Overheard honesty threatens marital bliss

Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) tries to drown her sorrows in You Hurt My Feelings. (Photos by Jeong Park)

By Richard Ades

When a couple exchanges wedding vows, they promise to love and cherish each other, among other things. What they generally don’t promise is to be honest with each other.

Whether or not that’s a good thing is a topic writer-director Nicole Holofcener takes up in her entertaining and chuckle-worthy new film, You Hurt My Feelings.

Long-married New Yorkers Beth and Don (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies) love and support each other to a fault—the fault being that they occasionally express that support by telling little white lies.

When Don gives Beth earrings as an anniversary present, she greets them with such forced enthusiasm that it’s obvious she doesn’t like them. And when Beth reciprocates by giving Don a V-neck sweater, his disappointment is equally clear because his first comment is, “Oh, a V-neck.” (As all fans of Louis-Dreyfus’s former series, Seinfeld, know, saying the name of a gift after you open it is a sure sign you didn’t want it.)

All this is no big deal, right? When you’re in a relationship, telling the occasional little white lie can help you avoid hurt feelings or unnecessary friction.

But then Beth catches Don in a lie that doesn’t seem so little: She overhears him admitting to his brother-in-law that, even though he’s told Beth he loves the novel she’s been working on for the past two years, he actually hates it.

Beth is hurt and humiliated, telling sister and fellow eavesdropper Sarah (Michaela Watkins), “I can’t look him in the face ever again.” Sarah tries to soften the blow by admitting she tells actor-husband Mark (Arian Moayed) that he’s more talented than he actually is, but it seems the damage is done.

This unfortunate incident comes to dominate the flick, as well as supplying its title, but it’s actually just one of several examples of the fragile egos and self-doubts that afflict all the major characters.

Aspiring novelist Beth worries she won’t be able to duplicate the success of her previous work, a memoir about growing up with an abusive father. (Not that the memoir was as successful as it might have been if her father hadn’t been just verbally abusive, she muses ruefully.)

Therapist Don (Tobias Menzies) has trouble keeping his clients’ backstories straight.

Don, a therapist who seems to be chronically tired, has trouble keeping his clients straight, and he worries that he’s not helping them get any better. Sarah, an interior designer, has similar fears about pleasing her clients, while Mark suspects he’s really not such a great actor.

Finally, there’s Beth and Don’s 23-year-old son, Eliot (Owen Teague), who’s working on a play that he fears is no good, while dating a woman who he worries will break up with him.

My one quibble with the way all this trauma is acted out is that Louis-Dreyfus falls back on her old Elaine Benes mannerisms at one or two inopportune moments. Otherwise, everyone’s great, including the several supporting actors who play Mark’s eccentric and generally dissatisfied clients.

With its New York setting, sardonic wit and neurotic characters, You Hurt My Feelings may strike some as a lighter, gentler version of early Woody Allen. But Holofcener is really doing her own thing with this portrait of everyday worries and squabbles, giving viewers a breezily pleasant hour and a half in the process.

Rating; 4 stars (out of 5)

You Hurt My Feelings (rated R) opens May 26 in select theaters.

Faith community faces unwelcome intruder: sex

Jem (Eliza Scanlen, second from left) enjoys expressing her faith through liturgical dance. (Photo by Brian Lannin/courtesy of Bleecker Street)

By Richard Ades

Years ago, I was visiting a family of fundamentalist Christians in another state when a group of local feminists held a topless protest. A news crew went out to cover the event, and one of the protesters ended up on the evening newscast (from the neck up) explaining what they were protesting about.

Watching the interview on TV that night, the matriarch of my host family clearly was not impressed by what the woman had to say. “You can tell she just wants attention,” she said dismissively.

The comment left me with the immediate thought: “What’s wrong with that? Doesn’t everybody want attention?” But I quickly realized, “Oh, it’s a fundamentalist thing.” Apparently seeking attention was considered sinful in that culture—especially, I guessed, if you’re a woman.

