Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

Current Reviews

Science Fair

In recent years, the documentary film has discovered an almost surefire subject: kids’ competitions. The compelling “Spellbound” (2002) was the first of these stories to warm filmgoers hearts, followed by the sweet “Mad Hot Ballroom” (2005) and last year’s stirring “Step.” You can now add to that list “Science Fair,” an inspiring and wonderful true-life Revenge of the Nerds.

“Science Fair” follows nine high school students from around the world as they aim to compete in the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) sponsored by Intel. In total, this annual event in Los Angeles attracts some 1,700 of the brightest (and quirkiest) science scholars from 78 different countries seeking to become “Best in Fair.”

The kids the filmmakers select are a varied and fascinating batch. There is Robbie of West Virginia, who gets lousy algebra grades but is a natural math genius with a penchant for loud shirts. Kashifa is a shy, self-effacing Muslim girl who struggles for recognition at her large sports-minded school in South Dakota. Three lively guys from Kentucky’s top science school, Ryan, Harsha, and Abraham, collaborate to build an electronic 3-D stethoscope. Anjali, only 13 and a freshman, is a child prodigy at the same Louisville school as the trio and is fashioning an arsenic testing device that could save many lives.

Then there is Myllena and Gabriel, best friends and research partners from one of Brazil’s poorest states (Ceara) who are studying how to identify a protein that could stem the spread of the Zika virus. Finally, there is the gawky but brilliant Ivo, who lives near the Rhine River and looks to revive the long-forgotten single-wing aircraft as a viable airship. The film also has time to focus on one inspiring mentor, Dr. Serena McCalla, a research teacher from Long Island who has built a remarkable science fair team at Jericho High School that qualified nine students for the Fair.

Unlike the other competition films mentioned above, we are not allowed into the exhibition hall to see how the judges make their decisions on the projects, though we do get to experience the tension and uplift when the winners are announced in a convention hall and cheer along with the rapt crowd.

The co-directors and co-writers of “Science Fair,” Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, have pulled off a winner in their first documentary feature. The picture is a particular triumph for Costantini, who was herself a dweeby girl in a sports-obsessed Wisconsin school, where she “found my tribe” through Science Fair. It was her own experience at ISEF, which drove her to “make a documentary about this crazy little world. It had everything--an international cast of angsty teenagers and inspiring prodigies, all devoted to one very niche subculture, and all striving to make the world a better place.” Amen.

(The film contains nothing objectionable and is rated “PG,” it runs 90 minutes)

(September 2018)

Gabrieland Myllena are best friends and research partners from Ceara, one of Brazil’s poorest states, and aim to inhibit the Zika virus.
Photo courtesy of Fusion Media.

The Children Act

Recently I reviewed a movie adaptation of “On Chesil Beach,” a novella by prominent English writer Ian McEwan. McEwan has been cinematically busy, for this month another of his novels, “The Children Act,” also appears on film with McEwan again the screenwriter. His script, along with the efforts of veteran director Richard Eyre, provides for one of the best roles actress Emma Thompson has had in years.

In contemporary London, Judge Fiona Maye (Thompson) is a stern but earnest justice in the city’s family court, driven in a job which entails some of the knottier problems of the day, including a Solomonic judgment she makes at the beginning of the film about conjoined twins. The pressures on her have turned her marriage with university classics lecturer Jack (Stanley Tucci) sour, so sour that he openly announces that he wants to have an affair with one of his students.

Still, Maye carries on, confronted with a thorny case involving the Henry family. They, as Jehovah’s Witnesses, object to a blood transfusion which doctors insist their teenage son Adam (Fionn Whitehead), suffering from leukemia, must have to save his life. The father (Ben Chaplin) insists that their religion forbids the transfer of fluids from another person, and Adam should be left in God’s hands. Judge Maye must decide to grant the family’s wishes or intervene to let the transfusion proceed. To help resolve this dilemma, she takes the unusual step of visiting the hospital to interview the boy, who forthrightly rejects the transfusion. Nevertheless, the judge, considering the “Children Act” of 1988 which states that “children's welfare should be the paramount concern of the courts,” rules that Adam must undergo the procedure.

Here the film takes a troubling turnabout. Rejuvenated, almost reborn, by the transfusion, Adam contrives to look up, even stalk Maye, becoming infatuated with her, writing poems to her, and seeing her as a kind of savior in tune with his soul. Puzzled by, yet also touched by his attentions, Maye plays the adult and tries to bring the lad back down to earth, but when he shows up, rain-sodden, at a formal party she is attending outside London, something must be done.

