Sunday, August 20, 2017

Review: Patti Cake$

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Geremy Jasper's Sundance hit "Patti Cake$" manages to get by on the charismatic performance of its lead Danielle Macdonald and a certain amount of spunk, despite that the picture tells a story that has been told many times in one form or fashion and occasionally suffers from issues of credibility. In other words, you can spot where the film is going from a mile - or 8 - away, but it's the journey that mostly satisfies.

In the film, Patricia Dombrowski - who is unaffectionately called "Dumbo" by folks in her working class New Jersey neighborhood and often ridiculed about her weight - wants to be a hip hop star, but is stuck in a low paying existence in her employment with a caterer. She also has to watch over her ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) and mother, Barb (Bridget Everett), an alcoholic with a set of pipes that once led her to dream of being a rock star. Now, however, Barb gets soused and performs karaoke at the local bar where Patti picks up a few shifts as a bartender and is often forced to hold her mother's hair while she pukes in the toilet.

Patti's best pal is a scrawny Indian fellow and pharmacist named Jhen (Siddharth Dhananjay), who shares in her dream of hip hop stardom and acts as a back-up vocalist to Patti when she freestyles - an early sequence involving this as the two sit on the hood of a car is among the film's most awkward moments. When Patti and Jhen meet another awkward misfit named Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a hardcore metal solo artist who makes Trent Reznor seem tame by comparison, at a talent night, something clicks and the trio formed a group known as PBNJ.

Despite the film being an enjoyable rags to riches story, there are some questions of authenticity that came to mind while I watched it. For starters, there are hardly any people of color to be found anywhere - other than Jhen - during the scenes in which Patti joins in freestyle competitions with neighborhood kids on the streets and a sequence during which she attends a local hip hop performance by a jerk on whom she has a crush. In fact, the only African American to be spotted anywhere is Basterd, who is portrayed as a tortured artist and is vehemently opposed to societal norms, but he then quickly gives in to the mainstream tastes that Patti is pushing and joins her group with seemingly no second thought on the matter. Patti and Jhen record their demo in a wooded shack that Basterd inhabits and could best be described as a "lair."

There's a scene later in the picture during which Patti ends up catering the home of a hip hop mogul whom she idolizes and she sneaks him a copy of her demo. The guy - known as OZ - acts like a complete ass to Patti, but he sort of has a valid point when he accuses her of cultural appropriation, which is similar to charges faced by Iggy Azalea when she embraced the lifestyle of hip hop, but turned a blind eye to its cultural and political implications.

Patti is a more sensitive soul - certainly more so than Azalea or her mother, who tells her to "act her race" - but it seems as if she only interacts with black people when she needs to cut a record in a studio or perform at the film's talent search finale, where the audience goes from booing her - and the film seems to indicate that this occurs since she is a white girl in a fur coat - to cheering her within seconds once she starts performing.

On the other hand, Patti's ridicule at the hands of young men in her community and her bitter mother also make us want to root for her. It also helps that Macdonald's performance is such a good one - she's at once confident and vulnerable - and this helps to glide past some of the picture's less effective attributes. So, while "Patti Cake$" isn't quite the Sundance sensation as it was purported to be, it's a likable, well acted and plucky character study.

Review: Logan Lucky

Image courtesy of Bleecker Street Media.
Steven Soderbergh returns to filmmaking - and the heist movie in particular - with the breezy and entertaining "Logan Lucky," which ends up pulling the rug out from beneath viewers' feet, not due to a plot twist - although there are a few of those - but rather the way in which the audience comes to view the characters.

The motley crew of individuals who make up the story of "Logan Lucky," of which much is set in my home state of West Virginia, at first give off the impression of the type of down-on-their-luck nitwits that might pop up in a Coen Brothers movie, but by the end of the picture, well, maybe not so much. There's probably a good 20 minutes remaining in the film after the heist takes place and this time is used to deconstruct what we've seen and believed to have seen.

As the picture opens, Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is a salt of the earth former coal miner whose life is a string of regrets. He was once pegged as a football star, but an injury to his leg - that still causes him to limp - halted all that. Jimmy is fired from his job due to his disability and he has a young daughter with an estranged wife (Katie Holmes), who is married to a rich moron. Jimmy's brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), is a bartender who lost part of an arm while serving in the military overseas. The brothers also have a younger sister (Riley Keough) who is a hairdresser.

One day prior to his being laid off, Jimmy - who commutes to work in Charlotte - notices a series of tubes in the mines where he works and realizes that they are used to transport money from the NASCAR stadium above ground. He comes up with a scheme to steal a large chunk of money from the tubes and enlists his brother, sister and a convict named Joe Bang (a very funny Daniel Craig) as well as Joe's two numbskull brothers, whose decision making process on whether to join the scheme resulted in one of the year's biggest laughs. But first, Clyde gets himself thrown into prison in order to bust Joe out for the job.

Although "Logan Lucky" is a heist movie and an engrossing one at that, it's also a movie about a community and the pluck of its individual members. And while the film mostly operates as an often very funny comedic caper, it also has heart, which is best exemplified during a sequence that could have turned maudlin, but doesn't, involving a school pageant and Jimmy's young daughter.

The movie is loaded with talent and, arguably, a few of the characters aren't fleshed out as well as, perhaps, they could have been - I'm thinking Keough's character, Katherine Waterston's love interest for Jimmy and Hilary Swank's FBI agent. Then again, several of the other bit parts are particularly successful, such as Seth MacFarlane's asshole NASCAR driver.

"Logan Lucky" marks the return to the big screen of one of American film's most adventurous directors. It may not be an artistic statement in the realm of "Traffic" or "Sex, Lies and Videotape," but it's a very well made and enjoyable crime picture - and Soderbergh had already proven himself one of the masters of the genre with "Out of Sight" - and one that I'd highly recommend.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Review: Annabelle: Creation

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
For those seeking a horror movie that will genuinely scare them and keep them on the edges of their seats for the duration of its running time, "Annabelle: Creation" mostly gets the job done. It's significantly better than the first "Annabelle" movie and there are a few sequences that are pretty terrifying. However, the film is still a fairly generic haunted house movie that pulls out all the usual horror tropes and relies more than a few times on jump scares - of which I'm not particularly fond.

"The Conjuring" was a well made and frightening horror movie that has led to one direct sequel, the first "Annabelle" picture and, now, this one - all in the past four years. In other words, this cinematic world is being milked for all it is worth. "Creation" is mostly unnecessary, but director David Sandberg has put a certain amount of craft and care into this prequel that make it slightly better than you might expect.

As the film opens, a young girl - you'll never guess her name - plays a game with her loving father (Anthony LaPaglia) and mother (Miranda Otto) in their creaky old home in the middle of nowhere. The date is never given, but I'd expect this intro is set at some point in the 1940s. But a tragedy befalls the family and - more than a decade later - the couple lives alone in the old house, which is now being used as an orphanage, where a young nun and a group of pre- and teenage girls will come to live. You'll never guess what happens next.

LaPaglia's character was once a doll maker and, naturally, one of his creations was the creepy glass eyed titular character, which has seemingly been possessed by a demon of some sort. This demon taunts the house's new denizens and eventually takes possession of one of them. Much time is spent by all creeping around in the dark - turn on the lights, for heaven's sake! - and walking into rooms where something spooky is obviously taking place. As I'd mentioned before - horror tropes.

There are a few set pieces that are particularly jarring, especially one involving a young girl atop a bunk bed who believes that something is lurking in her room. Sandberg shoots the sequence from a variety of angles, especially an effective overhead shot that reveals only a little at a time. There's another scene in a barn involving a scarecrow that is also creepy, but also - let's be honest - pretty silly.

There's a lot of screaming to be heard in "Annabelle: Creation" and some of it is likely coming from the audience. Things pop out not when you expect them to, but a few seconds later. The filmmakers toy with expectations and while it occasionally pays off, the same set-up becomes a little tiresome after a while. But I'll give credit where it's due - Sandberg's picture creeps along at its own pace and the suspense builds fairly well. Although I can't wholeheartedly give this picture my full endorsement, it's significantly better than its predecessor - "Annabelle" - and not half-bad for a standard horror movie prequel.

Review: Good Time

Image courtesy of A24.
So, here's the thing - Benny and Joshua Safdie's Cannes Film Festival favorite "Good Time" is a tense, well shot and acted and stylish throwback that gives off the vibe of Sidney Lumet making a remake of "After Hours." And while that may sound all and good - and "Good Time" is indeed a pretty decent movie - it's not without its problems.