The incident came rushing back to me after watching The Starling Girl, writer/director Laurel Parmet’s debut film about coming of age in a fundamentalist community. It revolves around Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen), a 17-year-old Kentuckian who’s devoted to God and her faith. She especially loves expressing her faith through the liturgical dances she performs at services along with a handful of other girls.

After one such performance, however, her mother (Wrenn Schmidt) undermines her joy by pointing out that she’d immodestly allowed the outline of her bra to show through her dance costume. Later, adding to her daughter’s perceived sins, the mother asks whether Jem dances “for God or for vanity.”

Or, as my long-ago host would have put it, “The girl just wants attention.”

Growing up in a restrictive religious community can be tough, and it becomes even tougher when you’re a teenager whose hormones are awakening urges you’ve been taught to suppress. Jem is critical of a boy who’s been sent away to have the sin beaten out of him after he was caught looking at online porn. But she soon faces challenges of her own.

Her parents want to arrange a courtship and eventual marriage to their pastor’s younger son, Ben (Austin Abrams), an awkward boy who thinks barnyard diarrhea is an appropriate topic for a first date. Jem, though, is more interested in Ben’s older brother, Owen (Lewis Pullman), a future pastor who’s just returned from mission work in Puerto Rico. She’s so interested, in fact, that she engineers excuses to be around him, ignoring the inconvenient fact that he’s married.

As it turns out, Owen’s marriage is not a happy one, and he’s not averse to giving his young admirer the attention she so desperately wants. The result is a situation for which Jem’s upbringing has left her totally unprepared.

Competently acted, and naturalistically written and directed by Parmet, The Starling Girl offers a searing portrait of Jem’s difficult life. Though the filmmaker tries to leave her with a slim ray of hope, it’s less convincing than the film’s indictment of the intolerance and injustice that flourish when religion tries to overrule human nature.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Starling Girl (rated R) opens May 25 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus, with wider distribution to follow.

Preserving film history one frame at a time

By Richard Ades

The worst job I ever had was working in a motion picture lab in the late 1970s. Not only did I spent much of my time trapped in a dark room with very pungent chemicals, but I sometimes had the difficult task of copying old, shrunken films that had to be coaxed through our machinery.  

Too bad I couldn’t have seen Film: The Living Record of Our Memory back then. It would have allowed me to feel some pride in the small role I was playing in the massive (and massively difficult) effort to preserve our cinematic history.

Spanish director Ines Toharia Teran’s documentary is about the worldwide quest to save films that otherwise would be lost due to chemical degradation, disasters and other causes.

It’s a quest that began in spite of the early film studios, we’re told, as they thought of movies as commercial products rather than works of art or historical documents that needed to be preserved. In fact, flicks that had already made the theatrical rounds were often destroyed to recover the silver in the film stock, thus helping to pay for future productions.

An additional preservation complication: Early film stock was composed of nitrate, which was dangerously inflammable. If it ever caught on fire, not even water could extinguish the flames.

The documentary tells us that the result of this danger and neglect is that 80 percent of all silent films are likely gone forever, along with half of all the “talkies” ever made.

Film is not a tragedy, however, but an account of the heroes who have devoted themselves to protecting film history. Numerous preservationists and other cinematic experts from around the world talk about the challenges they face—such as trying to reconstruct a formerly “lost” film by splicing together the least-degraded frames from various recovered prints.

Why go to all this trouble? Because otherwise we’ll lose pieces of art that help to define our cultural history. And sometimes we’ll lose pieces of actual history, as in the case of home movies and other nonfiction films that depict scenes from the Holocaust and other world tragedies.

At nearly two wide-ranging hours, Film will be of most interest to those who care about cinema’s past, present and future.

Does it bother you that Alfred Hitchcock’s 1926 film The Mountain Eagle may never be seen again? Is it important to you that people be able to watch the early works of India’s Satyajit Ray, or the many independent films that depict Africa’s anti-colonial struggles?

