Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review: Marshall

Image courtesy of Open Road Films.
Chadwick Boseman gets another opportunity - after having played Jackie Robinson and James Brown - to portray a seminal figure in African American history in "Marshall," which focuses specifically on a 1940s court case in Connecticut in which Thurgood Marshall, who went on to become the first black man to become a justice in the U.S. Supreme Court, played a role.

The film, which is directed by Reginald Hudlin ("Boomerang" and "House Party") follows the Hollywood playbook much more so than, say, Ava DuVernay's "Selma" in terms of recent films about the civil rights era. However, it's an engaging period piece featuring fine performances by Boseman and Josh Gad, who is typically confined to silly comedies, but here portrays Sam Friedman, a Bridgeport civil trial attorney who assisted Marshall with the case after a judge refused to allow Marshall to speak in the courtroom.

In some ways, Marshall and Friedman are set up as partners in a buddy movie, relegating Friedman to be the guy who wants to sneak out the back door while Marshall stirs up a hornet's nest. Naturally, Friedman eventually comes around and decides to help Marshall with the case, which involves a black chauffeur named Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), who is accused of raping a white woman, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), and then tossing her off a bridge into a stream.

Marshall quickly sees the unlikeliness of the scenario - Strubing said that she was thrown into the calm-watered side of the bridge - as opposed to the rocky other side that would have guaranteed her death - and her accusations that Spell threw rocks at her once she was in the water is quickly dispelled by the fact that the only rocks on the bridge are mere pebbles.

James Cromwell pops up in a cameo as the obviously prejudiced judge who gives favor to the snotty prosecutor (Dan Stevens), who is clearly his buddy from the country club - that is, until he doesn't. The courtroom scenes involving the changes of heart among the white jurors and judge are among the film's weaker sequences. Yes, I'm aware that the film is based on an actual court case and the outcome remains the same. But the way this is communicated in the film wasn't that convincing.

While "Marshall" may not be a civil rights drama on the level of "Selma," which focused less on an individual than a movement, and Spike Lee's remarkable "Malcolm X," it's an entertaining courtroom drama that occasionally feels like a thriller. It doesn't try to create a mythos around Marshall, but rather portray him as one of the few voices of sanity and competent professionals in an engrossing case in which the real-life Marshall just happened to play a role. In other words, I recommend the film, which is overall a well made true story that doesn't feel too much like a musty biopic.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected)

Image courtesy of Netflix.
Noah Baumbach doesn't tread much new ground in "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)," his latest film regarding the follies and foibles of neurotic - and occasionally acerbic - New Yorkers, but the picture is an example of a filmmaker being in his groove and doing what he does well. His latest is - it should come as no surprise - often bitterly funny, but there's an unexpected poignancy to the proceedings as well.

The film is broken into chapters devoted to various characters in the dysfunctional, but mostly artistically inclined, Meyerowitz clan. Baumbach also frequently cuts away from an actor in mid-speech - or often, shout - and this has the effect of notifying the audience that its characters are people who talk at each other, without often truly listening to what their fellow family members are saying. In other words, they often don't feel listened to or appreciated.

The paterfamilias of the Meyerowitz family is Harold (Dustin Hoffman), a self-important artist whose sculpture work is barely remembered as part of a movement from the late 1960s. Harold is bitter that some of his contemporaries, such as pal L.J. (Judd Hirsch, in a great cameo appearance), are more respected and he pretends to not be interested in a gallery exhibit offered to him, mostly because he'll have to share it with other artists - although we all know he'll accept in the end. Harold is constantly put upon and there's a truly hilarious sequence during which he nearly has a meltdown after a person seated next to him at a restaurant just slightly invades his space. Harold bears some resemblance to Jeff Daniels' hysterically self-involved character from Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale."

Harold's two sons - Danny (Adam Sandler) and his half-brother, Matthew (Ben Stiller) - are both screwed up in their own ways. Danny is a good father to his daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), although we first meet him singing along to Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam in the car with the girl and nearly having his own meltdown while attempting to park in Manhattan. Danny and Eliza's mother, who is never seen, are separating and he is currently unemployed - after being a stay-at-home father and piano teacher - and seeking a temporary stint on Harold's couch.

Meanwhile, Matthew is the most successful member of the family - albeit, the only one with no artistic ability or temperament - and lives in Los Angeles, where he has recently started a new real estate firm. He resents Harold, who it appears to have constantly made Matthew feel as if the two of them were competing, and there is tension when the two are in the same room together.