The Safdie brothers are previously responsible for "Daddy Longlegs," which is unseen by me, and "Heaven Knows What," a similarly tense and grimy movie about down-on-their-luck types that also had an unnerving synth score, grainy photography and unsettling performances. But also similar to that previous picture, "Good Time" is among those category of films that I admire - at least, from the standpoint of stylish filmmaking and solid acting - more than I love.

As the picture opens, Nick - a low-level thug who also has some form of mental handicap - is pulled out of a therapy session by his excitable brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) and the two proceed to pull off a heist at a bank. During the robbery, the two men wear rubber masks that give them the appearance of black men, although it's plain for anyone to see that their faces are covered in rubber. This is one of the first instances in which the film inadvertently deals with the matter of race - but more on that later.

After the bag full of money turns out to have an exploding dye pack that leaves the brothers with red faces, Nick gets pinched by the cops and thrown into Rikers Island, leaving Connie to undertake a wild night of attempting to raise $10,000 to spring his brother from jail. Along the way, Connie attempts to convince his girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to give him the loot - and when that fails, he smuggles a man whom he believes to be his brother, who has been attacked in jail in hospitalized, out of the hospital. As it turns out, he's freed another low-life criminal, who ends up getting involved in Connie's scheme to raise the money.

There's a particularly unsettling sequence (more on that later) involving Connie and an elderly black woman and her granddaughter after he swindles his way into their living room to hide out from the police. And the picture's finale is set at an amusement park in Queens, where Connie and his pal from the hospital - a particularly dim bulb named Ray (Buddy Duress) - attempt to find some cash that Ray, a drug dealer, had stashed earlier in the day.

As I've mentioned before, "Good Time" is visually stylish and propulsive. The pulsating score by Oneohtrix Point Never gives each sequence during which Connie is barreling forward through the streets of Queens during the course of the night a certain urgency. And Pattinson is on fire as Connie, who is neither a particularly sympathetic or intelligent character, but manages to remain compelling.

And yet, while "Good Time" appears to tackle some serious issues, it only does so as an aside. For starters, most of the victims of Connie, his brother and Ray are people of color - from the bank teller whom they harass to a cabbie who gives Ray a ride, but also the 16-year-old black teenager living in the house where Connie hides out and an immigrant security guard whom Connie and Ray beat nearly into oblivion. There's a shot during which one of the film's thuggish white characters is taking a drug and a part of it drips on a newspaper clipping featuring Pepe the Frog - you know, the symbol of white power that the alt-right has adopted. But that controversial image's appearance seems to have no purpose.

And during the film's most unsettling moment, Connie distracts the aforementioned teenage girl when his face pops up on the news by putting the moves on her. He nearly has sex with her, but is interrupted during a sequence in which I was unsure whether the filmmakers were playing it serious or for laughs. It would appear that the filmmakers have something to say about the picture's mostly heinous lead characters - who are white - and their treatment of minorities, but it never does much other than present the fact that they are all cretins. Plus, it would also appear that the filmmakers are asking us to root for Connie and Nick - which is a mistake. And finally, the Safdies mostly shoot the mentally handicapped Nick in close-ups, pushing in constantly on his face - but again, for what purpose?

If there's any sort of statement to be made here - and I certainly do not require one in any movie, although if one tackles weighty subject matter, a filmmaker should be prepared to follow through - it's during the end of the picture after Connie - spoiler alert - has been arrested and it's mentioned by Nick's psychiatrist that "he's where he ought to be." So, while "Good Time" is a movie that impresses by the Safdies' filmmaking prowess, it's far from perfect. I'd recommend it as a well made piece of work, although its flaws must also be considered.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Review: The Dark Tower

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
I've read a great many of Stephen King's books, but I'll admit that I have yet to crack open a copy of any of the entries into his beloved "Dark Tower" series. Perhaps, one day I will. My hope is that the books - which have garnered their share of praise and fandom over the years - will be better than this long-awaited film, which ranks as one of the worst adaptations of King's work - and that's saying something.

Apparently stuffing material together from several of the "Dark Tower" volumes, Nikolaj Arcel's picture bounces several genres around at once - and all clunkily. As the film opens, a young boy named Jake (Tom Taylor) has been experiencing odd dreams that might have something to do with the unexplained earthquakes that rock his hometown of New York and other parts of the world. His mother (Katheryn Winnick) thinks that her son might be cuckoo when he tries to explain the connection between the quakes and the vivid nightmares he experiences.

Meanwhile, somewhere else - hey, that's the best I can do in this instance - a figure known as the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey, engaging in some series hamming it up) wants to destroy the titular structure, which protects the universe or something to that effect. On his trail is Roland (Idris Elba), a gunslinger armed with two pistols that seemingly never run out of ammo and some mantra that scolds people for forgetting the faces of their fathers.

Upon the threat of being sent upstate to a camp for wayward children, Jake flees his home and manages to end up in Roland's world, where the cryptic gunslinger obligingly allows him to tag along. Meanwhile, the Man in Black is seeking out children who "shine" - a word to which King apparently took one back in the day - and can, therefore, do whatever it is that they do when McConaughey's villain hooks them up to a machine that seemingly causes a large amount of light to shoot out of their heads.

"The Dark Tower" is loaded with problems. It's not particularly suspenseful, although there is a shootout sequence late in the picture that is well staged. King is a good writer and he's often an ace at capturing how ordinary people talk, so it's disappointing that this film's mostly expository dialogue is like nails on a chalkboard. Also, the few instances in which otherworldly creatures - several in a forest and a house that appears to come alive - are, to say the least, confusing.

This could be a case of a novel that is seemingly unadaptable. There are such things. For the sake of reference, look up "Breakfast of Champions" and "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Next month, we'll get the long-awaited film adaptation of "It," which is much more cinematically inclined. The verdict is obviously still out on that one, but "The Dark Tower" is an unequivocal bust.

Review: Detroit

Image courtesy of Annapurna Distribution.
Equally powerful and punishing, Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit" is a film that can - at the same time - draw admiration for its dynamic filmmaking and be a difficult viewing experience. I don't mean to say that the film doesn't engage - boy, does it ever - or that I didn't think it was a great piece of cinematic art - I do - but it is relentlessly disturbing, angry, shocking and despairing. In other words, it's a movie to which people should submit themselves, white America especially.

There have been some arguments that Bigelow, who is white, is not the person who should have told this story and Hollywood's history of white people telling black stories (for example, "Ghosts of Mississippi" and other movies that focus on race relations) has often been one of sanitization. That is not the case here. In fact, if anything, "Detroit" is unflinching to the point of making one uncomfortable - as it should - and occasionally unbearable to watch.

The picture is, of course, set amid the massive 1967 riot in the titular city that began as civil disobedience after police conducted a raid at an unlicensed, after hours bar known as the Blind Pig and were unnecessarily rough with the black patrons whom they arrested. This then turned into a full-scale riot that is considered among the most destructive of its type in U.S. history.

And amid all the confusion and melee taking place on the streets of Detroit, a horrific incident at the Algiers Motel - which takes up a majority of Bigelow's film - is one of the most prominent and terrifying examples of police brutality on people of color. It is also one that - and I'm pretty sure that this won't ruin the moviegoing experience for anyone as it should probably come as no surprise, given our nation's recent history - resulted in abusive white officers mostly going unpunished.

There are multiple plot threads in Bigelow's film and there has been some criticism - and some of it not completely off the mark - that the numerous characters in the movie only get minimal development. In other words, most of them are archetypes, however, for the purpose of the film it didn't take much away from my personal experience of the picture.

Gathered at the Algiers are a member of The Dramatics - yes, the great 1970s soul-funk outfit responsible for "What You See Is What You Get" - named Larry (Algee Smith) and his pal Fred (Jacob Latimore), another group of black men who are having a party upstairs at the hotel, two young white women who are in town from Ohio and a military veteran named Greene (Anthony Mackie). When one of the men from the party sets off a starter pistol, local police and National Guardsmen mistake the shots for a sniper and descend on the hotel.

There are various sets of law enforcement officials - Detroit cops, Michigan troopers, Guardsmen - who wind up at the motel, but the most significant are the heinous, racist Krauss (Will Poulter) - who is seen earlier in the film shooting a young shoplifter in the back as he flees - as well as two of his cohorts and a security guard known as Dismukes (John Boyega, who is the film's MVP), who also happens to be the only black person wearing a badge and carrying a gun in the movie. Dismukes wanders onto the scene in the hopes of keeping the peace amid the riot, but finds himself bearing witness to the atrocities that take place.

