Sunday, December 10, 2017

Review: I, Tonya

Image courtesy of Neon.
Admittedly, I haven't given disgraced figure skating champion Tonya Harding much thought in many years, but my memories of the famous incident in which she was involved recalls to mind how she was portrayed as a villain. So, it's surprising how Craig Gillespie's film, "I, Tonya," turns her into a sympathetic figure - at least, to an extent. Although, this film argues, she wasn't physically involved in the attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan, her name became synonymous with the event and, as a result, ruined her career and reputation.

Gillespie's film treats the Tonya Harding story partially as a comedic exercise, but also as a white trash "Goodfellas," right down to the dolly shots and breaking the fourth wall in the middle of a scene. And it's oddly compelling, mostly due to the committed and sympathetic performance by Margot Robbie as Tonya, but also the group of clowns with whom she surrounds herself.

This includes her reprobate mother, LaVona (a lively Allison Janney), abusive idiot husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and his dopey wannabe man-of-mystery buddy Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). Bobby Cannavale gets a few laughs as a reporter for "Hard Copy" and he delivers one of the film's best lines in regards to the state of the media.

In many ways, Tonya's story plays as legitimately tragic. She's a backwoods beauty queen who happens to be able to skate circles around her competitors, but judges refuse to recognize her since she isn't dressed as well as the snotty children against whom she competes who are often decked out in attire chosen by their wealthy parents. It also doesn't help that she performs her routines - including the extremely difficult triple axel, which none of her competitors can pull off - to ZZ Top's "Sleeping Bag," much to the chagrin of the judges who sneer at her.

Tonya is also surrounded by abusive figures. Her mother frequently slaps her, kicks her off a chair, beats her with brushes and, in one instance, throws a knife at her daughter that sticks in her arm. Regarding the latter, LaVona deadpans, "every family has its ups and downs." Once she flees her mother's house, Tonya flies straight into the arms of Gillooly, an idiot good ol' boy who is quick to slap, punch and even point a gun at his wife.

There are a few wrong notes struck in the film. During one sequence, Tonya talks about her history of abusers and addresses the film's audience directly, saying that everyone watching the film is also complicit. This wouldn't ring quite as hollow if the entire film hadn't cracked jokes at the expense of the people in Harding's immediate circle, who are portrayed as rubes.

Don't get me wrong, many of those scenes are funny, especially the idiocy employed by Hauser's doofus sidekick to Gillooly and Janney's wildly inappropriate mother figure. But you can't exactly have your cake and eat it too. Also, the scenes that mimic "Goodfellas," especially one in which Gillooly begins speaking to the camera during a court scene, should have been left as a Martin Scorsese trademark.

But all in all, "I, Tonya" is a funny, engrossing and oddly moving account of a person who has been portrayed as a villain - and lumped unfairly with Amy Fisher as one of the 1990's femme fatales - but is more sympathetic than you might expect. According to Gillespie's film and the interviews conducted with Harding and Gillooly, the attack on Kerrigan was planned and carried out by Gillooly and several of his dimwit friends, and Harding, despite her image, played no part in the plot. Regardless of where you stand on the issue - assuming you stand anywhere at all - "I, Tonya" is a surprisingly compelling film.

Review: The Other Side Of Hope

Image courtesy of Janus Films.
The films of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki could best be described as deadpan miserablist humanism. The characters in his films are often down on their luck, rarely smile and live seemingly bleak lives - and yet, they often find joy in simple things, play in rockabilly bands and tend to treat others pretty well.

Kaurismaki's latest, "The Other Side of Hope," utilizes some of the typical themes, actors and visual set-ups of his previous pictures and it features a story of an immigrant in need of assistance, similar to his previous movie, "Le Havre," which is most likely my favorite among his works. "The Other Side of Hope" is a gently comedic and emotionally engrossing story that indicates Kaurismaki's belief that people can be inherently good when called upon to do so. It's a movie that counters much of what is actually going on in the world today. In other words, it's a fable.