Do you want such influential flicks as Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment to be available to future cinema lovers?

If so, the documentary will be two hours well spent.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Film: The Living Record of Our Memory opened May 5 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus, with additional screenings planned May 8-9 in Los Angeles, May 11-14 in St. Louis, May 20 in San Francisco and May 21 in Cleveland. The film will be available through VOD outlets beginning May 16.

Pushing Native American stereotypes from the field of play

The struggle to rid the sports arena of Native American stereotypes includes rallies such as this one in Phoenix, Ariz.

By Richard Ades

I like to think journalists are a pretty smart group overall, but then I remember the newsroom argument I got embroiled in years ago over the football team then known as the Washington Redskins.

To me, the name seemed obviously racist, but a co-worker jumped to its defense. “How do you know it doesn’t refer to potatoes?” he said, trying to make light of the issue. “Because,” I replied, “then the team’s mascot would be Mr. Potato Head.”

Sadly, my co-worker was far from alone in his reluctance to question “Redskins” or the many other team names and mascots based on Native American culture. Many sports fans just can’t understand why even seemingly innocuous monickers like “Indians” or “Braves” can be hurtful to present-day Indians trying to escape age-old stereotypes.

The fight to rid the sports world of such names is the subject of Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting. Directed by Aviva Kempner and Ben West, the documentary interviews activists from various Native tribes and nations who have devoted years and even decades to the struggle.

One of them is Marshall McKay, former tribal chairman of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, who notes that Native American stereotypes galloped through the “cowboys and Indians” melodramas he watched growing up. Inevitably, the Indians were depicted as the bloodthirsty villains, but even when they were cast as “noble savages,” the portrayals were unrealistic and one-dimensional.

McKay points out that the entertainment industry was merely reflecting racist attitudes that were ingrained in the national psyche and led to countless atrocities and injustices toward Native people over the years. Near his own birthplace, he says, the California gold rush of the mid-19th century brought the army out to protect miners, while bounties were offered for Native American body parts.

Hence, the term “redskins” is offensive for reasons that have nothing to do with the color red.

At least Hollywood began cleaning up its act with 1990’s Dances With Wolves, which helped to usher in a new era of portraying Native characters more realistically. But in the sports world, the stereotypes lived on thanks to team names such as “Chiefs” or “Braves,” as well as in caricatured mascots such as the Cleveland baseball team’s Chief Wahoo.

Adding to the insult, fans were often encouraged to attend games wearing warpaint and headdresses, and to show their enthusiasm by participating in stereotypical antics such as the “tomahawk chop.”  

The problem with all this, according to one interviewee: “It’s not who we are today.” When Native men are stereotyped as fierce warriors and Native women as Pocahontas-style sex goddesses, it obscures the varied personalities and professions they represent in real life.

The documentary brings the issue up to date by reporting recent changes for the better. For instance, the Washington Redskins have been renamed the Commanders, while the Cleveland Indians are now the Guardians. And Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo, which one interviewee refers to as “Red Sambo,” has been retired.

But according to the documentary, nearly 2,000 teams, at every level of sports, retain their Native American-inspired names and mascots. Says one activist: “We’ve been in this fight for a very long time, and we’re not going to stop.”

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Imagining the Indian opened March 31 in New York and will expand to other cities throughout April and May. For more information visit imaginingtheindianfilm.org.

Klan veteran and Kurdish immigrant form unlikely alliance

Former Klansman Chris Buckley (left) shares a stage with Syrian refugee Heval Kelli in a scene from Refuge. (Photos by Tomesha Foxio)

By Richard Ades

Refuge is the story of the healing that takes place when a former Ku Klux Klan member is befriended by a Muslim refugee.

That’s the way the documentary is billed, at least, though the description is a bit misleading. For one thing, the two men don’t actually meet until late in the film, by which time much of the healing has already taken place.