The first quarter of the film lays the groundwork, depicting war-zone-like sequences in which rioters and looters duck and cover as police pursue them. Also, Larry and Fred prepare as The Dramatics are set to take the stage to perform on Detroit's "Swingin' Time" program, where they will follow Martha and the Vandellas, who are singing "Nowhere to Run." But the riots interrupt the program and the group never gets the chance to take the stage.

At least half of the movie is set in the Algiers Motel, where Bigelow stages a harrowing sequence during which Krauss and his officers raid and then terrorize the black men on the premises as well as the two white women, whose presence appears to anger the officers even more. It's amazing that more than half of the entire movie involves characters facing a wall while police officers search the premises and engage in all manner of psychological and physical abuse. It's one of the most terrifying set pieces I've ever experienced - but what makes it even more powerful is that it is preluded by a speech from one of the hotel's denizens, who describes such experiences as everyday occurrences in the lives of black men in America.

In the wake of the motel incident, which leaves three dead - all shot in cold blood by police officers - the picture follows the ensuing trial, which is, arguably, a bit too straightforward stylistically, considering all that has gone on before. There's even a scene in which someone has an outburst in the courtroom. In any other movie, it would have been an example of eye-roll-inducing melodrama, but here it's more than earned.

"Detroit" may not quite reach the heights of Bigelow's previous film - the remarkable "Zero Dark Thirty" - but it's pretty stunning nevertheless. It's been said numerous times about numerous other recent movies and it'll be said again, but this picture is not only a powerful recounting of a horrific moment in U.S. history, but also a window into where we are now.

Incidents such as the one at the Algiers are seemingly never-ending in our culture. It would take more than two hands to count all of the incidents that have made the news in recent years during which a young, unarmed black man was gunned down by police. Bigelow's film shines a light on one such particular incident - and the experience is overwhelming and gut wrenching. Art has many purposes - and one of them is to put viewers into the shoes of others to enable one to understand the experiences of others. "Detroit" does such a thing and the result is devastating.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Review: Atomic Blonde

Image courtesy of Focus Features
The combination of her work as Furiosa in "Mad Max: Fury Road" and spy Lorraine Broughton in David Leitch's uber-violent "Atomic Blonde" leads me to believe that Charlize Theron is the best game in town for an action movie heroine. Broughton is a character whose motives may always be questionable, but Theron - when not pummeling wicked men into submission - brings insight and depth to the character with as little as a flick of the eye or a smile.

In the picture, Broughton has been sent - in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall - to Germany to - well, I'll try to explain this - play a role in the transporting of a Russian mole from East Berlin to West Berlin. The mole is named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) and he apparently has a list that is frequently referenced, but as vague and mysterious as the suitcase in "Pulp Fiction."

Broughton's guide in Berlin is a shifty character named Percival (James McAvoy), but she is surrounded by numerous characters with suspicious motives - a French spy named Delphine (Sofia Boutella), a CIA spook (John Goodman), a British intelligence officer (Toby Jones) and numerous Russians, most of whom want to kill Lorraine.

"Atomic Blonde" is bathed in neon and much of the action is set to the tune of such 1980s hitmakers as 'Til Tuesday, Nena, New Order, David Bowie, After the Fire and Public Enemy. In terms of style, "Atomic Blonde" comes up aces. As for story, well, the picture remains entertaining throughout - for the most part - although its labyrinthine plot leaves those attempting to figure out who's double crossing whom in the dust.

But the picture's focal point - which should come as no surprise as it has been directed by Leitch, who is a former stuntman - is a series of incredible fight scenes, each one more brutal and beautifully choreographed than the next. The most intense one involves Theron and several men on a staircase that, for the life of me, baffles as to how it was accomplished without any of the actors killing or seriously wounding themselves. There's also a stylish shootout in the film's finale and a whole number of broken bones, gouged cheeks (ouch!) and car chases in between.

"Atomic Blonde" might leave you scratching your head if you're attempting to follow its numerous twists and turns and it doesn't tell you much about the fall of the Berlin Wall other than, well, it made a lot of people happy.

But the film has some nice touches - especially a lesbian sex scene that comes off as liberating rather than tackily added for the sake of titillation and a sequence during which Broughton fights a group of men in a theater screening Andrei Tarkovsky's legendary "Stalker" - and it's a mostly thrilling, brutal, high energy and well made action picture that proves that Theron is a bona fide action star. In "Atomic Blonde," she's a force of nature.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Image courtesy of STX Entertainment. 
Filled to the brim with eye popping visuals and sequences that act as proof that director Luc Besson has a vivid imagination, "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets," nevertheless, falls short as the picture unloads a whole bunch of exposition and virtually non-stop frenetically energetic action sequences on a story that is not that captivating and, frankly, feels like the leftover plot for a long-lost "Star Wars" movie. There's much to see in "Valerian," but it's a picture that is overstuffed in several departments, while leaving viewers malnourished in others.

For starters, Besson is a director whose visual style can often make for a compelling and exciting piece of action cinema. But when he lets his worst impulses get the better of him, his pictures feel crammed with an overabundance of style and wild pageantry at the expense of story and character.
For every "La Femme Nikita," "The Fifth Element" or, most recently, "Lucy," there's an "Angel-A," "The Family" or the much beleaguered Joan of Arc tale "The Messenger." And "Valerian" is, unfortunately, more in line with the latter three than the former.

This is not to say that the film is an outright bust. As I've mentioned, there's a whole lot going on in this film visually - and a decent portion of it is stimulating to the eye. As the film opens, we are privy to an oceanic world filled with creatures who appear to have been stolen away from the "Avatar" effects department and have small lizards for pets whose bowel movements release crystals that fuel their planet. Or, there's a later sequence during which the titular character (Dane DeHaan) is chasing after a group of individuals and he travels through walls and what would appear to be other dimensions in his pursuit. It's a dazzling sequence.

As the film opens, the caddish Valerian - a top military operative - has proposed to his partner, Laureline (Cara Delevingne), and she doesn't appear to exactly jump at the offer. However, a series of nearly inexplicable plot threads later, the duo are pursuing some of the aforementioned "Avatar"-looking creatures, who have kidnapped a possibly nefarious general (Clive Owen) and are in search of a crystal that can restore their planet, which we see destroyed at the beginning of the movie.

In the meantime, special effects abound. Laureline is kidnapped herself by a group of gigantic, ogre-like beings who attempt to feed her to their king. And Valerian finds himself attempting to free a shape shifting slave (Rihanna) from her pimp-like captor (Ethan Hawke), but not before a long, drawn-out sequence during which the slave dances for Valerian. Around nearly every corner is a new digitally created creature waiting to be discovered and most of them are examples of impressive visual effects. However, many of these creatures are voiced by individuals who are spastically overacting.

So, while "Valerian" is undoubtedly a triumph in the visuals department, its story - which is a fairly routine galaxy-hopping adventure in which a planet's fate hangs in the balance that feels assembled out of the parts of better films, such as "The Fifth Element," "Star Wars," "Avatar" or even one of the "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies. It's not a bad movie by any means, but it's slightly overlong and entirely too busy at all times - but yet not conveying anything in terms of story, theme or character that matches its imaginative visuals.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Review: Dunkirk

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Christopher Nolan's lean and impressionistic "Dunkirk" is at once an propulsive and intense imagining of the titular battle and a free floating war film that also recalls the work of Terrence Malick, especially "The Thin Red Line."

There's little in the way of characterization and you might not even catch any names as the picture's British and French soldiers scurry around the beach or attempt to survive the waters of Dunkirk as the Germans close in and their planes unload artillery.

In the early summer of 1940, British soldiers were evacuated from the small city in northern France, but became trapped in the harbor as the Germans had nearly pushed Allied forces out to sea. As the picture opens, a young soldier played by Fionn Whitehead flees as the Germans open fire on him and several of his fellow soldiers on the streets of Dunkirk. He makes it to the beach, where the evacuation is set to begin, and the film quickly kicks into motion.

During the course of the picture, we follow several characters - Kenneth Branagh's valiant Commander Bolton, a courageous fighter pilot played by Tom Hardy, a shell shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) and a civilian (Mark Rylance) with a teenage son who pilots a small boat to Dunkirk in an attempt to save as many men as he can. None of these characters could be considered the lead character and there are long stretches when they hardly speak, but rather react to the situations taking place around them.

Those with phobias might not be able to handle "Dunkirk" as confined spaces, drowning, fire, heights and all other manner of horrific scenario play out as the film's numerous characters scramble across Nolan's vast canvasses. The picture looks incredible, from the dizzying fighter pilot sequences to the long shots of thousands of men lined up on the beach awaiting rescue boats.

Rather than platitudinous speeches or bombast (well, the score can occasionally be described as such), "Dunkirk" celebrates the communal heroism of that day, but also the fear and horror. For every scene in which Rylance and the two young boys on his boat make their way into the heart of a battle for which they are not prepared, there's another in which a group of young British soldiers hiding out in a boat turn on one another and threaten to kick a Frenchman out, a move that would certainly lead to his doom. In other words, Nolan's film provides a variety of scenarios displaying a range of human reactions to a tumultuous event.

Nolan is among the most revered of Hollywood's big budget filmmakers. His pictures often combine crowd pleasing action or science fiction stories with big names and he manages to make them - for lack of a better phrase - thinking man's pictures that address a mainstream audience. But while I've enjoyed his "Batman" movies, "Interstellar" and "Inception," "Dunkirk" is - in my opinion - his best work since 2001's "Memento," which still stands as the director's finest hour.

"Dunkirk" is ambitious, occasionally terrifying, visually awe inspiring, rousing and incredibly choreographed. It's among this year's best films so far.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Review: Wish Upon

Image courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.
"Wish Upon" takes a tiresomely familiar horror movie trope and does pretty much exactly what you'd expect it to do. The result is a movie that verges between gruesome death scenes that rely heavily on edits to avoid an 'R' rating and elements that are so wrong headed or jaw droppingly silly that even a genie in a bottle couldn't fix the picture.

The film opens with a young girl witnessing her mother's suicide and, some years later, suffering as an outcast at her high school. Clare (Joey King) does pretty much everything that heroines of these types of films tend to do - swoons over the hunky athlete, sneers at the snobby girls who go out of their way to mistreat her and pals around with two girls who act as the kooky sidekicks and are called upon for the occasional punchline.

Oh yeah, there's also Clare's father - Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe) - who, for some unexplainable reason, is obsessed with dumpster diving (and in front of his daughter's school no less, while all of the students are congregated outside) and, on occasion, plays saxophone solos in his living room that sound like the missing tracks from a 1980s Kenny G. record.

Clare discovers a music box with Chinese letters on it - so, naturally, she finds the one Asian guy in her class, who - of course - is friends with a tattooed Asian woman whose friend - naturally - is an expert in such things. If the title "The Chinese Connection" hadn't already been taken, this film might have qualified. They tell her to avoid the box as it appears to be haunted by a demon who grants wishes or some such thing.

Of course, Clare ignores them and proceeds to become an increasingly unlikable lead character - although, it would seem that we are supposed to sympathize with her - who continues to make demands of the music box, regardless of the fact that several people close to her have seemingly died as a result.

To make matters worse, the characters are constantly forced to regurgitate near-absurdist dialogue - for example, a scene during which a boy tells Clare, whom he's trying to seduce, "I just wanted to think of something dope to say before I kiss you." Also, Clare and her pals tend to refer to each other by names that sound better suited to the 1990s.

"Wish Upon" follows the well trodden path that you'd expect from this type of teen thriller, right down to the final shot. It's not particularly scary, its "villain" is woefully vague (some of the best horror movies include evil presences that lack an explanation, thereby making them more frightening, whereas this one provides a backstory regarding a ghost and then pretty much drops it) and many of the characters are wooden caricatures. If there's anything to recommend in the film, it's watching Phillippe go to town on those smooth jazz solos and, during one particular sequence, dodge a deadly flying tire. Such are the joys of "Wish Upon."

Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Matt Reeves concludes this remake trilogy in mostly high style as "War for the Planet of the Apes" doesn't disappoint as a thematically resonant film about the dark places that mankind will go to survive, but also an entertaining summer action movie. However, there is an ongoing homage in the picture to a specific Vietnam War movie classic that is, at times, so over the top that it threatens to knock the movie off its course.

This is - to be sure - a war movie and from the film's very first frames, we are thrown into combat as Caesar and his apes fend off an attack by soldiers who are led by a crazed military man known as The Colonel (more on him later). As Earth's population on all sides continues to dwindle, both Caesar and his kind and mankind wage constant war against each other, although Caesar (again brought to vivid life by Andy Serkis) would be content if man would simply allow the apes to live undisturbed in the woods. Unfortunately, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) isn't having any of that and wants nothing more than to eradicate the apes.

The picture follows the time honored blockbuster scenario in which a film's hero - in this case, Caesar - must rescue someone and, in this case, it's his family and entire species, who are all captured while making a trek to safer land, kept in cages and forced to undertake back-breaking manual labor by The Colonel and his gung-ho men, who have no feeling toward their fellow creatures.

For the most part, "War" is a fun summer movie that is a little more thoughtful than you might expect. However, it takes a detour once Caesar and a few of his top lieutenants stumble upon The Colonel's well-guarded fortress. Harrelson - who, early in the picture is seen shaving his head with a razor blade because, well, that's what villains do, right? - is very clearly cut from the same cloth as one Colonel Kurtz.

So, not only do we get all of the "war is hell" speeches that you'd expect, but Harrelson plays Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe" on a boombox at one point in the picture and, most unfortunately, the words "Apocalypse Now" are literally graffiti'd on a wall. And this wall is shown at least three times during the course of the movie - you know, just in case somebody didn't pick up these overt references the first umpteen times around. There's also at least one other sequence that is a callback to Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket." It could have been conceptually interesting for Reeves to draw parallels between these classic Vietnam movies and the "Apes" pictures, but it's done so blatantly here that it doesn't have the intended effect.

But "War" manages to triumph elsewhere, most notably by using a digitally created character as the film's protagonist and giving it human qualities that make us empathize with it as if it were a flesh and blood actor. This isn't Serkis' first rodeo for this type of character - and it's been said before and let's say it again: the work he does is impressive. Caesar is a truly well rounded character. So, while 1968's original classic "Planet of the Apes" still remains the gold standard for me in this series, Reeves' two "Apes" films have been part of an impressive blockbuster trilogy and "War" is a fitting - and often powerful - coda.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Review: A Ghost Story

Image courtesy of A24.
David Lowery's "A Ghost Story" is a film that is likely to draw wildly mixed reactions. I've seen reviewers who loved it and others who wanted to pull their hair out - and I can understand both responses. During the film's first 30 minutes, it wasn't particularly working much for me, but the picture eventually settles into a rhythm and, ultimately, there's a fair amount to admire, even if not all of its pieces completely fit.

Yes, this is a movie in which Casey Affleck plays a husband who dies and then returns to the home where he and his wife (Rooney Mara) lived and spends the rest of the picture as a ghost wrapped in a sheet, observing how life goes on without him. But no clay is whittled and the Righteous Brothers are nowhere to be heard - in other words, this isn't a Hollywood drama in which a heartbroken widow makes contact with her dead husband and all is set right.

"A Ghost Story" alternates between melancholy, creepiness and mind-expanding theories about time. There are some haunting moments when Affleck's ghost wanders lonely through fields trying to make his way home or watching his wife pack up and drive away, only to be replaced by new tenants in the home where he once lived. It also features unsettling sequences when the ghost - always clad in that white sheet - paces back and forth through the house - and we have to remind ourselves that we're not watching a horror movie.

Late in the film, a party is thrown in the house, where Will Oldham ("Old Joy") expounds on the meaninglessness of life in a world where, one day, a masterpiece by Beethoven could be forgotten if human civilization crumbles. It's a speech that is by turns fascinating and pretentious, but it sets the stage for a curious series of sequences during which Affleck's ghost inexplicably witnesses how his home came to be constructed - from a scene involving settlers from many years past to the construction of a building in the future, where he is left to roam its halls. Then, time circles back again and he watches his own life with his wife pass by.

"A Ghost Story" is a film that requires some patience. Admittedly, I found mine tested during the film's early scenes. I recently praised "Twin Peaks" for an absurdist sequence during which a guy endlessly swept a floor, which felt right for the moment in which it occurred. In Lowery's film, there's a scene in which Mara eats nearly an entire pie in real time while Affleck observes her that might send moviegoers running for the exits. Eventually, the film finds its rhythm, but it takes more time than it should.

Lowery is an up-and-coming filmmaker who jumps back and forth between low budget indies and studio films - his debut was "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," a film also starring Affleck and Mara that I mostly liked, and the remake of "Pete's Dragon," which I missed. His third feature is daringly uncommercial and I can appreciate the abstract manner in which it ponders such themes as death and time.

It's not quite the triumph that some have proclaimed it, but I also wouldn't agree with its detractors. "A Ghost Story" is a curious item that initially frustrates, but ultimately absorbs, and could be a rewarding experience for those with a taste for the offbeat.

Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
On the one hand, there's not a whole lot of justification for a third reboot - and seventh film - following the adventures of Spider-Man in a period of 15 years. That being said, this latest upgrade of the superhero is enjoyable - mostly due to the fact that the lead actor (a spunky Tom Holland) is age appropriate to the character and the picture focuses just as much on Peter Parker as dorky teenager as it does on his being a Spandex-clad hero. Not surprisingly, the sequences that involve the lead character doing things that kids do tend to be more amusing than the ones loaded down with special effects.

However, the picture initially focuses on its villain, rather than its protagonist - that would be Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton, chewing the scenery), a blue collar construction guy overseeing the clean-up of some mess made by the Avengers at the film's beginning. He stumbles upon some sort of weapon in the rummage and - well, you know - absolute power corrupts absolutely and all that.

Years later, he has somehow managed to transform himself into a successful arms dealer and dons a costume that enables him to fly around and wreak havoc. Despite Keaton's commitment to the role, his Vulture character is underwritten. At a later point in the film, we see him as a dedicated father and husband, so there's a disconnect as to why he's so sinister in his spare time.

Meanwhile, Parker is a geeky high school kid whose pal, Ned (Jacob Batalon), has discovered his secret, while his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is still in the dark regarding his web-slinging abilities. Also, Peter - thanks to his appearance in the previous "Avengers" movie - is now taking part in an internship (don't ask) with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Jon Favreau's Happy Hogan is his point-guy, much to the latter's chagrin.

Although the film is, on the whole, enjoyable, some of the aforementioned elements are what - at times - drags "Homecoming" down. As I've mentioned in other reviews of comic book movies, the whole notion of "world building" - that is, other Marvel characters wandering in and out of the proceedings and plot threads spanning across multiple pictures - is one that is supposed to create a complete cinematic universe. I get the concept - but, to me, the whole thing feels less like a storytelling device and more of an advertising ploy. It's the equivalent of Amazon or Netflix telling me, "if you liked this title...." And it's still annoying.

Regardless, "Homecoming" manages to make up for such elements by being charming and clever, due to the filmmakers' wise decision to allow Parker to be a teenager. So, while he exudes confidence while halting bank robbers and purse snatchers, he's a nervous wreck when it comes to talking to a girl on whom he has a crush. And literally every discovery that he makes regarding his own powers is - per his own description - "awesome."

There are a few sequences that make good use of Spider-Man's ability to fly through the air - most notably, a vertigo-inducing scene during which he climbs the Washington Monument to save some fellow classmates on a field trip. But there are also a few moments where the special effects are a bit out of control - namely, a scene during which our hero clings to the outside of a plane in which Vulture is attempting to steal some weapons.

All in all, "Homecoming" is a mostly fun attempt at rebooting a franchise that, frankly, could have been left alone for a while. Holland gives the character of Peter a lively makeover and the film cheerfully relaunches his story as a teen drama that just happens to feature some expensive set pieces. In other words, this is a mostly enjoyable summer movie and not as much of a retread as you might have thought.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Review: Okja

Image courtesy of Netflix.
Bong Joon-Ho's "Okja" is the heart warming, gloriously silly and completely bonkers giant pig story involving evil corporations, animal rights activists and the best use of John Denver in a movie that you never knew you needed. No, seriously, the film took the Cannes Film Festival by surprise and it's no wonder - it's difficult to adequately describe this picture, other than to say it's pretty wonderful.

Joon-Ho's films tend to flirt with genre, but they're also too unclassifiable to stamp them with one defining label. His marvelous "Memories of Murder" was a haunting serial killer thriller that had moments of outrageous humor, "The Host" was often funny but was also a monster movie, "Mother" was a mother-son relationship drama and a thriller and "Snowpiercer" was a futuristic science fiction thriller, but also a 99-percenter movie of the moment.

"Okja" can best be described as "E.T.," but with a massive grey pig. As the film opens, corporate monster Lucy Mirando (a wacky Tilda Swinton, relishing the villain role) announces a program to end world hunger that includes the breeding of a type of massive pig that was discovered in a far flung corner of the world. Chosen farmers from around the world will tend to the pigs - whose meat, Mirando promises, will be succulent - and ensure that they are treated in the most humane manner. In 10 years, one of them will be chosen as the winner, meaning that the farmer will be given the top prize and his pig will be the most likely to be slaughtered first.

In Korea, a young girl named Mija (An Seo-hyn) lives with her grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong) and her beloved friend, Okja, a massive pig that looks more like a hippopotamus, but is gentle and good natured. Mija and Okja play together in the forest and the pig enjoys it when the young girl throws pieces of fruit into her mouth. In an early sequence detailing the depths of their friendship, the young girl falls off a cliff and the pig puts its life in grave danger in order to save her.

So, when members of the Mirando corporation - including a wildlife TV host named Johnny Wilcox (played by Jake Gylenhaal with a comedic touch of which I wasn't formerly aware) - show up to award Mija's grandfather for Okja, we know that this doesn't bode well for the family. Needless to say, Okja is taken to Seoul - with plans to ship her to America, where she'll be brought on stage for an unveiling of the new brand of meat. Mija runs away from home to save her friend, kicking off a series of misadventures that are - to say the least - colorful.

First, Mija runs after the truck carrying Okja away in a virtuoso feat of cinematography. Joon-Ho's camera swoops and swirls as the young girl attempts to follow the truck on foot. Then, she finds herself allied with a group of animal activists led by a sympathetic Paul Dano, who is great here, and Rooney Mara. A sequence during which police officers armed with darts chase the girl, Okja and the activists - who use umbrellas to shield the beast from the darts - through a shopping center to the tune of John Denver's "Annie's Song" is one of the film's truly magical moments.

"Okja" contains more than a few laugh out loud moments as well as several others where you'll feel your throat tighten. There's a completely unexpected moment involving a bond between a pair of animals, their baby, Okja and Mija near the film's end that is absolutely stunning in the way the film manages to elicit emotion through the utilization of special effects.

For a movie that tells the story of a young girl and a gigantic pig, "Okja" has a fair amount on its mind - everything from corporate responsibility and the humane treatment of animals to loyalty and whether a cause that martyrs others can still be considered doing the right thing. The film is moving when it needs to be, silly and satirical at other points, exciting and suspenseful. Its special effects are impressive and always in service of the story. The film is, so far, the year's most pleasant surprise. It's currently available to stream on Netflix and in select theaters, so I'd encourage you to seek it out.

Review: The Bad Batch

Image courtesy of Neon.
Ana Lily Amirpour is one of the most exciting new voices in cinema - at least, based on her debut, the eerie and visually stunning "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night." With her sophomore film, "The Bad Batch," she is working with a larger budget, a few name actors and a more expansive storyline. For a while, the picture works in an offbeat way - it's an occasionally grim dystopian action-horror movie that often goes off on dreamy tangents and - at other points - slows the story way down. I have no complaints about any of this.

But, ultimately, the film feels as if it has less of a voice than her startling debut and its lead, Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), never materializes into a fully formed character. Then again, neither do the film's villain, Miami Man (Jason Momoa), or The Dream, an odd messiah-like figure played by Keanu Reeves who operates a run-down safe space in the desert known as Comfort. And the film's ending completely turned me off. Without giving too much away, the picture culminates in a scene that is the equivalent of a battered woman having Stockholm Syndrome toward her abuser.

However, until that point, "The Bad Batch" has some transfixing elements. As the picture opens, Arlen has been cast out into the desert as a member of the titular group - which are, essentially, society's outcasts, who have been forced to live on their own in the desert. We never get a glimpse of society, but we can assume its barbarity is equal, in some respects, to the desert's denizens by the fact that they have barricaded themselves and left others to fend for themselves.