At the beginning of the picture, Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) awakens on a boat in which he is a stowaway. He has fled Aleppo after most of his family was killed and was separated from his sister in eastern Europe and now intends to find her. He pleads his case to the local authorities and has to await a response as to whether he can remain in the country. After finding out that he will be sent back to the war-torn nation from which he has fled, he makes a run for it.

Khaled winds up sleeping in the back alley of a restaurant that has been recently purchased by a man named Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen), a gambler who wants to put his money toward something useful. When Wikstrom purchases The Golden Pint, it's a dump that employs a constantly smoking cook, austere maitre d' and female bartender. After he spruces the place up, it's still a dump and there's a funny running joke regarding how Wikstrom and his straight-faced employees continually change the place from being a French bistro to a Japanese sushi house and then an Indian restaurant.

Although they first engage in fisticuffs, Wikstrom eventually decides it's the right thing to do to give Khaled some food, shelter and a job. Much like the residents of the titular town in "Le Havre," protecting the powerless - in the case of both films, refugees - isn't just portrayed as a valorous choice, but as the only choice in a humane world.

After Khaled finds himself on his feet, he sets out to find his sister. Along the way, he runs into a pack of skinhead bigots, who consistently make trouble for him. The film ends on a note that I believe to be ambiguous. But there's no ambiguity to Kaurismaki's film otherwise - "The Other Side of Hope" is a charming, funny, poignant and goodhearted movie told in the director's deadpan style and with shimmers of optimism amid all the gloom surrounding his characters. It's a film that calls for empathy during a time in which little can be found.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Review: Wonder Wheel

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios.
For more than five decades, Woody Allen has been churning out a movie - occasionally two - per year and a number of them have been great or very good, a large amount of them good and at least a dozen just average or mediocre. It is to be expected that when you're working that much, the quality will not always remain on the same level. So, suffice it to say that "Wonder Wheel," the director's latest, is not among his better films. It's also not among his worst, but a misfire regardless.

That being said, the picture is often visually stunning. The cinematography by Vittorio Storaro and lighting are beautiful, resulting in one of the most gorgeously shot Woody Allen films since "Manhattan." In particular, there's a sequence during which Kate Winslet - in a rare example of the Woody stand-in being portrayed by a woman - speaks to her step-daughter (played by Juno Temple) regarding matters of love in a bedroom as the lights of Coney Island flash through their window, resulting in an ever-changing color palette, that nearly takes the breath away. It's a moment of visual beauty.

Unfortunately, the story of "Wonder Wheel" isn't as intriguing. Similar to "Blue Jasmine," albeit much less successfully, Allen's latest is a melodrama in which a woman - Winslet's Ginny - begins to come unglued, but this time in 1950s-era Coney Island.

In the film, Ginny is married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), a carnival worker, and spends her days waiting tables at a clam house. Her son (Jack Gore) is a pyromaniac and Humpty's daughter, Carolina (Temple), is married to a gangster, from whom she has fled and is now being hunted by two goons (Tony Sirico and Steve Schirippa, both from "The Sopranos"). Neither Ginny nor Humpty are glad to see the young woman, although the latter eventually relents. Meanwhile, Ginny is having an affair with a lifeguard named Micky, a wannabe playwright who also stands in for Allen, although he eventually also sets his sights on Carolina.

While Cate Blanchett got a lot of mileage - and an Oscar - from playing a melodramatic heroine in Allen's much better "Blue Jasmine," Winslet is lumped with a character who can best be described as the Angry Woman Scorned. Winslet is undoubtedly a great actress - one of the best we've got - but here she's forced to play a character whose problems hail from the writing, not the portraying. Allen has long been a great writer of women's characters, from "Annie Hall" and "Hannah and Her Sisters" to "Bullets Over Broadway," "Blue Jasmine" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." In this film, not so much. It doesn't help that much of Winslet's dialogue - and much of the other actors in the film - is delivered via shouting.

While Allen mined living under the Cyclone in "Annie Hall" for comic gold, the foibles of his characters on Coney Island's boardwalk in "Wonder Wheel" give the impression of bits pasted together from his other films. Winslet's problems seem too familiar to Blanchett's character in "Blue Jasmine," the mob story feels like a riff on "Bullets Over Broadway" and a decision made by Ginny late in the film that negatively impacts another reminded me slightly of "Crimes and Misdemeanors."

Allen has made some very good films in the 21st century - most notably the great "Match Point," but also "Midnight in Paris," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and "Blue Jasmine" - but a few of his lesser works have also been released during the past 17 years. "Wonder Wheel" ranks fairly low in his oeuvre. As I've mentioned, it's not a bad film - it features beautiful photography and a great cast, albeit one whose talents aren't utilized to full capacity - but a relatively forgettable one in the director's long - and mostly very good - filmography.

Review: The Shape Of Water

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
In the years since his masterpiece "Pan's Labyrinth," director Guillermo del Toro has primarily focused on big budget action films ("Pacific Rim") and horror movies ("Crimson Peak"), most of which have been good, but - to be honest - merely well-made genre exercises as opposed to the revelation that "Pan's Labyrinth" turned out to be. I'm glad to report that "The Shape of Water" is not only a delightful fantasy with sumptuous visuals, a number of excellent performances by great character actors and an effectively subtle take on prejudice, but also del Toro's best film since "Pan's Labyrinth." 

In the film, a terrific Sally Hawkins plays Eliza Esposito, a mute maid who communicates solely through sign language and works in an underground laboratory in Baltimore, circa 1963. Her only friends are Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who is her partner in cleaning the laboratory, and a gay neighbor named Giles (Richard Jenkins), who is addicted to eating pie and watching old musicals with Eliza.

One day, a stern man known as Strickland (a frightening Michael Shannon) turns up at the laboratory with a large container. Both the man and container will make a brief stay at the lab for an experiment of a mysterious nature. As Eliza soon finds out, the container holds a being from South America that bears some resemblance to the Creature from the Black Lagoon and is apparently worshipped as some sort of god. Strickland and the creature clearly hate each other, which is exemplified when the latter bites off two fingers of the former.

Eliza becomes attached to the creature, feeding it eggs and playing old Benny Goodman records for it, and the two form a bond. A doctor named Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), also takes a shine to the monster and wants to study - rather than destroy - it, although he has a few skeletons in his closet. But Strickland is hell-bent on killing it and ripping it open to find out how it could benefit the U.S. space program - this is the only story element that remains frustratingly vague. Eliza enlists a few of her friends for a jail break and, in the process, a romance - well, at least something to that effect - blossoms between her and the creature.

The film is set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, which is clearly used to comment upon Strickland and his military pals' fear of the creature - which represents the unknown. In the backdrop on Giles' TV, black protesters are seen being sprayed by police hoses and Giles witnesses a black couple being refused service at a diner where he'd previously admired - and had a crush on - the owner. The film also lampoons the chauvinist American male ego, especially during a scene in which Shannon's character is sold a Cadillac (that is later hilariously wrecked), another in which he robotically has sex with his wife and asks her to remain quiet and, during a not-so funny moment, sexually harasses Eliza.

Del Toro has a vivid imagination and is a filmmaker who can bring his dreams beautifully to life onscreen. There are a number of lovely moments in this film - a scene in which Eliza fills her bathroom with water to allow her and the creature to float together, an imagined musical number in which her voice is finally heard and a scene in which the creature befriends Giles' cats, that is, after eating one and then feeling sorry about it. "The Shape of Water" is at once an intense thriller, a beautifully shot period piece, a story about tolerance, a romance and an espionage picture. It juggles all of these elements gracefully and ends on a mythic note. I'd highly recommend it.

Review: The Disaster Artist

Image courtesy of A24.
It should come as no surprise that James Franco's "The Disaster Artist" is good for some laughs, especially considering the source material. But what might surprise you is that it is also emotionally engaging and not just a one-note joke that pokes fun at a particularly peculiar subject. Yes, the film takes some easy shots at a character - Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), who is responsible for the disasterpiece "The Room" - who is clearly an oddball. But the picture never comes off as cruel as it seems clear that Franco, who also doubles as director, has affection for his subject.