The character of Jack Maye seems somewhat underwritten, but Tucci makes his distress with the marriage plausible and stays mostly stalwart in his concern for Fiona. Adam is most convincingly embodied by young Whitehead, who won plaudits last year as a young soldier in “Dunkirk.” Playing at first bristling defiance, he later switches to earnest, fawning youth without breaking stride. His lively eyes and curled mouth remind this reviewer of the young Tom Courtenay some 55 years ago.

This is not the sweet, often comedic Emma Thompson we’ve seen before. Judge Maye is demanding with people, especially her downtrodden clerk Nigel (Jason Watkins), cynical about family life (she and Jack are childless), striving to achieve a kind of queenly serenity above the messy cases she faces. Thompson, balancing both knitted brows (in court) and sympathetic gestures (in hospital), captures this woman’s balancing act brilliantly. For a person who above all wants to maintain control, she finds her defensive façade is cracking with the attentions of the swoony teenager as the movie moves to a disconcerting finale. This last adjective is an inadvertent pun, as the end of the picture has Judge Maye, stumbling, groping at a piano recital while playing the wistful Irish tune “Down by the Salley Gardens,” the theme song of this touching film.

(The film is rated "R" for mature themes and runs 105 mins.)

(September 2018)

Emma Thompson stars as a family judge under pressure in “The Children Act.”
Photo courtesy of A24 Pictures.

The Wife

Glenn Close has had a kaleidoscopic career in motion pictures since her notable film debut in 1982 (“The World According to Garp”) and currently has the distinction of being the actor with the most Oscar nominations (6) who has never won the trophy. She’s probably OK with that, but it doesn’t mean that she, at 71, is through trying. In her latest film “The Wife,” Close brings a performance that could win her lauds in the next awards season.

Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) is the self-deprecating rock behind her novelist husband, the mercurial Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). We meet them on the night when, in great anticipation, they receive a phone call informing Joe that he has won the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature. The scene shifts quickly to Stockholm, where the couple settles in—with their grown son David (Max Irons)--to prepare for the award ceremony. Their stay is a minefield of parties, event rehearsals, misunderstandings, mutual digs, and reprisals. Joe, bloated in his celebrity, has the gall to explain to one admirer that “my wife doesn’t write, thank God.”

Interspersed with the Stockholm scenes are flashbacks to the Castleman’s origin story, beginning in 1958 at Smith College, where the young lit professor Joe (Harry Lloyd)) charms the prepossessed but admiring student Joan (Annie Starke). Later sequences show their backstory, first living together, then finding a home with kids, and, always, Joan aiding Joe with his writing, ready to refashion and polish his prose with crucial edits.

Back in Stockholm, when Joan sees Joe hitting on a young photographer, her umbrage sends her out to seek a stiff one. Thus begins a key sequence where Joan is joined in a bar by the nosy Nathaniel Bone (an unctuous Christian Slater), Castleman’s unauthorized biographer who, over drinks, tries to get Joan to drop her “supportive wife” façade and confess her real contribution to her husband’s work. The exchange develops slowly, with light fencing, but builds in tension as the sly, insinuating Bone schemes to arouse Joan to reveal her true literary bent. It is the core of the picture and a masterful two-shot episode.

The Nobel ceremony is a semi-climax, and the film ends in a finale which—though undoubtedly dramatic—feels contrived and extreme rather than subtle and affecting. It is a flaw in the plot, although the production is otherwise carefully crafted by Swedish director Bjorn Runge (working from a novel written by Meg Wolitzer).

Striking is the resemblance and demeanor of young Joan played by Annie Starke, no surprise because she is the real daughter of Close, now launched on her own acting career. She carries the same cool customer vibe that her mom personifies in the rest of the picture. Her coolness is nicely contrasted with the twitchy, randy figure of the young Joe, played by Lloyd. Welshman Jonathan Pryce, playing an irresponsible and ebullient Brooklynite, is a wonderful contrast to Close’s tamped-down spouse. He clumsily loves Joan in his shambling way but cannot help himself by belittling her and consigning her to dutiful helpmate status.

Overall, “The Wife” is a showcase for Glenn Close, a role that tests her mettle for contained resentment and rage. She passes that test, elevating “bottling up” to an art form. Ever protective of her wayward hubby while stifling her contributions to his life and output, Joan is a caged animal in modest, wifely garb. A scene that projects her inner tumult most resonantly is during a pre-awards dinner, when she has to listen to Joe damn her with overweening praise when she asked him not to; her stony posture, clenched mouth, and, especially, her scorching eyes reveal a soul ready to explode. Yet Close is able to still play a woman committed to her family of 30-plus years, able to thrill at being a grandmother and to rush to rescue a fallen husband. Her performance is peerless.

(The film runs 100 minutes and is rated "R".)

(August 2018)

Left to right: Glenn Close as Joan and Jonathan Pryce as Joe in "The Wife."
Photo by Graeme Hunter, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics