Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review: Loveless

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Andrey Zvyagintsev's Oscar-nominated "Loveless" is appropriately titled for several reasons. It's a movie about two narcissistic, invective-filled people - who are, in turn, surrounded by miserablists - whose lack of care and attention to their child may ultimately have led to his disappearance. It's also a film that, while handsomely made and well acted, is difficult to love. "Loveless" is the type of picture that I admire and would recommend, but all the while feeling some distance from it.

For those unfamiliar with his work, Zvyagintsev is one of Russia's most acclaimed filmmakers. His most recent - and better - film was "Leviathan," a rather damning portrait of his home country. The first film I recall seeing by the director was "The Return," another haunting tale of familial strife.

"Loveless" follows the story of a couple going through a divorce who clearly hate each other. During the film's early scenes, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) spit continuous avowals of hatred at one another and frequently use their young, lonely son (Matvey Novikok) as a weapon. Both threaten to disavow their own child if it would somehow make life more miserable for the other parent.

During an early scene in the movie, the friendless boy is seen crying behind a door as he listens to his parents lambast each other in the most hateful manner. Shortly thereafter, he disappears without a trace. Meanwhile, Boris is carrying on with a young woman whom he has impregnated, while Zhenya is having a liaison with an older man. At first, neither appears too concerned that their boy has vanished.

It is at this point that - at least in terms of cinematic style - "Loveless" begins to adopt a tone similar to such crime dramas as "Zodiac" and "Prisoners." Zvyagintsev gets a lot of mileage out of creepy barren warehouses, foggy fields and dark wooded areas where search parties roam around looking for the missing boy. Boris and Zhenya both begin to crumble, but it's unclear whether this is out of genuine affection and grief for their missing son, their bleak existences or a sense of guilt regarding their terrible parenting. A visit to Zhenya's despicable mother makes it clear that at least one apple hasn't fallen far from the tree.

"Loveless" is a good movie with strong performances and some gorgeously haunting cinematography. It's not as clear in its thematic intentions - for example, the film is set in 2012 against the backdrop of the U.S. election, which remains unseen, and strife in Ukraine, but seemingly for no purpose - as the powerful "Leviathan," and the leading characters are difficult company with whom to spend two-plus hours. Regardless, the film occasionally casts a moody spell and provides ample proof that Zvyagintsev is one of the most distinctive voices in current Russian cinema.

Review: Black Panther

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
During the course of any year, I often find myself complaining about the overabundance of comic book movies and how they've taken over mainstream moviegoing. Then, something like "Black Panther" pops up - albeit once per decade - and I can see some potential for the genre. It helps that, much like Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" movies, this film has an auteur with vision at its helm. Ryan Coogler brings his thematic interests to the table here and it makes for a richer-than-average superhero movie.

In fact, the film's opening scene - which is set in 1992 in Oakland and involves a character who wants to rise up against America's oppression of African Americans - reminded me more of Coogler's debut, the powerful "Fruitvale Station," than your typical comic book picture. The film's intro tells the story of two brothers, both from the fictional African nation of Wakanda, who foresee different ways of battling injustice. This leads to a fraught moment, resulting in the death of one of the two men.

We cut to the present, where the noble T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is set to take over Wakanda following his father's death in a previous Marvel installment. He has the support of his mother (Angela Bassett), former flame (Lupita Nyong'o), spunky and technologically proficient sister (Letitia Wright), best pal (Daniel Kaluuya) and a man named Zuri (Forest Whitaker), who was an old friend of T'Challa's father.

But on the other side of the world, a vengeful man named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who was present during the opening scene in 1992, steals a Wakandan artifact from a museum, brutally slaughtering the museum's staff with the help of a South African psycho named Klaw (Andy Serkis), and makes plans to visit the African nation, with the intention of taking over as its leader.

One of the things that we learn about Wakanda - which one character says is the actual lost city, rather than Atlantis - is that it is situated on a mountain filled with vibranium, a powerful metal that the Wakandans use for all manner of technology and weaponry. Not surprisingly, their kingdom is hidden away and most of the rest of the world believe it to be impoverished. This is one of several themes running throughout the film that turns a mirror on our own world: Should Wakanda engage in isolationism or take a leading role in the world?