For those unfamiliar with "The Room" and its director, the film has become a "Rocky Horror Picture Show" cult phenomenon that has sold out midnight screenings for years and its creator - Wiseau - is a man of mystery. Well, sort of. His accent is vaguely Eastern European, although he has claimed to hail from New Orleans, and nobody knows where he obtained the $6 million to make "The Room." All of this is mined for comic gold in "The Disaster Artist."

But what differentiates "Rocky Horror" from the latter is that the former is clearly aiming to be camp, while the latter was made in all seriousness. Wiseau had originally set out to make a melodrama of the Tennessee Williams variety, but later changed his tune after "The Room" became a cult hit due to its terribleness and started calling his film a "black comedy." Regardless, if you haven't seen it, by all means do - I doubt you'll ever forget it.

"The Room" follows a fairly straightforward scenario in which a man named Johnny (played by Wiseau) comes to believe that his girlfriend, Lisa, is cheating on him with his best friend, Mark. In between, there's a scene in which Lisa's mother comments on a breast cancer diagnosis that is never mentioned again, footballs are inexplicably tossed back and forth during conversations between characters, a drug dealer torments a kid pal of Johnny's, the same ridiculous sex scene pops not once, but twice, and Johnny goes on a hilarious tirade after being accused of hitting Lisa ("I did naaht hit her, I did naaht do it, it's bullshit, I did naaht hit her"). Conversations often begin with characters noticing each other offscreen and transitioning into a new scene of dialogue with - for example - "Oh, hi Mark."

One of the elements that makes "The Room" so hilarious is that Wiseau seemingly has no clue how Americans - maybe people, in general - speak to one another. Franco's film focuses on the friendship between Wiseau and Greg Sestero, who wrote the book on which this film was based and starred as Mark in "The Room," and how the decline of their friendship played itself out on the screen in Wiseau's film.

In other words, this is a film about the making-of-a-movie - but one that is particularly bonkers. A number of well-known faces - a deadpan Seth Rogen, Jacki Weaver, Alison Brie, Zac Efron and Josh Hutcherson - have bit parts in Franco's film and all of them deliver. James' brother, Dave, gives his best performance to date as Sestero, a guy who is clearly thankful for the assistance that Wiseau gave him that enabled him to move to Los Angeles and break into acting, but also unnerved by the strange behavior that Wiseau shows on the set - especially during a scene in which he belittles a female cast member - as well as his possessiveness regarding their friendship.

I've seen two recent movies - this one and the odd, but charming "Brigsby Bear" - that ended with screenings of DIY films in which the kooky creators of the films being screened received a standing ovation after bearing their hearts and souls on the screen. And that's really one of the reasons that "The Room" is so endearing. It's a terrible movie, but to the extent that it's almost a great one. It is clear that Wiseau poured himself into the film and has the passion - if not necessarily the skill - to connect with viewers. "The Disaster Artist" is funny, but like Tim Burton's wonderful "Ed Wood," it's also a film that proves that dedication can often make up - to an extent - for ability and, therefore, it's a film that has its heart in the right place. Franco's picture pokes fun at its hero, but it loves him just the same.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Review: Darkest Hour

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Similar to Ava DuVernay's terrific "Selma," Joe Wright's entertaining and rousing "Darkest Hour" ditches the Great Man Biopic approach to historical drama, opting instead for telling a true story of a momentous period in history during which a specific historic figure made decisions that altered history. In other words, Winston Churchill is the lead character in "Darkest Hour," but this isn't a straightforward biopic that tells its subject's story from early age to career peaks and death.

As the film opens, British Parliament is calling upon Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) to step down after its members have lost faith in his ability to lead as Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party ravage their way across the European continent, causing nation after nation to fall to the Reich. Churchill, played brilliantly by Gary Oldman, ends up being his replacement, although much to the consternation of many of England's leaders, King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) included.

Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) want Churchill to broker a peace treaty with Germany through Italy to prevent what they see as unnecessary English bloodshed as Hitler romps across Europe. Churchill, accused of warmongering by some members of Parliament, declares that he intends to do no such thing, setting him up to butt heads with Halifax and Chamberlain and, occasionally, the king.

Since this is a warts-and-all bio film, Churchill is first introduced as a bit of a crank, shouting at the young typist (Lily James) whom he has just recently hired. The only person who is able to talk sense to him is his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), who has good reason to worry that others won't respect and appreciate him as she does.

Once in power, Churchill attempts to hold steadfast in his promise to fight Hitler, but not without Halifax and Chamberlain attempting to exert pressure to make him relent. A pivotal scene during which Churchill rides the underground train in London and solicits the opinions of the working class people onboard threatens to become too Hollywoodish, but ends on a note that is stirringly effective.

It helps greatly that Oldman disappears so completely in the role enough to sell it. Not only is the actor weighted down with makeup that nearly renders him unrecognizable, but Oldman also nails the prime minister's vocal tics and accent. It's one of the best performances of the year and one that is sure to draw some awards attention, for those who care about such things.

Every year around this time, studios with their eyes on Oscars release movies about British royalty or leaders that occasionally are great ("The Queen"), often enough good and, at other times, stuffy. "Darkest Hour" is more tense and has higher stakes than your typical film about British monarchs or prime ministers. It's primarily set during a period of days when Churchill must decide whether to capitulate to Hitler or take up the fight.

Near the film's end, the prime minister gives his famed "We Shall Fight on the Beaches" speech and, at that point, it's a cathartic and rousing - especially considering the dark forces currently at play in our world and the fact that Nazism is not a distant specter of the past - moment in an overall very good film.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Review: Call Me By Your Name

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Attentive to detail, composed of gorgeous visual imagery, patient in execution and romantically melancholy, Luca Guadagnino's "Call Me By Your Name" is not only the best film to date by the Italian director, whose previous work includes "I Am Love" and "A Bigger Splash," but one of the most tantalizing of this year so far.

Set in 1983 in a rustic area of Northern Italy, the picture follows the story of 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet in a great performance), who is spending the summer with his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), a renowned professor of Greco-Roman culture, and mother (Amira Casar), a translator, in their seasonal home. Elio often switches back and forth flawlessly between speaking English, French and Italian and knows his way around a piano. However, the cultured and sophisticated persona that he likes to give off masks his unease regarding other things - namely, his sexuality and still existing virginity.

A doctoral student from New England named Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives for a summer internship and Elio is, at first, put off by the mysterious American, who often fails to join the family for dinner and frequently bids adieu with a seemingly dismissive "later!" But from their first meeting, there is obvious chemistry between the youth and more experienced - but also secretly awkward - older man.

If you're guessing that "Call Me By Your Name" is one in a long line of films about a young person learning the ways of the world, shedding their innocence and becoming wiser in the process, well, you'd be correct. But as in all things - especially movies - the how is often more important than the what or why. This is a gorgeously rendered film, from its terrific performances and beautiful cinematography - particularly in the manner in which natural light often plays across a shadowed room or the faces of its characters - to the terrific script by James Ivory and excellent use of music - including the Psychedelic Furs and Sufjan Stevens.

There are several sex scenes in the film - involving the two aforementioned lovers as well as Elio's brief fling with a French girl - and they are all tastefully erotic. Each one is also utilized to deepen the relationships of the various characters, rather than simply put bodies on display. However, there's a scene involving a peach that I'd imagine nobody will forget any time soon.

There's an excellent sequence near the film's end during which Stuhlbarg's character puts into words the overall thematic crux of the picture and it's a lovely moment. Often, when a director literally spells out what they are trying to say - rather than showing - it's a bad sign. But in this case, the scene during which Elio's father talks to him about friendships and love that can transform one's life is, perhaps, this film's finest moment.