However, after Harold ends up in the hospital, his two sons and daughter, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel, who gets some of the film's best lines) reunite. Harold's constantly drunken third wife, Maureen (Emma Thompson, showing a gift for comedy that I'd never before imagined), isn't much help, so it's up to Harold's children to take care of things.

As I'd mentioned before, not much new happens here that hasn't already been witnessed in numerous other movies about dysfunctional families with self-centered patriarchs. But the writing here is so sharp - much like Baumbach's other films - and the performances are incredibly genuine. Hoffman and Thompson are both irritatingly funny, while Marvel is more touchingly so. And Stiller has some great moments, most notably a scene during which he has to pay tribute to his father at Harold's gallery exhibit.

But it's Sandler who turns in the strongest performance here, easily his best since his surprise turn in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch Drunk Love" 15 years ago. Yes, the actor occasionally goes into the rage mode he's known for in his films about men with stunted, juvenile personalities, but here - much like in Anderson's film - this is utilized to maximum capacity. He also shows a vulnerability that might convince those who wrote him off long ago. It's a genuinely convincing performance.

Baumbach's films can be described as slightly more acerbic pictures in the vein of Woody Allen. His characters are just as intellectual as Allen's - and they'll often rub it in one another's faces - but they are also more fragile, despite their often hardened exteriors. The director is also a great writer, as witnessed by films such as "The Squid and the Whale," "Greenberg," "While We're Young" and "Frances Ha." I'm not sure if "The Meyerowitz Stories" is among his very best, but it's very good nevertheless - engrossing, funny, humane and wonderfully acted.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Review: The Florida Project

Image courtesy of A24.
Much like "Boyhood" or "Moonlight," Sean Baker's "The Florida Project" is a movie that doesn't make for the easiest sell when describing it. The film is about a couple of kids and their lower class parents who live in a cheap motel overseen by a stressed out, but good natured manager, a few blocks away from Disney World in Orlando. There's a fair amount of drama in the film, but little in the way of plot. The picture is observational, rather than narrative driven, and its broken up into a series of vignettes that are often hilarious, frightening, heart warming and heartbreaking. And yet, this is an amazing movie - one of the best, if not the best, I've seen so far this year.

In Brooklynn Prince, Baker - whose last film was "Tangerine," a movie about two transgender prostitutes that was shot on an iPhone - has found a pint-sized superstar. Her performance as Moonee - the leader of a group of good-natured but rambunctious children who make the Magic Castle motel their playground - is the best by a child that I can recall since Quvenzhane Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Much of the time, it's difficult to discern whether the lines blurted out by her and her friends are scripted or ad libbed, but both Prince and Baker should be commended for the result.

Moonee spends her days causing mischief with Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and shy Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who lives down the street the Futureland Inn. The trio wreak all manor of havoc - spitting on parked cars from a balcony, accidentally starting a fire, shutting off the fuse at their motel, busting up old furniture in an abandoned home - in the way that bored kids tend to do. The film is also on-the-money in the manner in which it depicts how children say the damnedest things - my personal favorite is when Moonee declares that if she had a pet alligator, she'd name it Anne.

But life for Moonee is not all fun and games. Her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) has no actual job to speak of - rather, she drags Moonee along to help her sell perfume that she's bought in bulk to rich people outside of Orlando's resorts. Occasionally, Halley does other, illegal things for money with Moonee often sitting in the bathroom of their slightly run-down motel room. Halley's best friend is Scooty's mother, Ashley (Mela Murder) - that is, until the kids cause some trouble that leads to a rift between the two parents.

Willem Dafoe gives one of the best performances of his career as Bobby, the hotel's much beleaguered manager, who also acts the de facto mayor of the motel community, a majority of whom are not guests, but live-in families who are below the poverty line. There is, however, one pretty funny sequence during which a pair of tourists on their honeymoon who accidentally made a mistake in booking their accommodations end up at the Magic Castle. Bobby also acts as a default father for the motel's kids, whose parents are too wrapped up in their own dramas to notice that their children are running wild. There's a particularly powerful scene in which Bobby notices a creepy old man leering at the children on the property and he reacts accordingly.

One of the elements of "The Florida Project" that makes it so special is how it is, on the one hand, often a funny, joyful and wildly exuberant picture but, at the same time, deeply sad and true to life. There may be an element of fantasy - and the picture ends with a beautiful flight of fancy as a temporary respite from a bleak scenario that plays out during the final 20 minutes - but the film is grounded in reality. This is a movie that turns its lens on poverty, but doesn't flinch or turn away to shield viewers from unpleasantness. Nor does it exploit its characters or judge them. And it's no small feat that it manages to depict characters - Halley, for instance - who are deeply flawed, but still manage to elicit our sympathy, regardless of how one might view their choices.