No sooner is Arlen left on her own than she is kidnapped by a group of cannibals - led by Miami Man - who quickly saw off her leg and arm for food. She manages to break away and finds herself wheeling through the desert on her back on a skateboard. She's discovered by an old bum and he takes her to Comfort.

Arlen manages to get revenge on one of her previous captors, but as a result is stuck with a young girl, who follows her to Comfort. Meanwhile, Miami Man - the young girl's father - finds Arlen stoned out of her mind in the desert one night - don't ask - and tells her that she'd better find his daughter or else. Reeves' The Dream - who holds raves in the desert and surrounds himself with women whom he has impregnated and wear t-shirts that read "The Dream Is Inside Me."

All of this material could have made for a better movie and, for a while, the picture's combination of grim violence mixed with dream-like sequences equal an interesting concoction. But as I'd mentioned, it never adds up to much thematically, Waterhouse's character is severely underwritten and the ending left a bad taste in my mouth. But "The Bad Batch" is further proof that Amirpour has talent. Her films cast spells - especially her transfixing debut - and my hope is that her next venture puts her talents to better use.

Review: Baby Driver

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Director Edgar Wright's films have been riffs on everything from the zombie movie ("Shaun of the Dead") to cop pictures ("Hot Fuzz") and video games ("Scott Pilgrim vs. the World") and each film has sought out the comedic aspect of each genre. But his latest, "Baby Driver" - which also happens to be his best - is the first film I can recall that shoots an action film in the manner of a musical.

Characters slide across car roofs, guns pop, explosions occur and car chases result in vehicles spinning around corners - and all in time to the film's extensive soundtrack, which features everyone from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Martha and the Vandellas to Young MC and Focus. There are only two sequences during which a character is actually singing - but, in this case, it's the lead character, Baby (Ansel Elgort) singing along to pop nuggets that are playing on his iPod. It's worth noting that it was these two scenes alone - which come early in the picture - that made me doubt whether the film would succeed.

But succeed it does. "Baby Driver" is easily the most fun I've had at a movie this summer and it's among the year's best thus far. And one of the elements that makes it such a joy is Wright's deep knowledge of film language. The characters move, talk, walk and skip across the sidewalk as if they know they're in a movie. As I've seen it pointed out, the characters also imagine themselves as how they - and, to an extent, we - might come across if their (or our) lives were a movie and scored to music.

Take, for instance, a sequence during which Baby has to do an errand at a junkyard. He sees a piece of scrap on the ground and, in slow motion, waltzes over to it and kicks it to the tune of the Commodores' "Easy." And it's exactly how Baby likely imagines such a movement would appear in a movie or music video.

Baby is a good soul in a bad business. As a child, he was in a car accident that claimed the lives of his parents. His mother is played by Sky Ferreira, whose love of music infected Baby. Left with tinnitus, Baby must listen to an endless loop of pop songs on his iPod, while acting as the - very talented - driver of a series of heists orchestrated by a man named Doc (Kevin Spacey) and carried out by a variety of thugs, all of whom are more sinister than the next. They are played with aplomb by Jon Hamm, Jaime Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez, Flea and Jon Bernthal.

But since this is an action thriller of the old school variety, there's a girl - and it's easy to see why Baby falls for her. Debora (Lily James) works as a waitress at a diner that Baby frequents and she looks like she just walked out of Twin Peaks' Double R. The two of them bond over music and there's an instant spark. Baby also lives with an elderly man named Joseph (CJ Jones), who is deaf and mute. After Baby takes part in his last heist, he is pulled back in again by Doc and his participation is solely concerned with the safety of his adopted parent and new girlfriend.

Many movies try to be all things to all people and fail. "Baby Driver" aims to be many things and it all comes together. The film's script is loaded with zingers, but also dialogue that deepens our understanding of the characters. The picture turns violent towards its end and is filled with thrilling car chase sequences, but it's also often very funny. But it's the use of music and the choreography of the actors that makes it such a wonder. There's a shootout between the group of thugs with whom Baby is working and some arms dealers that involves especially impressive timing between the violence and the music.

This is the type of movie that cries out to be a sleeper. In a summer filled mostly with movies that could best be described as focus-group corporate entities that deliver exactly what they advertise, "Baby Driver" is wholly original. Yes, I know the plot - which involves heists and a romance between a criminal trying to go straight to impress a young woman - doesn't reinvent the cinematic wheel, but what often makes a movie special is the how, not the what. And Wright's film has how to spare. "Baby," I love your way.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Review: The Ornithologist

Image courtesy of Strand Releasing.
If the thought of watching a man observe birds through binoculars as he sails down a river in his kayak for the first 15 minutes of a movie sounds like torture, you'd be mistaken. Joao Pedro Rodrigues' "The Ornithologist" is a bizarre, often transfixing and occasionally confounding concoction that mostly works and is never anything less than beguiling. And that first long stretch during which the picture's protagonist - Fernando (Paul Hamy) - observes all manner of avian specimen from his boat is hypnotic and among the film's best sequences.

A summary of "The Ornithologist" is not only besides the point, but also difficult to complete. Suffice it to say that Fernando's boat winds up in some rapids, leaving him unconscious in the woods, where he is first discovered by two backpacking Chinese women - who tie him up and threaten torture - before running into a goat herder named Jesus, who appears to enjoy spending time in the nude, and a group of men performing a ritual in the woods. Near the film's end, Fernando befriends a bird that may or may not have a broken wing.

And even later in the picture, Fernando comes across a group of topless women on horseback before coming face to face with Jesus's twin brother, a sequence during which Fernando is transformed into none other than Joao Pedro Rodrigues - you know, the director of the film. Oh yes, and the picture is apparently modeled after the life of Anthony of Padua - also known as Fernando Martins.

"The Ornithologist" is a film that might prove fruitless if you insist on digging for clues as to what it all means. My suggestion - should you choose to see it, which I'd recommend you do if you consider yourself cinematically adventurous - is to just let the film's gorgeous imagery wash over your senses and give in to its strange, occasionally lulling aura.

For those unfamiliar with Rodrigues' work, he is also responsible for "O Fantasma," a movie of which I was not a fan, and "Two Drifters," which is well worth seeing. I missed his well received "To Die Like a Man" and his most recent, "The Last Time I Saw Macao," was never even screened on these shores - at least, as far as I'm aware. "The Ornithologist" is the director's most visually sumptuous - but also his most peculiar - to date.

The picture is set almost entirely outdoors and the filmmakers make excellent use of the surroundings. Not only is there great photography of birds soaring through the air, but there are some incredible point-of-view shots from the perspective of the birds staring down at Fernando. Rodrigues' camera explores the lush, wooded regions of Portugal where the film was shot and captures some gorgeous nighttime shots of the forest.

I'm sure there is much to explore thematically in "The Ornithologist," from the man vs. nature scenario that wouldn't feel out of place in a Werner Herzog movie to the allegorical spiritual elements of various scenes - not to mention the bizarre sexual rituals involving Fernando and Jesus. But what you take from Rodrigues' film will likely depend on what you put into it. I'd recommend "The Ornithologist" for those who enjoy experimental, surrealist and bizarre moviegoing experiences. It's a film that I doubt I'll forget anytime soon.

Review: The Beguiled

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Sofia Coppola's remake of "The Beguiled," a 1971 Don Siegel film starring Clint Eastwood and based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan, is a tense Civil War-era drama that puts a subtle feminist spin on the original picture. And although the film does not rank among Coppola's best, it's a gorgeously shot showcase for its terrific cast.

As the film opens, a young Virginia girl (Oona Lawrence) stumbles upon a soldier from the Union Army named John McBurney (Colin Farrell), who has fled battle and has a serious injury to his leg. The young girl - whose name is Amy - helps McBurney back to the girls' school, where she lives with several other young women, a teacher named Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and a mother figure, Martha (Nicole Kidman). More than a few shots of the women standing on the porch of the school are seen through the barred gates that surround it to draw attention to the fact that these women are isolated from the war that rages all around them.

At first, most of the school's denizens - especially a troublemaker named Alicia (Elle Fanning) - do not want McBurney under the same roof and they debate whether they should turn him over to the Confederate troops who often march past their property. Martha leans toward this decision, whereas Edwina - the most kind hearted of the bunch - feels sympathy for the wounded man.

But soon the women warm up to McBurney, who - despite a flirtatious manner that makes some of them uncomfortable - appears grateful for their having saved him and they settle into a routine that often culminates with him at the dinner table. After his stay is extended, McBurney begins to tend to the garden around the property.