The movie ends on a hauntingly melancholic note that anyone could see coming from a mile away. The thing that makes the relationship between Elio and Oliver so poignant all along is that it's obviously doomed to be fleeting. Guadagnino culminates the picture with a long-held shot of Elio's face after he has received a piece of news that is shattering in its obviousness. But it's not a depressing way to end the film. Just around the corners of Elio's mouth a smile can be glimpsed. This is a film about an experience that shape's a person's life - and it's one that has been made with great craft and care. I'd highly recommend it.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Review: Justice League

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
A group of heroes with special powers band together to stop an invading otherworldly presence that promises to wreak havoc on mankind and bring about its destruction. Yes, that is technically the plot for "Justice League," but it could also stand in for any number of films that have been released during the summer or holiday season for the past decade or more. And therein lies the problem with "Justice League" - it is overly familiar to the point where we can guess the exact plot points long before they occur onscreen. The only variation is the order in which they are presented.

Zack Snyder's film isn't a bad one - although there are some cringe-inducing scenes, most notably the ones in which villain Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) attacks with a marauding band of flying insects that give off the vibe of scenes that didn't make the final cut in "The Hobbit" sequels - but it is lacking a personality and a raison d'etre, other than - to quote the finale of "Spaceballs" - the search for more money.

Gal Godot and Ezra Miller add a little flavor to the proceedings as Wonder Woman and The Flash, respectively. Ben Affleck is back as Batman and he's given a little more personality than in the flop "Batman v Superman," while Henry Cavill reprises his role as Superman. A great cast - Diane Lane, Amy Adams, J.K. Simmons, Joe Morton and Jason Mamoa, providing a snippy Aquaman portrayal - doesn't go far enough to make up for the lack of inspiration here.

As the film opens, Steppenwolf and his band of insects are planning to attack Earth in the wake of Superman's death. Batman and Wonder Woman round up Aquaman, Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash to form their own Avengers-style superhero team to take on the menace. This mostly results in Batman brooding, Aquaman complaining, Cyborg sulking and The Flash babbling, although the latter's incessant banter provides a little levity amid all the nonstop battle scenes and expensive special effects.

An odd plot point in the film involves a Russian family, whose home is repeatedly threatened by Steppenwolf's crew for no other point than to be saved late in the movie by two of the heroes and then quickly forgotten. Another minor and unnecessary plot strand involves the sale of Superman's old home. Moving on.

Although I am as equally fatigued by "The Avengers" movies as I am the DC output, the former - at least - is lighter on its feet - that is, when it's not attempting to tackle such topics as the overstepping of Homeland Security - and quicker to poke fun at itself. "Justice League" is, similar to other Snyder films, often so straight-faced that it provokes a question once posed by one of DC's top villains: Why so serious?

Earlier this year, "Wonder Woman" showed how to do a comic book movie the right way. Should DC move forward with a "Flash" movie - as I'm sure they will - it could be fun, especially with Miller in the lead. But despite the fact that the villain in this latest entry is named Steppenwolf, the mantra for this picture could be "Born to Be Mild."

Review: Mudbound

Image courtesy of Netflix.
Dee Rees' "Mudbound" is a powerful film about perspective and how different people view a similar situation and come up with opposing views. The picture follows the stories of two families - one white and one black - in pre- and post-World War II Mississippi who, due to circumstances, find themselves sharing the same plot of land.

One perspective is that of pastor Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), who shares the plot of land with his wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige), and five children, one of whom - Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) - is drafted and sent to fight the Germans and, in the process, falls in love with a young German woman while abroad. Hap sees the plot of land as an opportunity to rise above his station in life.

Meanwhile, Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) has dragged his wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), two daughters and evil racist father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), to the plot of land and comes to find it to be godforsaken. Shortly after taking over the plot, Henry's brother, the hard drinking and womanizing Jaime (Garrett Hedlund), has also returned from the war in shell shock. Another perspective in the picture is that of Jaime and Laura - who come to know members of the Jackson family and forge bonds of friendship - versus that of Henry, who merely see the Jacksons as a means to an end, and Pappy, whose perspective is completely driven by hateful racism.