The former Klan member is Chris Buckley, an Army veteran who lives in LaFayette, Ga., with his wife and two small children. Chris enlisted in the military after 9/11, and his subsequent years of overseas combat duty only added to the hatred and distrust he felt toward Muslims.

More broadly, his ongoing struggle to support his family made him susceptible to the appeal of White nationalism, which encouraged him to blame his problems on people of color, immigrants and other convenient scapegoats. Hence, Chris joined the Klan and began throwing himself into the hate group’s rituals and ideology.

By the time we meet him, however, Chris has left the Klan for reasons that aren’t immediately revealed. He claims he’s trying to put his hatred behind him, though he makes an exception in the case of the religion he blames for his many wartime injuries and for the death of a beloved Army buddy.

Meanwhile, directors Erin Bernhardt and Din Blankenship also introduce us to Heval Kelli, a Muslim Kurd who arrived in the U.S. after his family was forced to flee their native Syria. A cardiologist, Heval lives with his aging parents in Clarkston, a Georgia town two hours away from LaFayette by car—and light years away in terms of environment.

“Mama Amina” works to make newcomers feel at home in the multiethnic community of Clarkston, Ga.

For decades, Clarkston has accepted refugees from various parts of the world, resulting in a community that comprises a multitude of nationalities, languages and religions. All are made to feel welcome thanks to the efforts of warm-hearted residents such as 89-year-old “Mama Amina,” a tireless volunteer.

Chris and Heval eventually meet, of course, though it takes some doing on the part of others to bring it about. In particular, it takes the efforts of Melissa, Chris’s wife, who has her own reasons for hating racism and who emerges as one of the film’s real heroes.

As a record of a Chris’s conversion from a vicious bigot to someone who ends up fighting bigotry, Refuge is sometimes moving, though not quite as moving as it could be. That’s because his transformation largely takes place when the camera isn’t rolling. We see him talking about his change of heart, but we don’t see it actually happening.

But that’s a minor weakness, and besides, the documentary has plenty of other attributes. Among them are the scenes in Clarkston, where rampant displays of kindness and acceptance offer a welcome break from the divisiveness that characterizes much of modern society.

The atmosphere is so intoxicating that not even the arrival of an anti-immigrant gubernatorial candidate and his so-called “deportation bus” can spoil the mood. The candidate apparently realizes that as, after accepting a welcoming piece of baclava, he takes his leave.

If only hatred and bigotry could always be turned away that easily.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Refuge opens March 24 at select theaters and through VOD outlets.

Don’t overlook Oscar’s less-known international nominees

By Richard Ades

The widespread assumption is that Germany’s epic All Quiet on the Western Front will nab this year’s International Feature Oscar. For those in the mood for a less warlike viewing experience, however, the other four nominees are well worth considering. They range from a historically based courtroom thriller to somber tales involving, respectively, teenage boys, a pre-teen girl and a down-and-out donkey.  

Here, in no particular order, are the other four nominees:

Remi (Gustav De Waele, left) and Leo (Eden Dambrine) are longtime friends in the Belgian film Close.

Growing up, growing apart

Close has an apt title, as the Belgian film is about the unusually tight friendship between two 13-year-old boys.

Leo and Remi (played without artifice by Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele) spend most of their days together, hanging out before, during and after school. Often, they even sleep together, sharing a bedroom with the blessing of their parents, especially Remi’s warm-hearted mother.

It’s all innocent and comforting fun until comments from fellow students force them to see their friendship through other people’s eyes. A girl asks if they’re “together,” while boys pummel them with gay epithets. None of this bothers Remi, but Leo responds by suddenly setting boundaries and branching out into activities that don’t involve his lifelong pal. The result is a development that’s heartbreaking, even if not entirely unexpected.

Director and co-writer Lukas Dhont handles all this with sensitivity and naturalistic restraint. It’s only in the aftermath of the aforementioned development that he turns restraint into a fault by delaying and underplaying the inevitable aftershocks. The result is that when they finally do arrive, they’ve lost much of their ability to move us.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Close (PG-13) is available from VOD outlets and will be screened Feb. 24-26 at Columbus’s Gateway Film Center.