However, the introduction of romantic - or, rather, amorous - feelings into the situation causes friction. McBurney declares his love for Edwina and even comes close to doing the same with Martha, but Edwina walks in on a scene involving the soldier and another of the house's young women and an accident ensues. In the final 30 minutes or so of the film, a hostage situation appears to have occurred, although it is debatable as to whether McBurney is holding the women hostage or the latter.

One element that keeps "The Beguiled" intriguing is that its view of the characters isn't simplistic. All of the characters' - well, perhaps, other than the innocent Amy - flaws lead to the escalation of the tension in the house. Alicia is clearly a pot stirrer, while McBurney is a cad. Edwina, although good natured, makes a few mistakes of her own and Martha is too easily convinced to do what could be perceived as the wrong thing.

Although Coppola has made better films about the coming of age of young women - namely, "The Virgin Suicides," "Lost in Translation" and "Marie Antoinette" - her latest is unique in that it not only sympathizes with its leads (as was the case with her previous films), but also critiques them. The women of "The Beguiled" may be strong and independent, but when given the opportunity to spend time with the stranger locked up in their house, they are willing to turn on each other - that is, until they band together with the common goal of removing the presence from the house altogether.

The picture might ultimately be a minor one in the director's oeuvre, but it is atmospheric, occasionally tense and well acted. And it's the rare remake that is concocted for the purpose of providing a different angle of a story, rather than just rehashing it for nostalgia's sake or to cash in.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Review: Cars 3

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
Pixar Studios' latest, "Cars 3," is appropriately enough, the type of family movie that zigs when you're sure that it will zag. And that's a good thing. Considered by many to be among the studio's lesser offerings, the "Cars" franchise - at least, for the first two pictures - followed a trajectory that wasn't particularly surprising.

But this third entry takes the "Creed" route and, surprisingly, becomes the second major blockbuster (along with "Wonder Woman") this summer to include some much needed girl power during a season that is typically centered around teenage boys.

As the film opens, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is having to contend with old age and finds that his spot at the top is increasingly being challenged by younger, faster models - namely, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a car that is designed to be a champion and has the cocky attitude that comes with such a creation.

For the picture's first half, "Cars 3" sets viewers up to believe that this will be another in the long line of "Rocky" inspired movies in which an elder statesman gets one more shot at the throne and shows the younger generation how it's done. Instead, the film finds McQueen spotting talent in his trainer - a spunky yellow vehicle known as Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who once dreamed of becoming a racer, but has settled for helping others become champions of the racing circuit.

With the introduction of Cruz, Pixar has given young women moviegoers another hero for whom to root this summer following the recent success of "Wonder Woman." Little has been made about the female empowerment angle in the advertising for "Cars 3," so I don't know if that is because Disney executives are afraid it will scare off young men (if so, shame on them) or if it's being withheld as a genuine plot twist. Regardless, it's a breath of fresh air and the film's storyline emotionally resonates.

So, while the "Cars" films aren't as stylistically radical as "Wall-E" (still my favorite Pixar movie) or inventive as "Inside Out," this latest entry sneaks into its story a theme of empowerment that breathes some new life into the series. It's an enjoyable addition to the Pixar canon and one of the few studio movies I've actually enjoyed during this mostly middling summer movie season.

Review: All Eyez On Me

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
Tupac Shakur is long overdue for a movie about his life - and with the recent critical and financial success of "Straight Outta Compton," another biopic about hip hop legends, it would seem that a film about the controversial and rap icon would be a no brainer. Unfortunately, "All Eyez on Me" bears more similarity to "Notorious," the Biggie biopic misfire, and comes across as a superficial, Wikipedia summary of Shakur's life, rather than the deep dive into his upbringing and career that he deserves.

To be fair, the film's earliest passages are the best. These involve Shakur's boyhood in the Bronx, Baltimore and, eventually, Oakland, where he moved with his sister after his mother became hooked on drugs. Earlier, Afeni Shakur (played here with aplomb by Danai Gurira) had been a Black Panther and outspoken revolutionary who challenged the U.S. legal system and her advocacy could be among the things that sparked outspokenness in her son.

As he grows up, Shakur is played by Demetrius Shipp Jr., who - despite being forced to contend with a script that prefers speechifying and melodrama over characterization - does a pretty decent job of capturing the rapper - in his anger, occasionally surprising tenderness and swagger.

One of the film's greatest faults is using an interview Tupac gave in jail to a journalist as a framing device throughout the picture. In the hands of a stronger filmmaker, this type of device could work, but director Benny Boom mostly uses it as a means to allow Shakur to provide running commentary on things that we already knew about him.

Even more poorly thought out is a sequence during which Tupac dances at a club with a young woman who later accused him of rape - this film charges that several of his entourage were involved in the assault while he slept in the next room. The most unfortunate element of the sequence is that Tupac dances with the woman to R. Kelly's "Seems Like You're Ready." Regardless of the truth of the situation, I'd imagine the filmmakers could have found a better song to accompany the scene.

Also, one of the most fascinating elements of Tupac that goes unexplored is his contradictory persona. As a young student, he was fascinated by Shakespeare and studied ballet, poetry, jazz and acting. His lyrics displayed a thoughtfulness and political consciousness that many of his peers attempted to plagiarize. In one song, he might brag about rendezvous with loose women, while in the next tell single mothers to keep their heads up or praise his mother - as in the heartfelt "Dear Mama" - for her struggles and even admit that he was wrong for how he had previously perceived her. In "All Eyez on Me," Tupac is merely reduced to an impersonation.

The element that made "Straight Outta Compton" so invigorating was not only its chronicle of N.W.A., a highly controversial hip hop group that gave birth to the careers of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, but how their rise came at a time when race relations appeared ready to explode (Rodney King, the L.A. riots and, shortly thereafter, the OJ Simpson trial). Their story was set against that backdrop, making the film not only the best hip hop biopic to date, but also the best music biopic (in my opinion) since Todd Haynes' adventurous "I'm Not There."

But "All Eyez on Me" is merely content on focusing on the drama - especially that which takes place at Death Row Records under the watchful eyes of Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana, oozing menace), who runs the business like a gangster. Other such figures - Dr. Dre, for instance - get brief walk-on parts, while the guy who plays Snoop Dogg merely does a great job of imitating his voice. Even the devastating feud between Tupac and Biggie seems like an after thought.

In other words, Tupac Shakur deserves a better biopic than this one. It's not a bad film - and has some decent moments, especially between Tupac and his mother - but a missed opportunity. Shakur is among the most fascinating hip hop icons and his story is so multi-faceted that it would appear difficult to capture his entire essence in one movie. My hope is that someone else tries and has better luck.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Review: The Mummy

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
This month's prize for the most unnecessary reboot goes to "The Mummy," a particularly silly overdose of special effects that certainly won't bolster the career of Tom Cruise, nor likely be the kick-off that Universal Pictures hopes for its Dark Universe series - which means that we'll be seeing more of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man and whoever else during the next few years.

In the film, Cruise plays Nick Morton - a character whom he probably should have played 20 years ago or, perhaps, not at all - as an adventure loving military guy who shows up at a spot in Iraq, where he believes a treasure is buried. Shortly before meeting Nick, we are privy to a flashback during which a particularly nasty Egyptian princess is buried alive for murdering her family after making a pact with Set (as one does), the Egyptian god of death, and - countless centuries later - a British scientist played by Russell Crowe discovers a tomb in England containing some artifacts that may relate to the princess.

But back to Nick Morton, who enlists a pal (Jake Johnson) to help him find a treasure in Iraq, resulting in the duo running from a group of angry jihadists and accidentally stumbling upon the grave of the angry Egyptian princess, whose name is Ahmanet (played by Sofia Boutella). As it turns out, Ahmanet, was captured during a moment of coitus interruptus, during which she intended to stab the man she was with and allow Set to take over his body (as one does). Or something like that. Now, Ahmanet has set her eyes on Nick for the same purpose.

Amid all this, Nick befriends an investigator named Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) and her boss (Crowe). The film's biggest groan - and there are many of them, trust me - occurs when Crowe's character reveals his last name. When people complain of blockbuster films' attempts at "world building" and how corny it can be, this is a prime example.

Another unfortunate element of "The Mummy" is that Johnson's character, who dies early on, reappears as an undead friend who occasionally pops up to give Cruise's character clues, much in the vein of "An American Werewolf in London," although - in this case - it's not particularly funny.

