Thursday, January 5, 2023

Film Reviews: Enjoyable “A Man Called Otto,” “The Pale Blue Eye” and “Matilda” Get Wide Releases in Theaters and/or on Streaming

A Man Called Otto (c) Sony Pictures

Film: A Man Called Otto 
In Cinemas 

Late career Tom Hanks has been impressively prolific and varied, and yet somehow his characters’ decency have always shown through. This year alone, Hanks has played it safe as Geppetto in the dreadful live action Disney remake of “Pinocchio,” but he also over-reached as the shyster manager Colonel Tom Parker in “Elvis.” Somewhere in the middle, and the most satisfying of the three, is his curmudgeonly Otto in “A Man Called Otto,” who seems to be so discontented in his life that his only interactions with people is to lecture them on the rules whenever they break them (his most common complaint is people driving and parking on his street). His neighbors all seem to accept his quirky ways until a new family moves in, intertwining themselves into Otto’s life, innocently to them, but aggravating to him. Marisol (Mariana Treviño), the pregnant mother of the family, is especially persistent in calling out Otto’s behavior, and the two start a tentative friendship. I never read the book “A Man Called Ove” or saw the subsequent Oscar-nominated Swedish movie version this is based on, but this version directed by Marc Foster is probably lighter in tone, even when dealing with topics as serious as suicide and grief. Athough the movie held few surprises plotwise, I was drawn into this film mainly because of the chemistry between Hanks and Treviño. Hanks’ son Truman is also very effective as Otto in flashback, which helps to humanize Otto in the present. I wasn’t expecting to like this as much as I did, but on the strength of the performances and a jaunty score by Thomas Newman, people’s generosity of spirit (which is in short supply in real life) was a tonic I didn’t know I needed. 

The Pale Blue Eye (c) Netflix

Film: The Pale Blue Eye 
In Cinemas and Streaming on Netflix 

If you’re in the market for another Netflix murder mystery after viewing “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” for the third time, you should give Scott Cooper’s “The Pale Blue Eye” a try. I was a fan of his previous Western “Hostiles,” but not the hyper-violent milieu, so I was a bit gun shy about another Cooper historical drama, again starring Christian Bale. Thankfully this film, which is based on the Louis Bayard novel, is less intense and gratuitously bleak. Bale plays Augustus Landor, a retired constable who reluctantly agrees to help investigate the death of a cadet at West Point in the 1830s. The cadet’s heart had been ripped out (I did say less gruesome, not not gruesome) and that, according to expert Jean-Paul (Robert Duvall, almost unrecognizable), has clues related to the occult. Augustus enlists a young student named Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling) who can get insider intel from within the school. The movie also includes some stalwart character actors like Timothy Spall, Simon McBurney and Toby Jones, all being period-appropriate somber, with the only exception being a wildly flirty and beamed from a different movie performance by Gillian Anderson. She may seem out of place, but she does perk things up every time she shows up. Bale is fine as the investigator, although no Benoit Blanc is he. The biggest surprise is Melling, who is mostly known as playing Harry Potter’s spoiled cousin Dudley Dursley in the film series but is quietly doing fine work in small parts, like in “The Ballad of Buster Skuggs.” Here, he is the standout, if a bit mannered, but hey, he is playing Edger Allen Poe after all. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi and composer Howard Shore also provide stellar work, adding to the creepy mood of the story. There is a late reveal in the movie that feels a bit unearned, but if you liked “The Alienist” and its ilk, this may be the mystery to hide under the covers with on a cold winter’s night. 

Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical (c) Netflix

Film: Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical 
In Cinemas and On Netflix 

Although the title assures us that Roald Dahl is the author and inspiration for the movie musical version of his book “Matilda,” I found this enjoyable if oddly askew adaptation more akin to Stephen King by way of Dr. Suess. Our perky and precocious heroine (a winning Alisha Weir) is certainly a distant cousin of King’s Carrie White, which makes her nemesis, the fearful Headmistress Trunchbull (played deliciously grotesque by Emma Thompson) a sort of Pennywise the clown’s sadomasochistic girlfriend. Oh, and don’t forget that this is a movie for children and a musical. I haven’t read Roald Dahl’s book, but I haven’t been a fan of the last two iterations of this story: Danny Devito’s 1996 Americanized film or the 2013 Broadway musical that his film is adapted from. Trunchbull was played by a man in New York (Bertie Carvel), which wouldn’t work on screen, one of the better decisions made by original stage director Matthew Warchus, who also directed the film. The musical’s songs are shouty but quite catchy, although I did find, especially in this film, that whenever I got really invested in the story, a song would appear and actually stop the momentum of the movie. Matilda’s parents (a game Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough) are rather diminished this time around, feeling more like cameos than the main characters they should be. This gives more room to grow for Matilda’s supportive but meek teacher Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch, doing an impressive 180 from her fierce “The Woman King” role). But the real star of the film, per usual in most every film she’s in, is Thompson. Playing a variation of her Nanny McPhee on steroids (and equal amounts of latex make-up), Trunchbull is wonderfully sadistic and plays loose with the rules to her own school, with the best moment involving a student and a cake. I hope this fun holiday film will not get lost in the Netflix algorithm. While certainly uneven in parts, you should seek it out if you need something new for family film night.

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