The titular donkey sports a necklace made of carrots in Poland’s EO. (Photo courtesy of Aneta and Filip Gebscy)

Four-legged love story

Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski has made no secret of the fact that EO, his journey through the life of a lowly donkey, was inspired by the 1966 classic Au Hasard Balthazar. The differences couldn’t be starker.

While French director Robert Bresson told his own donkey-centered tale in a typically minimalistic manner, Skolimowski and cinematographer Michael Dymek ply us with images that are often ornate and sometimes surreal. There are strobe effects, infrared effects, POV shots, dreamlike flashbacks and nightmare-like sequences. There’s even a scene involving a mechanical dog that seems to appear out of nowhere.

Story-wise, the two films’ approaches are also different. While Bresson focused on people, the title donkey being merely an unwilling pawn in their difficult lives, Skolimowski turns his leading animal into a full-fledged protagonist.

Essentially, the new film is a love story between EO and Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), a woman who takes him under her wing while they’re working together in a traveling circus. After bankruptcy forces the circus to sell off its four-legged performers, the two are separated, but they never forget each other. In particular, EO is haunted by memories of happy moments he shared with Kasandra, which lead him to take actions that don’t always work out in his favor.

Like Bresson’s film, EO lends itself to larger questions about human nature, including our cruelty toward each other and toward the animals in our care. Both works also offer deep levels of allegorical meaning for those into religious, and particularly Christian, symbolism.  

So which film is better?

Bresson’s is more perfect in its absolute simplicity, in contrast to which Skolimowski’s cinematic showmanship can be distracting. On the other hand, that showmanship frequently results in strikingly beautiful images. Along with its personable star, that gives EO viewers a lot to love.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

EO (no MPAA rating) will be available from VOD outlets beginning Feb. 21.

Ricardo Darin (left) and Peter Lanzani star in the fact-based courtroom drama Argentina, 1985.

Dictatorship’s abuse confronted

Argentina, 1985 is based on an actual attempt to bring to justice those who tortured, raped, murdered and “disappeared” thousands of Argentinians during the long reign of a right-wing dictatorship.

Ricardo Darin stars as Julio Cesar Strassera, who’s appointed to prosecute the officials responsible for the former regime’s acts of terror. It’s not a task he accepts gladly, as many of his friends and relatives supported such acts in the name of fighting communism. Among them are most of his colleagues, complicating his ability to form the legal team he needs to take on his monstrous assignment.

Coming to his rescue is Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani), a younger man who’s assigned to serve as Strassera’s deputy. Together, they put together a team consisting largely of idealistic students and instruct them to comb the countryside in search of people who can testify about abuses they suffered at the hands of government-sponsored thugs.

Director/co-writer Santiago Mitre handles this potentially explosive story in a surprisingly low-key manner and even adds touches of humor. That prevents the film from descending into melodrama, particularly when victims of the previous regime finally get the chance to tell their shocking stories in a nationally televised hearing.

One puzzling aspect of the case Strassera presents is that he seemingly makes little effort to connect these repulsive crimes with the suspects. It could be that Mitre simply left out that part of the testimony to underscore the fact that Strasser’s most important task is to convince the divided public that the crimes are worth prosecuting in the first place.

Or, as the prosecutor puts it so powerfully, “Nunca mas.” English translation: “Never again.”

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Argentina, 1985 (rated R) is available through Amazon Prime Video.

Cait (Catherine Clinch, left) is greeted by Eibhlin (Carrie Crowley) after a long journey in Ireland’s The Quiet Girl. (Photo courtesy of EF Neon)

Lonely girl finds temporary reprieve

The Quiet Girl centers on Cait (Catherine Clinch), a 9-year-old who tends to keep to herself. She’s not happy at school, and she’s even less happy in her overcrowded home, where she gets little attention from her overworked mother or her philandering, heavy-drinking father.

Then her mother gets pregnant yet again, and Cait is sent off to live with relatives in another part of rural Ireland until things get back to normal. This turns out to be an unexpected blessing. Her mom’s cousin Eibhlin (Carrie Crowley) welcomes her with the kind of love and warmth she’s never known. And while Eibhlin’s husband, Sean (Andrew Bennett), is stand-offish at first, he puts her to work on their farm and soon begins to show signs of acceptance.

Directed in an appropriately quiet manner by Colm Bairead, who based the Irish-language script on a story by Claire Keegan, this is no maudlin, feel-good flick. We eventually learn that Eibhlin and Sean are hiding a secret whose effect on their lives is painful and intractable. And then there’s the question of Cait’s future: How long will her newfound happiness last if, as planned, she’s forced to return to her family?

Thanks to sensitive direction and fine performances all around, The Quiet Girl reveals its secrets and delivers its answers in a way that will likely leave a lump in your throat. After its Irish cousin, The Banshees of Inisherin, it’s my favorite film of 2022.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

The Quiet Girl (PG-13) opens in select theaters Feb. 24 and will be screened March 10-12 at Columbus’s Gateway Film Center.

Irish tale tops Columbus critics’ 2022 faves

Brendan Gleeson (left) and Colin Farrell in a scene from The Banshees of Inisherin. The dark comedy was named the best film of 2022 by Columbus (Ohio) critics, who also recognized Gleeson and Farrell for achievements in acting.

The Columbus Film Critics Association (COFCA) has announced its picks for the best cinema of 2022. The winners, which were revealed Jan. 5, are listed below. For the complete list of nominees, visit https://cofca.org/awards-2022-nominees/.

Best Film

  1. The Banshees of Inisherin
  2. Everything Everywhere All at Once
  3. Tár
  4. Aftersun
  5. Women Talking
  6. Glass Onion
  7. The Fabelmans
  8. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
  9. The Menu
  10. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Best Director

  • Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once
  • Runner-up: Todd Field, Tár

Best Lead Performance

  • Cate Blanchett, Tár
  • Runner-up: Brendan Fraser, The Whale

Best Supporting Performance

  • Brendan Gleeson, The Banshees of Inisherin
  • Runner-up: Kerry Condon, The Banshees of Inisherin

Best Ensemble

  • The Banshees of Inisherin
  • Runner-up: Glass Onion

Actor of the Year (for an exemplary body of work)

  • Colin Farrell (The Banshees of InisherinThe Batman and Thirteen Lives)
  • Runner-up: Hong Chau (The Menu and The Whale)

Breakthrough Film Artist

  • Charlotte Wells, Aftersun  (for directing and screenwriting)
  • Runner-up: Austin Butler, Elvis  (for acting)

Best Cinematography

  • Claudio Miranda, Top Gun: Maverick
  • Runner-up: Hoyte Van Hoytema, Nope

Best Film Editing

  • Paul Rogers, Everything Everywhere All at Once
  • Runner-up: Eddie Hamilton, Top Gun: Maverick

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • Sarah Polley, Women Talking
  • Runner-up: Rian Johnson, Glass Onion

Best Original Screenplay

  • Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once
  • Runner-up: Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin

Best Score

  • Alexandre Desplat, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
  • Runner-up: Justin Hurwitz, Babylon

Best Documentary

  • All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
  • Runner-up: Fire of Love

Best Foreign Language Film

  • Decision to Leave (Heojil kyolshim)
  • Runner-up: All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues)

Best Animated Film

  • Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
  • Runner-up: Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Frank Gabrenya Award for Best Comedy

  • Glass Onion
  • Runner-up: Everything Everywhere All at Once

 Best Overlooked Film

  • After Yang
  • Runner-up: The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Teacher on a path to self-destruction

Brendan Fraser plays the reclusive Charlie in The Whale. (Photo courtesy of A24)

By Richard Ades

When Charlie leads an online English class with his own image blacked out, he tells his students it’s because his camera doesn’t work. But we intuitively know that’s a lie.