There are special effects galore in this film - Cruise and Wallis dodge flying buses, flying cars (more than once), flying pieces of buildings, flying creatures, flying body parts from undead soldiers, flying rocks - well, you get the picture. Although, I'll give credit for one sequence, during which Ahmanet has first escaped from her tomb, kills two British cops and turns them into zombies. The special effects and cinematography during this one inspired sequence feel more like those of an old Lucio Fulci movie than your typical CGI'd-to-death summer blockbuster.

But "The Mummy" is otherwise a misfire. The original "Mummy" reboot with Brendan Fraser from the late 1990s was also spectacularly silly, but also sorta fun, although the sequels mostly stank. So, in other words, there is no particular reason to have rebooted this series yet again, other than - as Mel Brooks would call it - the search for more money. And as I said before, this is only the beginning. Dracula and other classic villains of yesteryear are about to get rebooted yet again. God help us.

Review: It Comes At Night

Image courtesy of A24.
Trey Edward Shults' "It Comes at Night" feels like a horror movie - and, for the sake of categorization, would likely be called one - just as his debut "Krisha" was a dysfunctional family drama that also felt nightmarish. The director has a knack for using relatively confined spaces - in "Krisha," a house hosting a family reunion and, in his latest, a house hosting two families during what appears to be the end of the world - to create significant tension. In other words, the guy has talent.

But similarly to his debut film, "It Comes at Night" is the type of picture I'd recommend because it is undoubtedly well-made, although it's a movie that inspires more admiration than enjoyment. I can appreciate the film's performances and minimalist use of space to create unease, while at the same time being slightly exhausted by its relentlessly bleak and grim tone.

The film is set in an undisclosed place during a time that could be the present or future. Joel Edgerton plays Paul, a former teacher who lives in a wooded home with his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). As the picture opens, the family is executing Sarah's father, who has become ill and starts to look like one of the walking dead. We assume that some sort of disease has struck humankind and this family is living as isolated as possible in a home filled with gas masks, guns and boarded up windows.

One night, the trio are awakened by loud noises and discover that a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) has broken into the house to look for supplies. He tells Paul that he assumed the home was abandoned and was seeking food for his wife, Kim (Riley Keough) and young son, who are hiding out in a house down the road. To be safe, Paul ties Will up against a tree and leaves him there overnight. The next morning he questions him and agrees to help Will bring his family back to the house in exchange for some farm animals that Will claims to own.

After the two families are living under one roof, all is well - at least, for the moment. A fraught feeling remains throughout the story, but - for a time - the families coexist together peacefully. But another bump in the night that involves Paul's family dog - which may or may not be infected - leads to suspicions between the household members and, eventually, an untenable situation.

On the one hand, the cast does a solid job, despite the material itself being slightly thin. We know little about any of the characters, other than that Paul was once a teacher, Will a construction worker and that Travis might have a crush on Kim, who likes bread pudding, by the way. Regardless, the cast does a solid job of reacting to the tense situation in which the characters find themselves. On the other hand, Shults is probably smart for not providing much information as to why the couples find themselves in the predicament. In other words, there's no meaningless attempt to explain what has gone wrong out in the world.

Shults is impressive as a filmmaker for utilizing what appear to be low budgets - in both films that he has directed - and creating tense atmospheres. While I haven't loved either of his works, they are both well directed, acted and unsettling. So, while "It Comes at Night" isn't quite the horror masterpiece that some have proclaimed it, it's a better than average genre exercise that took some obvious skill to make.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Review: Wonder Woman

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
In a culture overpopulated by comic book heroes and blockbuster franchises, "Wonder Woman" stands a little above the pack - mostly, due to the talent behind the camera (Patty Jenkins, director of "Monster") and a rousing leading lady played by Gal Gadot.

Much like many of the other superhero characters, Wonder Woman - AKA Diana - has a fairly routine and occasionally silly origin story. She lives among the Amazonian women - created by Zeus to be protectors of the world against that god's son, Ares (the god of war) - on a secluded island, where she trains with the army's leader (Robin Wright Penn) of her civilization to be a warrior, much to the chagrin of her queen mother (Connie Nielsen).

The outside world doesn't exist for Diana - that is, until one day a plane crashes carrying a man named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy working for the British during World War II who has stolen secrets from the Germans, including a nasty chemical weapon that a Nazi general named Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and a mad scientist with a disfigured face known as Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) want to drop on soldiers at the front line, but have no problem tossing it on civilians either.

Much like Superman, another of DC Comics' roster who has gotten the cinematic reboot in recent years, Diana is a noble individual somewhat disconnected from the human world who sees good in mankind, but struggles to understand its cruelty. Her bravery is first displayed during an action sequence that ranks among the film's best when she's down in the ditches with soldiers during a battle and, against their suggestions, crosses over into a "no man's land" that she is told is impossible to save. 

During another sequence, Diana storms into a room filled with strategizing British generals who make orders from behind closed doors, while men are sent out to die in their names - although this might have been more pertinent in a World War I picture, but I digress. Regardless, Diana's refusal to be bossed around by men makes her an interesting figure in the mostly male-dominated comic book universe. She's a strong woman with a moral compass who doesn't take marching orders from her male counterparts - or female ones either, honestly.

The film is filled with the typical action sequences, including one against Ares at the finale that, perhaps, utilizes CGI a little too heavily and features one too many large objects (tanks, pieces of concrete) being flung back and forth between the Amazonian and the god. But nevertheless, "Wonder Woman" is a mostly entertaining blockbuster. It helps that its hero is upright without being boringly so, amusingly naive and well played by Gadot, who is a charismatic and sympathetic lead. 

The recent entries in the DC canon have ranged from flaming misfires ("Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" and "Suicide Squad") to pretty decent ("Man of Steel"), although none of them can touch Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. However, "Wonder Woman" is the second best of that bunch as well as one of the few big budget action spectacles this year that I can recommend.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Review: War Machine

Image courtesy of Netflix.
David Michod's "War Machine" is a film with a personality crisis. It has been described as a satire, although its critiques of U.S. military policy are missing a satirical sting. The picture is set amid the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan, but there's only one actual combat scene. And while the film follows the story of Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt), a badass general who is brought to Afghanistan in 2009 to help win the war, and finds himself butting heads - although it could be argued that, in this case, it's a good thing - with bureaucracy, the picture is only moderately interested in how politics work. So, how could one classify "War Machine"?

For starters, it's all over the place. As the movie opens, Pitt's McMahon has arrived in Afghanistan with a whole team of yes men in tow - these include the dedicated Greg (Anthony Michael Hall), PR guy Matt (Topher Grace), right-hand-man Cory (John Magaro) and nutcase Pete (Anthony Hayes). It's never exactly clear whether we are supposed to relate to this entourage. The film, however, is narrated by Sean (Scoot McNairy), a reporter with Rolling Stone whom we don't see in the flesh until a ways in to the film, which is another of its flaws. For much of the movie, we have no idea who is narrating the story or why.

Pitt is a very good actor who often shines when given the right material. But McMahon is a character whose only seeming character trait is that, much like a certain someone in U.S. politics, feels the need to win all the time. To make matters worse, the filmmakers have Pitt doing a strange impression of his character from "Inglourious Basterds." The character seems like someone who would have been better suited to a Coen Brothers movie as opposed to a film that isn't even quite sure whether it's a satire.

The film - which is based on Michael Hastings' "The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan" - takes a dim view of all involved in the war on terror. Everyone from Washington, D.C. is portrayed as feckless, while the military characters are seen as true to their cause. However, that cause happens to be McMahon's obsession with conducting counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, a move that is portrayed in the picture as being foolhardy. There's a good movie to be made about U.S. intervention in foreign countries - in fact, there have already been some good ones - but "War Machine" never settles on a tone or, for lack of a better word, thesis.

Michod is a talented director, although I'm basing my praise for him primarily on his debut, the gritty Australian crime drama "Animal Kingdom." His post apocalyptic "The Rover" was visually stimulating, but didn't add up for me and "War Machine" is a mixed bag.

There's one sequence late in "War Machine" that nearly puts the film on track. In the picture's one combat scene, a group of young soldiers are sent in to a particularly rough spot and one soldier, temporarily losing his bearings, heads off by himself, discovering along the way the cost of war. It's a powerful sequence that provides an example of what had previously been missing from the picture. Otherwise, "War Machine" is a series of ingredients that could have made for a better movie, but never pay off.