthrough Film Artist for her performance in that film as well as in Fighting With My Family and Midsommar.

Columbus-area critics lauded Best Film runner-up Knives Out with Best Ensemble and Bob Ducsay for Best Film Editing. Us also won two awards with Lupita Nyong’o selected as Best Actress and Michael Abels honored for Best Score. In addition to Pugh’s Best Supporting Actress win, Little Women’s other prize went to Greta Gerwig for Best Adapted Screenplay. Other individuals commended for their achievements include Best Supporting Actor Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse) and Roger Deakins (1917) for Best Cinematography.

Other winners were: Best Documentary Apollo 11; Best Animated Film Toy Story 4; and Best Overlooked Film The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

Founded in 2002, the Columbus Film Critics Association, formerly the Central Ohio Film Critics Association, comprises film critics based in Columbus, Ohio, and its surrounding areas. Its membership consists of 28 print, radio, television and online critics. COFCA’s official website at www.cofca.org contains links to member reviews and past award winners.

Winners were announced at a private party on Jan. 2.

Complete list of awards:

Best Film
1. Parasite (Gisaengchung)
2. Knives Out
3. 1917
4. Little Women
5. Marriage Story
6. The Farewell
7. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
8. The Irishman
9. Uncut Gems
10. Jojo Rabbit

Best Director
-Bong Joon-ho, Parasite (Gisaengchung)
-Runner-up: Sam Mendes, 1917

Best Actor
-Adam Driver, Marriage Story
-Runner-up: Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems

Best Actress
-Lupita Nyong’o, Us
-Runner-up: Florence Pugh, Midsommar

Best Supporting Actor
-Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse
-Runner-up: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

Best Supporting Actress
-Florence Pugh, Little Women
-Runner-up: Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit

Best Ensemble
Knives Out
-Runner-up: Parasite (Gisaengchung)

Actor of the Year (for an exemplary body of work)
-Adam Driver (The Dead Don’t Die, Marriage Story, The Report and Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker)
-Runner-up: Florence Pugh (Fighting with My Family, Little Women and Midsommar)

Breakthrough Film Artist
-Florence Pugh (Fighting with My Family, Little Women and Midsommar) – (for acting)
-Runner-up: Joe Talbot, The Last Black Man in San Francisco – (for directing, producing and screenwriting)

Best Cinematography
-Roger Deakins, 1917
-Runner-up: Jarin Blaschke, The Lighthouse

Best Film Editing
-Bob Ducsay, Knives Out
-Runner-up: Lee Smith, 1917

Best Adapted Screenplay
-Greta Gerwig, Little Women
-Runner-up: Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit

Best Original Screenplay
-Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won, Parasite (Gisaengchung)
-Runner-up: Rian Johnson, Knives Out

Best Score
-Michael Abels, Us
-Runner-up: Thomas Newman, 1917

Best Documentary
Apollo 11
-Runner-up: American Factory

Best Foreign Language Film
Parasite (Gisaengchung)
-Runner-up: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

Best Animated Film
Toy Story 4
-Runner-up: I Lost My Body (J’ai perdu mon corps)

Best Overlooked Film
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
-Runner-up: Ready or Not

COFCA offers its congratulations to the winners.

Previous Best Film winners:

2002: Punch-Drunk Love
2003: Lost in Translation
2004: Million Dollar Baby
2005: A History of Violence
2006: Children of Men
2007: No Country for Old Men
2008: WALL·E
2009: Up in the Air
2010: Inception
2011: Drive
2012: Moonrise Kingdom
2013: Gravity
2014: Selma
2015: Spotlight
2016: La La Land
2017: Lady Bird
2018: If Beale Street Could Talk

For more information about the Columbus Film Critics Association, please visit www.cofca.orgor e-mail info@cofca.org.

Dramatization of real-life scandal could be better

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Megyn Kelly, Gretchen Carlson and Kayla Pospisil (Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie, from left) share an elevator ride in Bombshell. (Lionsgate)

By Richard Ades

Bombshell isn’t a complete dud, but neither is it as effective as it could be. Perhaps that’s because it spreads too little explosive power over too wide an area.

The flick is designed as an expose of Fox News and particularly of the sexual-harassment charges that in 2016 brought down chairman and CEO Roger Ailes. On the way there, however, it stops to explain such things as how Fox and President Donald J. Trump became joined at the hip, and why the network’s women journalists tend to be pretty blondes in short skirts.

It also attempts to tell a tale of feminist empowerment, but its ability to inspire is stymied by the fact that most of the female characters display more loyalty to their careers than to each other. Further weakening the message is the film’s tone, which wanders haphazardly between drama and spoofery.

Maybe director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers) was not the right person to helm this ambitious take on a real-life scandal. Or maybe Charles Randolph was not the right person to write it, even though he co-wrote a much better historical expose, 2015’s The Big Short.

But the cast, at least, is perfect.

Particularly laudable is Charlize Theron’s impersonation of Megyn Kelly, whose questioning of Trump’s misogynistic tendencies during a 2015 presidential debate made her the target of his unquenchable fury. Kelly serves as the story’s main narrator, which is a mixed blessing.

As a prominent Fox talent, she is well-suited to explaining the company’s power structure, including the fact that Ailes ultimately answers to owner Rupert Murdoch and his sons. But, like her real-life counterpart, Theron’s Kelly is difficult to like. When the scandal begins unfolding, she reacts as the lawyer she is, refusing to get involved until she’s had a chance to weigh the evidence—and the risk to herself.

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Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) takes a walk with her boss, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). (Photo by Hilary B Gayle)

More relatable is fellow newswoman Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who is fired after doing such un-Fox-like things as appearing on air without makeup and calling for assault weapons to be banned. She subsequently sues Ailes for sexual harassment and surprised to find that none of his other victims is eager to follow her lead.

Those other victims include Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), an ambitious producer and self-described “evangelical millennial” who receives a first-hand lesson in Ailes’s tendency to hide sexual innuendo under a demand that she prove her “loyalty.” (Kayla, one of the story’s few fictional characters, is said to be based on several former Fox employees.)

The decrepit Ailes himself is played by a barely recognizable John Lithgow as an executive who has been manipulating women for so long that he seems genuinely surprised when his behavior becomes a legal matter.

Bombshell reveals several interesting historical tidbits, including the antipathy that Fox’s bigwigs originally held for the upstart Trump. It also includes a few laughs, though they don’t always work to the film’s benefit.

When Kayla falls into bed with co-worker Jess Carr (SNL’s Kate McKinnon), their relationship is defined by light banter that makes no attempt to explain why the evangelical Kayla has so little trouble squaring lesbian sex with her religious beliefs.

Other laughs are engendered by the appearance of stand-ins for rascally celebrities such as Rudy Giuliani (Richard Kind) and Geraldo Rivera (Tony Plana). In such cases, the movie’s uncanny impersonations undermine the story by shoving it unceremoniously into spoof territory.

Bombshell benefits from a strong cast and a subject that is both timely and fascinating. If it hadn’t been weakened by so-so execution, it might have lived up to its name.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Bombshell (rated R) opens Dec. 20 at theaters nationwide.