The teacher (Brendan Fraser), whose obesity confines him to his house and usually his couch, is ashamed of who he’s become. As the story unfolds, we learn that his shame is based on more than simply his 600-pound body.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler) from the script Samuel D. Hunter adapted from his own stage play, The Whale is a maddening but sometimes compelling portrait of a man who refuses to slow his descent into death. His only friend, a nurse named Liz (Hong Chau), pleads with him to go to the hospital to head off imminent heart failure, but Charlie refuses. His excuse is that he has no insurance and would only go into debt.

Hong Chau as Liz, Charlie’s nurse and only friend (Photo courtesy of A24)

The truth is that Charlie doesn’t care whether he lives or dies. All he really cares about is reconnecting with his daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), from whom he’s been estranged ever since his wife divorced him due to a gay affair. Yet when he somehow persuades the teenager to pay a visit, she turns out to be so angry at him—and, it seems, at the world in general—that he becomes convinced her life has been ruined by his absence. It’s one more reason to devalue his own existence.

Yet another reason comes to light thanks to an unexpected visit from Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a missionary for a religious cult that believes the “end times” are imminent. Charlie knows all about the cult, as it was implicated in a tragedy for which he blames himself and that sent his life into its downward spiral.

Sadie Sink as Charlie’s angry daughter, Ellie (Photo courtesy of Niko Tavernise)

It’s hard to imagine a more self-destructive character than Charlie, which is one reason the film has garnered nearly as many critical detractors as admirers. On the other hand, Fraser has won praise for finding the humanity in the gentle and perversely optimistic Charlie and will likely be considered for an Oscar. Also worthy of notice are the supporting performances of Chau and Sink as Charlie’s friend and daughter, respectively.

Besides the fine acting, The Whale distinguishes itself by finding a slender reason for optimism amid all the gloom. The result is that those who stay until the end will likely be moved more than they ever expected to be.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Whale (rated R) opens Dec. 21 in theaters nationwide.

Are Puss’s days of glory behind him?

Puss in Boots (right, voiced by Antonio Banderas) seeks to recover his squandered nine lives with help from Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayak, left) and Perro (Harvey Guillen).

By Richard Ades

Shrek’s favorite feline swashbuckler comes face to face with his own mortality in Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.

It all starts when Puss (Antonio Banderas) realizes he’s carelessly, if heroically, used up eight of his nine lives. The Grim Reaper-like Big Bad Wolf (Wagner Moura) then shows up and threatens to finish him off for good, forcing him to play it safe for the very first time. Abandoning his trademark cape, boots and sword, he hides out in the home of crazy cat lady Mama Luna (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who unwittingly steals his last bit of self-respect by dubbing him “Pickles.”

The poor feline seems destined to spend the rest of his remaining life in this miserable place, but fate intervenes when the home is invaded by Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and her adopted family of bears. Puss learns they’re in search of a magical star that can grant any wish, and he immediately decides to make that his quest as well. After all, he’s desperate to find a way to get his first eight lives back so he can return to his heroic ways.

Directed by Joel Crawford from a script by Paul Fisher, Tommy Swerdlow and Tom Wheeler, the animated flick brings back Puss’s one-time girlfriend, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayak). Like other Shrek films and spinoffs, it also incorporates characters from classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes, though not always as we remember them. The chief villain, for example, is the former “Little” Jack Horner (John Mulaney), who’s now grown into an oversized menace.

Accompanying Horner is Ethical Bug (Kevin McCann), an insect who bears some resemblance to Jiminy Cricket and sounds exactly (and hilariously) like the late Jimmy Stewart. Bug tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to serve as Horner’s conscience.

But the flick’s most effective lessons are imparted by its most adorable character: Perro (Harvey Guillen), a down-and-out Chihuahua whom Puss finds trying to pass himself off as just another cat in Mama Luna’s overpopulated home. Not that the humble Perro ever tries to lecture others. Instead, he teaches by example, living his life with gratitude for every pleasure and friend it sends his way.

