December 1, 2020

Sophia Loren in “The Life Ahead” on Netflix

Netflix’s offering of the movie, “The Life Ahead,” is creating quite a buzz. Not only does it feature the iconic Italian actress, Sophia Loren at age 87, but the director is her son Edouardo Ponti.

Is it the greatest movie ever? No, but it has enough redeeming qualities to invest roughly 90 minutes of your time. Momo, a Senegalese-Italian orphan played by first-time film actor, Ibrahim Gueye, has a natural presence that makes up for his inexperience as a thespian. We have noble plot lines galore. Loren as Madame Rosa is a survivor of Auschwitz and a retired prostitute who has been a foster mother to the children of working girls. She provides daycare for Babu, the son of her transgender neighbor, Lola, along with a Jewish boy named Iosif who was abandoned by his mother.

The heart of the movie is the friendship that develops between Madame Rosa and Momo. The young orphan is pulled in the direction of drug-dealing for one man, and doing more honest work for a kindly Arab artisan who patiently introduces him to his birth family’s Muslim faith.

As a side note, the American film world tends to retire actors as they age, and the tendency is even more stark for actresses. Try to think of women who have had major roles in their 80s. Maggie Smith and Judy Dench (both 85) spring to mind, but the big screen tends to be geared towards more youthful appearances. Streaming productions, however, have opened up new avenues for senior actors. Witness the success of Jane Fonda (82) and Lily Tomlin (81) in “Grace and Frankie,” or Alan Arkin (86) in “The Kominsky Method” and the late Max Von Sydow who was 87 when he was in “Game of Thrones.”

TWO WOMEN, Sophia Loren, 1960

Back to a final word on “The Life Ahead.” It certainly gives you a slice of Italian culture. I would also suggest you watch Loren’s Academy Award-winning performance in Vittorio DeSica’s 1960 film, “Two Women,” not to note how she has aged in the intervening decades, but to see that she still has the vibrant screen presence that has made her an international screen treasure.

“Judy” on Amazon Prime

I missed seeing “Judy,” the bio pic of Judy Garland starring Renee Zellwegger in a movietheater when it came out in 2019. Good thing that Amazon Prime recently added it to their movie line-up.

Zellwegger was initially unrecognizable to me, not only because of her short dark hair and sixties clothing, but her very mannerisms reminded me of Garland. Her singing voice is decidedly her own, but she manages to channel the hyper-emotional quality that Judy found in performance. Director Rupert Goold based the movie on a successful play, “End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter, that found critical success on London’s West End and on Broadway.

The movie depicts the final chapter of her life when she is hard up for money and has no fixed residence, despite her trying to care for her two children, Lorna and Joey. We see the acrimonious relationship with ex-husband Sid Luft and Judy’s romance and marriage to nightclub owner, Mickey Deans. Eldest child Liza makes an appearance and we see clearly that daughter has eclipsed mother.

The production also contains flashbacks of Judy’s early life, her noxious relationship with studio head, Louis B. Mayer, and her friendship with fellow film teen star Mickey Rooney. Dieting and drugs seem ever present in Judy’s formative years. The viewer gets to see how many of her adult problems had their inception when she was a child star.

Although reviews were mixed, Zellwegger won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for her lead performance. “Judy” makes the point that, while Garland’s life may have been troubled in her final years, she never lost the ability to electrify an audience. The film ends on a relatively positive note.

Judy Garland’s voice and her performance footage continue to mesmerize listeners young and old. Revisiting a slice of her life in “Judy” is for anyone who appreciates “The Wizard of Oz,” Garland’s many other movies and her iconic recordings.

“Enola Holmes” on Netflix

Another frothy program on Netflix with a female lead is “Enola Holmes,” the story of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes’ younger teenage sister. Millie Bobby Brown (who wondrously played Eleven on “Stranger Things”) is chameleon-like in workman’s clothing or in fancy corset and gown as she hunts for her missing mother, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter), in Victorian London.

Declining to be sent to a finishing school run by a harridan named Harrison (an imperious Fiona Shaw), Enola boards a train dressed as a boy and meets a handsome young Marquess who is also on the lam. During the course of the series, Enola learns more about her mother, evades her sexist guardian brother, Mycroft, encounters the assassin Linthorn, all the while investigating and solving various mysteries. Detection definitely runs in the family.