Viewers will have their varying opinions on whether Disney World is a magical kingdom, but the film's choice of location - a ramshackle hotel filled with people barely getting by that is down the street from a multi-billion dollar generating tourist spot - is perfect for this film. This is the type of movie that can change one's perception of how the other half lives. It's also one of the best movies I've seen regarding the day-in, day-out lives of children.

As I'd mentioned before, it's a film that can be placed in a category with films such as "Boyhood" and "Moonlight," in that it is a humanistic and realistic film that draws us into the lives of people whose existences might not on the surface appear extraordinary, but the sum total of their experiences can deeply move us. And it's the type of film that, much like those aforementioned movies, is one that I doubt you'll likely soon forget. This is a great film.

Review: Blade Runner 2049

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Visually gorgeous and concerned with matters typically more pressing than your average science fiction picture, Denis Villeneuve's "Blade Runner 2049" is a good sequel to a great movie. Much will be said about Roger Deakins' cinematography and it will all be warranted. The film is, no hyperbole here, pretty incredible from a visual standpoint.

From vast desert vistas to a hellish fight amid a sinking ship and cities lit up with large virtual characters making their way through the swarms of humans, Villeneuve's sequel to Ridley Scott's 1982 classic film features some breathtaking camerawork and visual effects. Its story is also pretty engaging - and leaves viewers with much to ponder on what it means to be human or, perhaps, having a state of consciousness - if not quite groundbreaking, considering that it covers much of the same ground of the original "Blade Runner."

As the film opens, Ryan Gosling's K is one of the titular figures, a cop whose job it is to track down replicants who have lived past their planned expiration date and are making lives for themselves outside of their original intention - and kill them. The film opens with such a scene, during which K finds a clue regarding a child who, it appears, was born from a replicant and may have something to do with Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).

K works for Robin Wright's Lieutenant Joshi, who appreciates his work and obviously cares about him, but the only other "person" with whom he makes actual contact is a hologram of a woman. Other characters central to the picture include Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the blind villain who is responsible for creating - and destroying, rather cruelly - the replicants, and his vicious henchwoman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks).

My favorite scenes in the picture involve K's mission to track down Deckard, who lives in an abandoned Las Vegas, where hologram images of Elvis Presley flicker on and off in a deserted theater and large statues looking like something out of ancient Egypt mark the entryway to the city. The scenes between Gosling and Ford - both of whom are very good here - give the film, which is often purposefully emotionally distant, its heart and soul.

I don't think "Blade Runner 2049" is on the same level as the original. As I'd mentioned before, it doesn't really cover much ground that hasn't already been well-trodden, but instead it provides a worthy coda to its story. It also, perhaps, hints of more "Blade Runner" films to come. Regardless, Villeneuve has proven again that he is a filmmaker who can take on big budget genre concepts and draw strong performances and thematic relevance from them. This is a rare example of a sequel that is warranted and expands upon its original story, rather than merely milking more money out of a concept.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Review: Super Dark Times

Image courtesy of The Orchard
Kevin Phillips' "Super Dark Times" is a skillfully made - and very dark - coming of age story set in the 1990s that recalls such great movies about youth as "Stand By Me," "Donnie Darko" and "River's Edge," although it's the third film that it most closely resembles.

Although there have been numerous films - most recently, "It" - that depict the somewhat unseemly way that young boys and male teenagers speak, a majority of the pictures that do so portray their protagonists as innocent - at least, to an extent. One of the many elements that makes "Super Dark Times" so chilling is that while the film includes the types of scenes that you might expect to find regarding teenage boys - for example, the inexperienced braggadocio involving sexual matters, sneaking peaks at porn videos that are filled with static almost to the point of being unwatchable and dopey arguments over which comic book character is the best - there's also a sense that some of these young men aren't just boys being boys, but rather are more troubled than they initially let on.

The picture updates the concept of Chekov's gun involving a samurai sword that leads to a tragedy and, in turn, leads to several more. Latchkey teenagers Zach (Owen Campbell), who is the more sensitive of the pair, and Josh (Charlie Tahan), who is less at ease in his skin than his friend and possibly more angry than he initially lets on, are best friends, but an early conversation during which they discuss a girl whom they both clearly like - Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino) - signals a possible upcoming rift in their comradeship.

Occasionally, the two boys pal around with a middle schooler named Charlie (Sawyer Barth) and an obnoxious, overweight boy, Daryl (Max Talisman), who is clearly a source of annoyance for the group of young men. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that some stolen weed and the aforementioned weapon are snatched by the boys from Josh's older brother's room and tragedy accidentally strikes.

The film's first half is its strongest as Phillips, a cinematographer, utilizes what is known as the magic hour - the time just before the sunset goes down in the evening - to great effect. But rather than create an aura that is wistful - as many films about youth tend to do - it has a more sinister effect here. Much like David Lynch, whose recent "Twin Peaks" revival included numerous eerie overhead shots of wooded areas, Phillips uses the sun setting in small town America to create a sense of unease.

As the picture settles into its second half, the picture takes on a paranoid edge as the two boys begin to lose faith in each other and, simultaneously, vie for Allison's attentions. There are also some creepy dream sequences that signal us to the fact that Zach is troubled by the aforementioned tragedy, while Josh deals with it, well, in his own way.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers opt for a climax that feels more in line with a teenage slasher film than a dark drama such as "River's Edge," which also involved a group of youths who attempt to cover up the death of one of their compadres. Whereas that 1986 indie classic was a believable drama about the end of innocence, "Super Dark Times" - which, to be fair, has a fair amount to offer - ultimately devolves into a thriller about a sociopath and involves character leaps that I didn't quite buy. In other words, characters become what the plot requires, rather than doing so organically. Regardless, the film marks a notable - if imperfect and uneven - debut for Phillips, who clearly has talent behind the camera.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Review: Woodshock

Image courtesy of A24.
Fashion designers have, on a few occasions, become filmmakers and - at least in one case - achieved some success. Take, for example, Tom Ford, whose "A Single Man" was a good movie and his follow-up, "Nocturnal Animals," an even better one. Unfortunately for Laura and Kate Mulleavy - the duo behind the brand Rodarte - their debut film, "Woodshock," is a series of interesting images in search of some sort of cohesive viewing experience.

Anyone who has read my reviews should be fully aware that I tend to be intrigued by experimental, avant-garde and off-the-wall cinematic experiences that often are not easily categorized or explained. Hell, the best thing I've seen this year - so far - is David Lynch's "Twin Peaks: The Return" and two of my favorite movies of 2017 are "Mother!" and "Personal Shopper."

"Woodshock" aims to be in the company of the experimental gods, and while the Mulleavy sisters can be commended for conjuring up some eerily haunting imagery throughout the film, it's all at the service of a viewing experience that is frequently confusing and, more than often, tedious. Kirsten Dunst, a game actress whose performance in "Melancholia" is among my favorite of the decade, has a presence that makes us want to watch what she's up to - but she's given little to do here, other than wander around in a daze and, during one particularly unexplainable moment, commit an act of brutal violence.

As the film opens, Dunst's Theresa is assisting in her mother's suicide - the woman appears to be ill, but no other details are given - via some sort of drug that is smoked. During the course of the picture, Dunst appears - I'll be using this word quite a bit, mind you - to give the drug to several others, including a teetering old man, as well as use it herself. In between, she hangs out with several men: boyfriend Nick (Joe Cole), some guy named Johnny (Jack Kilmer) and possible employer Keith (Pilou Asbaek), who appears to be set up as some sort of bad guy, but in an inexplicable way.

And that's basically all I can tell you, other than Theresa gets increasingly weirder - during one scene, she nails down a number of wooden planks in her yard, is scolded by Nick and then removes them - and spends a lot of time in the woods, either floating - due to the drug she is taking - or laying down on the ground in a manner that is oddly reminiscent of "The Virgin Suicides," one of many films that used Dunst's ethereal screen presence to better use.

My best explanation of what then occurs: some stuff happens. Theresa attacks a man with a steaming iron because, well, you tell me. The camera focuses on trees being sawed down in the Pacific Northwest community where Theresa apparently lives. During one of the film's glaringly obvious moments, Theresa asks her lumberjack boyfriend whether he "regrets chopping it all down" - I paraphrase - and it's obvious that she's not only referring to his work in the logging industry.

Also, some sort of environmental theme flows through the film and the Mulleavys appears to be making the strange suggestion that Theresa's assisted suicide effort is somehow comparable to damaging the earth. At least, that's what I took out of it. Either way, "Woodshock" is both promising and stultifying. The Mulleavys are capable of producing some lovely and occasionally haunting images, but "Woodshock" doesn't put them to good use. If the sisters make a second film, I hope their talent behind the camera results in something more satisfying.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Review: Mother!

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
For its sheer audacity and imagination, Darren Aronofsky's "Mother!" should currently be at the top of any serious cinephile's list of current movies to see. There's literally nothing else out there quite like this film, which is the type that people are likely to either love or hate. I'll admit to being riveted the entire way through the film, which starts as an unsettling chamber piece and culminates in a sequence that is nothing short of apocalyptic.

This movie was one of the few cases in which I believe that I benefited by knowing - at least, to an extent - how to view the picture while watching it. Suffice it to say that things are not quite what they first appear to be in "Mother!" and it helped that I knew the context in which to view the film from the beginning. Most people will likely figure out what's going on at some point while watching it, but my personal belief is that something is lost by making such a discovery later in the game since there's so much interesting stuff going on during the opening scenes that a viewer might overlook.

So, here's the deal: I find it near impossible to adequately address my thoughts on this picture without giving away some pretty significant details. In other words, if you continue to read this review, there will be some major spoilers. As I'd mentioned before, I found it to be somewhat of a bonus going into the movie knowing what I did. Others might not.

Still here? So, "Mother!" begins with a couple - one of whom is known as Him (Javier Bardem), while the other is known as Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) - who live alone in a secluded house that they refer to as their "paradise." She's trying to touch up the place, while he is focused on creating - and I use that word for a purpose. He's a poet, but also much more on that. More on this in a minute.

Randomly, an intruder simply known as Man (Ed Harris) arrives and the poet's attention is diverted to him, which annoys Lawrence's character. Shortly after that, a character known as Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up - and after that, their two bickering sons, one of whom kills the other. Is this starting to sound familiar? Then, more people show up and begin wreaking havoc on the house, eventually breaking a sink that causes a flood, after which the visitors are all banned from the home.

Still not sounding familiar? There's no point in me regurgitating the entire plot, but more people arrive shortly after Mother gives birth to a baby boy. They once again begin to take over the house until, finally, Mother has had enough. A tragic incident prompts her to action and the film ends in apocalyptic destruction. Then, ingeniously, the entire process begins again with a new woman in the house. The first and last word of the film - spoken first by Lawrence and then by the other woman upon awakening in an empty bed - is "Baby?"

So, here's the deal. If you've read this far and want to walk into this experience blind, here's your last chance. If you believe that knowing more would enhance your experience, then here it goes: Bardem's character is God, Lawrence is Mother Earth, Harris is Adam, Pfeiffer is Eve, their sons are Cain and Abel, Lawrence's baby is Jesus, the people who flood the house are mankind and, most importantly, the havoc they wreak is meant to represent the horrid way that humans have treated the Earth, which is represented as the house itself.

If this sounds off the wall, that's exactly how it plays. But there's something brilliant to the whole endeavor. Aronofsky - whose previous films "Pi" and "Noah" also take a cynic's approach to religious matters in fascinating ways - takes risks that most filmmakers would go miles to avoid. The entire premise threatens to be ridiculous and there are moments when "Mother!" borders on it. The film is a bizarre home invasion thriller that represents the creation and destruction of mankind as told through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelations, but it's also an eco thriller about humankind's disregard for the place we call home.

No one gets off the hook here. As portrayed by Bardem, God is an egoist who continually attempts to placate the people who are wrecking his home and disrespecting his rules because he needs for his creation to worship him. When he realizes his creation has drifted way off the path, he allows for them to be destroyed and creates a world anew. The film's opening sequence suggests that this wasn't the first time he had attempted this.

Mankind comes off even worse - self centered, destructive, violent (as the house is overtaken by more and more visitors, random acts of cruelty and bloodletting take place in nearly every corner of the home), nihilistic and egocentric. In other words, this is not a date movie. Lawrence's character is the only one meant to draw sympathy - and she, therefore, has the trickiest role since she is intended to be a cypher.

Aronofsky has long been a daring filmmaker. "Pi" was a brilliant debut that channeled the fever dreams of "Eraserhead," while "Requiem for a Dream" is one of the most harrowing movies ever made about drug abuse. "The Wrestler" was a scrappy independent movie that was surprising at the time of its release as it was so stylistically different from Aronofsky's other work and "Black Swan" was a fascinating thriller about the lengths to which artists sacrifice for their work.

"Mother!" blows the roof off, both literally and figuratively. It's over the top, provocative and sure to anger some viewers. It's also a spellbinding allegory that takes great risks. Admittedly, it's not for everyone. If you consider yourself an adventurous moviegoer, you won't want to miss it.