With glorious animation and a first-rate cast voicing not only the funniest characters but the scariest ones, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish may be too intense for the youngest children. But for older kids, as well as us really old kids, it’s an amusing and warm-hearted romp with an inspirational message or two thrown in for good measure.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (rated PG) opens Dec. 21 in theaters nationwide.

‘Avatar’ sequel is beautiful but plodding

Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, left) and Jake (Sam Washington) confer during a fiery moment in Avatar: The Way of Water. (Photos courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

By Richard Ades

If you plan to see Avatar: The Way of Water, make sure you’re prepared.

Most importantly, visit the restroom before it starts. That’s always a good idea for a movie that runs three hours and 12 minutes, but especially for one that has a whole lot of, you know, water in it.

Almost as important: Refresh your memory about the original Avatar, which opened in 2009. Director James Cameron obviously remembers it well, since he’s been working on this and future sequels for the past 13 years, so he assumes we all do. That’s why he jumps right into the action without explaining who all these people and avatars are, or even what an avatar is.

In brief: An avatar is a genetically engineered body that resembles the Na’vi, the 10-foot-tall inhabitants of the world Pandora, but is remotely controlled by a human whose own body is in stasis. The new film’s main protagonist is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who turned into an avatar in the first outing and later became chief of the local Na’vi clan while starting a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), daughter of the previous clan chief.

As Jake’s narration explains in the film’s early moments, the Na’vi have led a peaceful existence since repelling human invaders years earlier. However, that peace abruptly ends with the appearance of a new invasion force led by another holdover from the original Avatar, Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Since Quaritch was killed during the first incursion, he and his soldiers return thanks to a new type of avatar called a “recombinant,” which is embedded with the memory of a specific human.

The immediate result of the attack is fire and destruction that are keenly seen, heard and even felt by us viewers thanks to 3-D images shot at 48 frames per second (twice the normal rate) and accompanied by sound technology that makes our very seats shake beneath us. If you were looking for a reason to return to the multiplex, this “you are there” experience is it.

A typically awe-inspiring scene from Avatar: The Way of Water

As an innovator and master of cutting-edge technology, Cameron is simply without equal. He uses motion-capture wizardry to not only create an exotic world that is beautiful and fully realized, but to place the viewer right in the middle of it.

Once there, unfortunately, the viewer soon realizes that Cameron is not without equal as a storyteller. He and his four co-scripters set up a bare-bones plot with a predictable progression: Jake becomes a Na’vi resistance leader, then is forced to flee with his family after Quaritch captures Spider (Jack Champion), a human teenager who knows all the rebellion’s secrets. The family seeks refuge among a remote ocean-going clan and hopes Quaritch won’t find them there.

But, of course, it’s only a matter of time before he will. Since there are more than three hours of that time to fill, the flick pads it out with a series of digressions that often come off as mere excuses to show off its impressive imagery while underlining its pro-environment and anti-war messages. Ironically, it all leads to a finale so destructive and drawn out that you eventually start wondering, “Isn’t everyone dead by now?”

Through it all, the movie is an odd combination of images that are gloriously unique and plot points that seem derivative of previous works of cinema, TV and even video gaming. Many have seen similarities to 1990’s Dances With Wolves, while I also saw reflections of Moby Dick, Platoon, Stranger Things and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. By the end, Cameron is even borrowing from his own 1997 blockbuster, Titanic.

At the very end, the movie reveals that it’s only paving the way for more episodes—not surprisingly, since the second sequel was shot concurrently with the first. So go see Avatar: The Way of Water if you can’t resist the chance to bask in its revolutionary technology and imagery. Just be aware that Cameron is in this for the long haul, and he expects you to be as well.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Avatar: The Way of Water (PG-13) opens Dec. 16 in cinemas nationwide.