"Black Panther" is unlike any comic book movie you've likely seen. The film is set primarily in Africa and there are only two white characters - Klaw and a secret agent played by Martin Freeman - of any relevance. No other Marvel characters - thankfully - pop up as cheap marketing ploys as they have in previous "Avengers" or other Marvel movies. And the characters in "Black Panther" have more depth than the archetypes exhibited in most comic book movies. This is the richest and best superhero movie since "The Dark Knight" and the best Marvel movie ever.

It also helps to have such a terrific cast - especially Wright as T'Challa's sister and Danai Gurira as a  warrior who leads the kingdom's army - and such eye popping cinematography. Yes, the film engages in the typical battles you'd expect from the genre, but the ones in this film tend to make the viewer care more since the characters are better drawn. With "Black Panther," Coogler proves that he is a filmmaker who can adeptly handle both low budget indie dramas and blockbuster films. I hope he's brought back for the inevitable sequel.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Review: The 15:17 To Paris

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Much like his previous film, "Sully," director Clint Eastwood's latest picture takes a real-life event and depicts it in an intense 15-minute sequence - and then builds an entire film around it with mostly filler. In the case of both films, the reenactment of the event itself is the strongest moment. Just as the airplane crash in "Sully" - which was a better movie, despite some lags - was that film's best sequence, the thwarted terrorist attack on a train in "The 15:17 to Paris" is the finest moment in Eastwood's latest.

It is unfortunate that the rest of the film is so wildly uneven. Eastwood made the daring choice of mostly using non-actors - including the three men who thwarted the attack, playing themselves - and the results are scattershot, if I'm being generous. It doesn't make me pleased to say that the scenes in which the three men are portrayed as kids are particularly hammy, while the latter scenes in which the men re-enact not only the attack on the train, but also their basic training in the military and a European vacation that preceded the attack, feel like unnecessary filler.

The film's earliest scenes are among the weakest in Eastwood's filmography as a director. We meet Alek, Spencer and Anthony - who grow up to be National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, Airman First Class Spencer Stone and college student Anthony Sadler, all played by themselves as adults - as rambunctious kids in California. All three of the boys are obsessed - as many little boys are - with war and weapons, and we often see them playing war games in the woods.

None of the boys fare well at school, and there is an oddly unpleasant anti-teacher sentiment running through the early scenes. All of the teachers at the boys' schools are tyrants. There's a particularly bungled scene during which Spencer and Alek's mothers confront a teacher who wants them to medicate their children, and Spencer's mom (played by Judy Greer) lectures the teacher on how her God has the answers, not the teacher. In recent years, Eastwood has thrown the occasional red meat to red state viewers, but this scene played particularly false.

Another problem with the film is its frequent "on the nose" approach to dialogue. In an early scene, Alek's mother tells him that she foresees some "excitement" in his future, plus a greater purpose. Once Spencer, Alek and Anthony are on their European trip - which culminates in the sequence on the train to Paris - they often discuss their fate as if they knew it ahead of time. Spencer mentions more than once that he believes the three of them are "being catapulted" toward something and, for good measure or in case you'd forgotten, Anthony brings it up again later and they engage in a discussion on the matter. Some of the film's faults are redeemed during the intense and powerful scene on the train, during which the three men save passengers from a terrorist, and are then give much deserved recognition for their courage during a ceremony in France.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, Eastwood was on a streak. During the past 15 years, he has made "Mystic River," "Million Dollar Baby," "Flags Of Our Fathers," "Letters from Iwo Jima," the underrated "Changeling," "Gran Torino" and the misunderstood "American Sniper," which is not - as some might have you believe - a pro-war movie. His last few films have shown some signs of slowing. "Jersey Boys" was amusing, but a standard musical. "Sully" featured an incredible plane crash scene and a solid Tom Hanks performance, but it felt stretched out.

"The 15:17 to Paris" is the director's weakest film of the century so far and one of his lesser efforts among the 30-plus movies that he has directed. Eastwood will be 88 years old this year. Does he have another film in him? I sure hope so. And I hope it's better than this well-intentioned, but not particularly well executed, one.

Review: Fifty Shades Freed

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
"Fifty Shades Freed" tells a time honored story - girl meets sadomasochistic millionaire boy and then gets stalked by fired editor from her publishing house. Trust me when I say that the appearance of the word "freed" in the film's title was particularly meaningful for me as this series comes to a conclusion.

Yes, this third cinematic entry into E.L. James' trilogy is patently absurd and its various plot threads become increasingly ludicrous as it stumbles toward its finale. There's a certain charm in it because the filmmakers - including director James Foley, who has seen better material than this - clearly know that they are peddling ridiculousness. So, while the picture is occasionally amusing - if for no other reason than its plethora of giggle inducing scenes - that doesn't mean it is good.