Based on the books by Nancy Springer, the production features Brown talking to the camera, clever anagram visuals, and a vintage feel to the art direction.

Originally conceived as a theatrical release, due to the pandemic the idea was converted into a Netflix movie.

Sam Claflin and Henry Cavill as the Holmes brothers don’t have much to do in the story. I was wondering why the exceedingly handsome Cavill was so subdued in his portrayal of Sherlock only to read that the Arthur Conan Doyle estate insisted that he be portrayed as “unemotional,” lest the production be sued. Better luck next role, Henry.

Women definitely steal the show in this period movie romp. Millie Bobby Brown, in particular, continues to amaze. If you like light mysteries set in olde England, this might be your cup of tea. Might there perchance be a sequel in the offing?

“Greyhound” on Apple+

Tom Hanks seems to play a lot of heroes, but “Greyhound” on Apple+ is special since he not only stars in this war movie, he wrote the screenplay, too. Based on the novel, “The Good Shepherd” by C. S. Forester, Hanks plays naval commander Ernest Krause on his first war-time command of a merchant ship convoy crossing the Atlantic.

A little backstory on my interest in this facet of WWII history. My father would reminisce about being an 18-year-old sailor who played the clarinet and saxophone for the Navy while on shore, but manned a gun when his ship was at sea. He told dramatic stories of being scared of Germans by air and water along with violent Atlantic storms. The movie does a good job of showing the menace of German submarines, in particular, referred to as U-boats. These underwater predators could be compared to the sharks in “Jaws.”

The movie does perhaps suffer from too much maritime dialogue, but Hanks and director Aaron Schneider do capture the fear and triumph felt by Commander Krause and his crew.

Due to the pandemic, “Greyhound” was never released theatrically, but was picked up by the Apple+ streaming service. One critic referred to this 91-minute feature as a “dad movie.” Why not see if you can get your history-minded pop or granddad to watch this with you?

“Knives Out” Movie on Amazon Prime Video

Because the pandemic has brought film-going to a standstill, many recent movies have been expeditiously transferred to streaming services and unreleased films have gone straight to video.

I missed seeing “Knives Out” in a real live movie theater, but thankfully, Amazon has been featuring the Rian Johnson-directed film for free to Prime members.

“Knives Out” initially seems like a boilerplate Agatha Christie-type murder mystery, with the deceased being famous and wealthy crime writer Harlan Thrombey played by the superlative 90-year-old actor, Christopher Plummer.

The real stars are Daniel Craig as southern detective Benoit Blanc and Ana de Arias as Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s immigrant nurse and friend. Flashbacks slowly divulge what really happened as staff, police and family members are introduced to viewers.

The literary scion’s family members are deliciously played by Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Toni Colette, Jaeden Martell and Katherine Langford.

I was especially tickled by the throne of knives in the author’s home that gives a pointed nod to the throne of swords featured in the “Game of Thrones” book and tv series. Plot twists, clever dialogue and subversive themes make this a bracing evening of entertainment. Word has it that Daniel Craig may reprise his southern accent in a “Knives Out” film sequel. Count me in.

Downton Abbey – the Movie

I was sad to see the tv series Downtown Abbey broadcast its last episode of season six in 2015. Small wonder that a movie revisiting these beloved characters was welcomed in the fall of 2019.

The original series was set over several years in the early 20th century, including World War I. The film continues with the characters in 1927 when the King and Queen of England pay a brief visit to the Downton Abbey residence.

Lord Grantham and his wife are much the same. Widower Tom Branson and Lady Mary now jointly manage the Downton Abbey property. Sybil is living life as an aristocratic mother and wife at a nearby estate. Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham embroils herself in a fight over a relative’s inheritance.

In the servant quarters, romance and marriage continue to be a driving force. Daisy is reviewing her marriage prospects. Mr. Carson, now married to Mrs. Hughes and in retirement, is commandeered to manage the Royal couple’s visit. Butler Thomas Barrow, meets a new friend and possible love interest. Tom Branson, an Irish hybrid of both upper and lower classes, saves the king from an assailant and falls for a maid traveling with the royal retinue.

Although not as engrossing as the original tv series, Downton Abbey (the movie) makes for a charming evening of entertainment. May Julian Fellowes continue to write about these memorable characters as they traverse the ever-changing 20th century.

The 2019 film is now available on Amazon Prime Video.