Teenage nerd reinvents herself in spirited British comedy

“How to Build a Girl” publicity still
Dolly Wilde, aka Joanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein), shares a musical moment with rock star John Kite (Alfie Allen) in How to Build a Girl. (Photo by Sven Arnstein/IFC Films)

By Richard Ades

Reading is usually an entertaining pastime, but for English teen Johanna Morrigan it’s a road map to dissatisfaction. That’s because she suspects her life will never live up to those of her literary heroines. For one thing, no Prince Charming ever shows up to save her from her humdrum existence.

“I do not think my adventure starts with a boy,” Johanna (Booksmart’s Beanie Feldstein) concludes early on. “I think it starts with me.”

This establishes the theme for How to Build a Girl, a comedy based on Caitlin Moran’s semiautobiographical novel about a girl bent on reinventing herself. Set in the early ’90s, it follows 16-year-old Johanna as she seeks to turn her writing talent into a fulfilling career. The quest eventually leads her to a dark corner of journalism in which she savages struggling bands as a poison-pen rock critic.

(Personal note: This portion of her saga struck a few autobiographical chords for me, as I long ago turned my love of writing into a career in journalism. And though I never became a rock critic, I worked with one who became famous for his devilishly nasty putdowns. Back to the movie.)

Directed by Coky Giedroyc from a script by Moran and John Niven, How to Build a Girl mixes witty invention with infectious exuberance. It quickly introduces us to Johanna’s large family, which includes her musically frustrated dad (Paddy Considine), her worn-out mom (Sarah Solemani) and her supportive gay brother (Laurie Kynaston)—as well as a dozen or so portraits of historic and fictional figures that regularly come to life to serve as her confidants and cheerleaders.

Johanna’s big break comes when she interviews for work with a London-based pop-culture magazine and lands a freelance gig thanks to sheer pluck and determination. Remaking herself with the help of a new name (Dolly Wilde), an eccentric wardrobe and red hair dye, she’s soon having the time of her life raving about the rock scene she’s never known before. She even has her first crush after meeting soulful singer John Kite (Alfie Allen). But then she makes a fangirl misstep and is able to salvage her career only by skewering the music scene she once praised.

Heading up the strong cast, Feldstein gives Johanna an indomitable spirit and a generally convincing Midlands accent. Behind the scenes, Oli Julian plays an indispensable role as composer of the flick’s original music.

Despite its inventiveness, the script eventually leads its heroine into a clichéd predicament, while the finale leaves us with a saccharine aftertaste. For the most part, though, Johanna’s makeover journey is a delightful and inspiring ride.

Rating: 4 starts (out of 5)

How to Build a Girl (rated R) opens May 8 at VOD outlets.

 

Girl meets rodeo veteran in tale of teenage desperation

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Amber Havard plays Kris, a troubled Texas teen with hopes of becoming a bull rider. (Photos courtesy of Samuel Goldwin Films)

By Richard Ades

Tough but touching, Bull is the story of a girl’s coming of age amid the direst of conditions. It’s also the story of her unlikely relationship with an aging rodeo performer, as well as a window into a subculture most of us know nothing about.

Kris (Amber Havard) is a 14-year-old living on the outskirts of Houston with her grandmother and younger sister while she waits for her mother to serve out a prison term. Mostly left on her own, she has a tendency to get into the kind of trouble that suggests she’ll eventually follow in her mom’s self-destructive footsteps.

One such incident lands Kris on the bad side of neighbor Abe (Rob Morgan), a former rodeo bull rider who lives next door. Hobbled by years’ worth of injuries, Abe can no longer ride, but he stubbornly clings to his old life by serving as one of the daredevils who race into the ring to divert bulls’ attention away from fallen contestants.

Despite being mad at Abe for forcing her to make amends by doing chores, Kris quickly becomes fascinated by his former occupation. When she sees him training teenage boys how to ride bulls, she begs him to let her try and soon seizes on bull riding as her ticket to a better life.

That sounds like the making of a happy, not to mention sappy, ending, but director/co-writer Annie Silverstein has no intention of giving her characters easy solutions. Abe and Kris are too complicated for that, as are their problems.