As the film opens, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) are taking part in their nuptials. Their honeymoon is cut short after there is a break-in at Grey's company and he recognizes Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), Anastasia's former co-worker who attempted to assault her, on the video footage. They leave their vacation in France because clearly catching someone on video committing a crime wouldn't be a matter for the police to handle.

As was the case in the other "Fifty Shades" films, the action momentarily halts every 20 minutes or so for soft core sex scenes, during which Anastasia and Christian clearly don't see nothin' wrong with a little bump 'n grind involving ice cream, ropes and, during one sequence, a vibrator. You know it's not a good thing when the dullest moments in a movie based around a kinky relationship are the sex scenes.

Meanwhile, Hyde - who is one of the types of villains who can seemingly maneuver without anyone noticing - shows up at Anastasia and Christian's home, but his attack is thwarted and he is arrested. He is later released from jail because clearly arson being caught on videotape and holding a knife to a woman's throat aren't enough to have bail denied.

At one point, Anastasia finds out she is pregnant, which leads Christian to throw a tantrum. He then turns to his mentor (recently played by Kim Basinger, but sadly absent here), which then leads to a squabble between the couple. In other words, here's some manufactured drama to fill out the remainder of the film's running time.

The storyline involving Hyde plays out hilariously as it turns out that not one - but two! - former or current employees of Anastasia's seemingly nefarious publishing firm are engaged in the criminal arts. A scenario involving a kidnapping is solved too quickly to add any dramatic weight to the film and the picture wraps up with - I don't know if this qualifies for a spoiler alert - Anastasia and Christian coming to terms with each other's needs.

I repeat, some of "Fifty Shades Freed" is modestly amusing, namely because the picture doesn't take itself very seriously and it wears its absurdity with a badge of honor. But let's not mistake this for an endorsement. It's not a good movie and its few delights don't make up for its near two-hour running time.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Review: Winchester

Image courtesy of CBS Films.
Much like the famously haunted house in which it is set, The Spierig Brothers' "Winchester" is occasionally creepy, but mostly creaky, due to the horror movie cliches in which it abounds and the overabundance of jump scares, my least favorite modern element of the genre.

In fact, the most interesting element of the film is the house itself, which in this film is the home of Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune. Appearing larger than Buckingham Palace and filled with labyrinthine, maze-like corridors, the house is a marvel, and the filmmakers do a decent job of showing how one could get lost in it.

It also helps that the great Helen Mirren plays Sarah. Much like many lauded thespians of her era - I'm thinking Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench - Mirren has no problem hamming it up now and then and, here, she brings a presence to the film that keeps it intermittently interesting. As the film opens, a doctor named Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is approached by a board member of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. who believes that Sarah has lost her marbles. He tasks Price - who is in debt and addicted to laudanum - with giving Sarah a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether she is of sound mind to continue running the company.

Nearly from the moment that Price arrives, strange things begin to occur. Creepy faces pop up in mirrors and strange sounds - and even a finger - emanate from holes in the wall. But Price is a man of science and is skeptical when Sarah tells him that the souls of those who died at the hands of Winchester rifles haunt her house, threatening her, her niece (Sarah Snook) and that woman's young son. The question as to why a young boy would remain in a house possessed by vengeful demons is one not pondered much here.

Of course, as time goes on, Price comes to believe in the ghosts haunting the Winchester house, and a a demon of his own regarding his deceased ex-wife also comes to the surface. Eamon Farren - who was so heinously good on "Twin Peaks" last year - pops up as a creepy butler who might have something up his sleeve, while eerie sequences of men working round-the-clock on the house are, at first, inexplicably creepy, before we find out the true purpose of the work.

The Spierig Brothers were previously responsible for "Predestination," a surprisingly engrossing low budget sci-fi thriller from a few years ago, and "Jigsaw," which I skipped because, honestly, how much can one viewer take of that series? "Winchester" is a mostly forgettable, albeit old fashioned, throwback to the haunted house movies of yesteryear, but with one too many jump scares. Mirren is always worth a look and there are a few genuinely spooky moments, but the picture otherwise fails to distinguish itself from any number of other haunted house movies.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Review: A Fantastic Woman

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
During the course of Sebastian Lelio's "A Fantastic Woman," trans woman Marina (Daniela Vega) is told by several people that when they see her, "I don't know what I'm looking at." And this statement drives home the point that many of the closed-minded individuals with whom Marina has the misfortune to stumble across are making her life choices all about themselves. They are uncomfortable that they are being confronted by a man who has chosen to be a woman, while Marina appears to be relatively unconcerned by their handwringing - that is, until it leads to them taking actions of various sorts against her.

As the film opens, Marina is leading a seemingly happy life with her partner, Orlando (Franciso Reyes), an older man. She works as a waitress, but also moonlights as a singer. During an early scene, the two of them slow dance in a nightclub to Alan Parsons' ethereal "Time," which comes to act as a theme, of sorts, in the film. But soon after they get home that night, Orlando has an aneurysm and dies shortly afterward in a hospital.

From here on out, Marina's life becomes a series of unpleasant confrontations with Orlando's family and various law enforcement officials. In regard to the latter, Marina is presumed to be guilty of something by the police who interview her. Orlando had stumbled down the stairs on the way to the hospital and banged his head, and the authorities who interview Marian not so subtly insinuate that she had something to do with it. Even worse, she must submit to a humiliating interview with a wolf in sheep's clothing - a female detective who acts like an understanding friend, but inflicts all manner of casual cruelty on Marina.

Orlando's family is hardly better. Although his brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco) appears sympathetic, he clearly doesn't want to rock the boat with the rest of the family. Orlando's wife, Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim), is a hateful monster whose role in dealing with her ex-husband's belongings and funeral is - to understate it - overbearing. And Orlando's son is a cretin who boots Marina out of the apartment she shared with Orlando and, even worse, forces her into a car with several other transphobic relatives, who physically torment her, after she shows up to Orlando's wake.

"A Fantastic Woman" occasionally veers from tone to tone - melancholic and even dreamy during several sequences in nightclubs - and has a colorful style that feels partially influenced by Pedro Almodovar. Vega - who is front and center in nearly every shot - is a force of nature as Marina, and the film is often intense due to the danger that nearly always appears to be following her as she walks down the streets of Santiago, where she is assaulted both physically and verbally during the course of the film.

Lelio's film is one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Film at this year's Academy Awards. It is groundbreaking in that it is one of the few films that I can recall that puts an actual trans person - as opposed to an actor playing one - in a leading role. It's also a very good movie that runs the gamut of emotions, mostly due to Vega's knockout performance.

There's a particularly noteworthy scene late in the film during which Marina is lying naked on a bed and looking down at her crotch area, which is obscured by a mirror that she has positioned there. She looks down and her face is reflected back to her. This is what Marina wants others to see, and she could care less what other people think regarding what goes on between her legs.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Review: Have A Nice Day

Image courtesy of Strand Releasing.
Jian Liu's "Have a Nice Day" led me to believe that its maker has been watching a fair amount of Quentin Tarantino movies. The filmmaker is a few decades late as the period during which others stole from that filmmaker - who himself is a master of homage - reached its peak in the late 1990s.

The film - which features relatively murky animation and an abundance of dingy locales - is a brief and occasionally amusing picture that follows a bag of money that switches hands among a group of criminals - some hardened, others of the novice variety - and leads to a fair amount of bloodshed as it makes the rounds.

As the film opens, a crime boss is threatening a lifelong friend - who is tied up and bloodied - after he finds out that the man has had an affair with his girl. He gets a call that a young man has stolen money from one of his cohorts and sends out a violent thug, who is constantly slurping from a cup, to retrieve it. Into the mix are thrown the thief's girlfriend's sister and her long-haired pal, a man and woman who throw the kid in the back of their jeep and various others.

The paths of these various characters cross and, needless to say, some of those paths end in a brutal manner. And that pretty much sums up "Have a Nice Day," which reminded me slightly of the films of Satoshi Kon - who was responsible for "Perfect Blue" and "Tokyo Godfathers" - in terms of the animation style, although Kon's films tended to be thematically richer than this one.

There are some odd flights of fancy, one of which in particular - a daydream sing-a-long involving two of the characters - doesn't work. It also doesn't help that we know so little about the film's characters, who spend much of their time chasing the money and inflicting violence on others. The picture occasionally includes some peculiar delights - a dog taking a piss on one of the film's many unlikable characters, what appears to be a gigantic Komodo dragon crossing a train track - but on the whole, "Have a Nice Day" is too fleeting (a mere 77 minutes) and in the debt of better films that it is emulating to leave much of an impression.