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Despite his injuries, Abe (Rob Morgan) still clings to the rodeo, where he was once a successful competitor.

Abe is too bitter over life’s setbacks to willingly serve as Kris’s surrogate father, and she’s not looking for one anyway. She clearly craves male companionship, but—perhaps taking after her mother—she appears to be drawn to “bad boys.”

She first gloms onto a mischief-making teen named Daryl (Reece McClure), but she soon transfers her attention to Billy (Steven Boyd), an adult who turns out to be just as unscrupulous as he seems. Savvy performances by leads Morgan and Havard, sensitively captured by director Silverstein, make the consequences both harrowing and moving.

Though they’re very different films, it’s hard not to compare Bull with Chloe Zhao’s The Rider (2017). Each exposes us to a part of Western culture that’s often overlooked—Native American cowboys in the earlier film, black cowboys in this one. And each deals with a man whose health challenges keep him from plying his chosen career.

Both films are great, but Bull gets the edge due to its absorbing tale of two lonely people who need each other far more than they’re willing to admit.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Bull opens May 1 through VOD outlets. The film is not rated but contains rough language and brief instances of sexual content, nudity and drug use.

Future mime’s battle to thwart the Nazis

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Jesse Eisenberg as Marcel Marceau in Resistance (Pantaleon Films)

By Richard Ades

There may be no performing artist who’s despised and ridiculed more than the mime. But maybe after seeing Resistance, people will start to give these silent storytellers the benefit of the doubt.

The World War II thriller focuses on that most famous mime of all time, Marcel Marceau, and reveals that he definitely had a story to tell, though he mostly kept to himself. It turns out that back when he was coming of age in occupied France, Marceau joined the Resistance and was instrumental in helping hundreds of Jewish children escape the Holocaust.

It’s a fascinating and unique story, despite the fact that writer/director Jonathan Jacubowicz fails to tell it in a manner that’s fascinating or unique—or even very believable.

True, we’re used to reality-based tales taking liberties with the facts in order to ramp up the drama (the bullet-riddled escape from Iran in Argo comes to mind). But Resistance is filled with so many clichés and cliffhangers that we start to doubt virtually everything we see. Just to take one: Did Marceau’s father, a butcher, really oppose his son’s desire to be an actor, or is that simply Jacubowicz’s attempt to add the kind of parent-child tension that invariably leads to a moving reconciliation?

Further feeding our doubts, the movie casts 36-year-old Jesse Eisenberg as Marceau, even though he was actually a teenager at the time. You may or may not feel Eisenberg is able to shed his usual persona and do a convincing job here (I’m not impressed), but it doesn’t help that the movie depicts Marceau as years older than he really was. You have to wonder what else is made up.

Another weakness: Despite focusing on someone who came to personify mime—a craft that calls on viewers to use their imagination—Resistance seems determined to spoon-feed us information.

Just in case we don’t know what the Holocaust was, the first scene shows a soon-to-be-orphaned Jewish girl (Bella Ramsey) asking her parents, “Why do they hate us?” And just in case we don’t know that the Nazis were evil, the film periodically cuts away from Marceau to show vicious Gestapo agent Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer) methodically shooting, beating or torturing people. For the record, Barbie was a real-life monster, but Schweighofer’s version comes off as the kind of psychopathic sadist who could just as easily double as the villain in a run-of-the-mill melodrama.

Despite all these problems, the film does succeed on some levels. The cast—including Clemence Poesy as Marceau’s love interest and fellow Resistance fighter, Emma—is good enough to make us care about the people trying to survive and oppose the Nazis’ reign of terror. As a result, viewers who are able to overlook the film’s excesses will watch many scenes in a heightened state of tension.

But the film’s real value lies in its revelation of the heroism displayed by a well-known figure and many others in response to the 20th century’s greatest evil. It provides the kind of inspiration that’s welcome now that we need all the heroes we can find.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Resistance (rated R for bloodless but troubling violence) opens March 27 at VOD outlets.

 

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.