Jaime and Ronsel strike up a friendship, all the while that Henry forces Hap to work on the land that he has hoped to become his own. It also becomes obvious that Laura has a thing for Jaime and, to add more drama to the scenario, Pappy not only insults Hap and Florence with racial epithets, but has a run-in with Ronsel that we know will lead to no good.

Rees' previous film, "Pariah," was a picture about a young, closeted gay African American woman and her relationship with her family. "Mudbound" is also about a family dynamic - make that two, actually - and Rees shows an affinity for stories regarding familial units. Although "Pariah" was very good, Rees' latest film is a major step up - it's the type of confident, visually striking and thematically rich picture you'd associate with a veteran director, rather than a second outing.

This is also the type of film that will likely make you angry. There are no Hollywood endings here and the film's characters are frequently forced to swallow injustices without any recourse. There's a particularly horrifying scene late in the movie that the viewer can probably see coming, but it's deeply unsettling and heartbreaking all the same. This is a very good film, anchored by terrific performances - especially Hedlund, Mitchell and Blige - and strong filmmaking. I'd highly recommend it.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Review: Murder On The Orient Express

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Kenneth Branagh saved the best role for himself in the remake that he has directed of Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express." As the legendary Hercule Poirot, Branagh appears to be having fun as he struts about with braggadocio as the fuss budget Belgian detective who can't tear himself away from a good case and is driven crazy by the sight of a crooked tie.

So, it's a shame that the rest of the picture feels like the type of overstuffed film from the 1970s - from "Airport" and "The Towering Inferno" to Sidney Lumet's much better version of "Orient Express" - that features a who's who of talent who are mostly relegated to bit parts. Branagh's film boasts an impressive cast: Branagh, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad and Penelope Cruz.

The film opens with an over-the-top sequence in Turkey, during which Poirot is called upon to unravel a mystery regarding a theft that was likely carried out by one of three religious leaders. He then boards the titular train, where he is surrounded by a group of strangers and, not long after the train takes off, approached by one of them (Depp), a criminal of some sort who believes that his life is in danger and wants Poirot's help.

Poirot declines and, shortly thereafter, a murder occurs on the train, which then becomes trapped in a mountain following an avalanche. Naturally, everyone is a suspect and Poirot quickly begins formulating the scene of the crime in his head while interviewing all of the aforementioned, plus several other minor characters. Much of the film's early scenes lack energy, despite Branagh's wily turn as Poirot - who, as it turns out, is the only character given any sort of development.

Poirot pulls clues from the oddest of places, so much so, in fact, that it's often difficult to follow his line of reasoning. The finale includes a clever twist, albeit one that you can probably see coming if you stop to think about it. As a filmmaker, Branagh has worked wonders with Shakespeare and  independent dramas ("Dead Again"and "Peter's Friends"), but his bigger budget work ("Thor") and two remakes of classics ("Sleuth" and "Orient Express") have been lesser endeavors. Other than Branagh's inspired turn as Poirot and the film's final twist, this is a remake that wasn't entirely necessary.

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Martin McDonagh's third outing as a director is not only arguably his best, but also a film that goes out of its way to challenge viewers' assumptions about and attitudes toward its characters as it deftly explores the concepts of grief and anger. This is an often very funny movie that draws humor from subjects that are not funny whatsoever. The ability to do so stems from McDonagh's talents as a writer and director and the abilities of his excellent cast.

Frances McDormand, one of our greatest actresses, is a force of nature in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" as Mildred, a woman living in the titular town whose anger and grief have overwhelmed her. However, she's long past the stage of shock and ready to take action when necessary. Several months prior to the film's beginning, Mildred's teenage daughter was raped and violently murdered and Ebbing's police department has no leads or suspects.

To announce her anger over her loss as well as her frustration regarding the lack of progress in the case, Mildred - much to the dismay of virtually everyone in town - pays for the ad space on three billboards on the outskirts of town that she adorns with three messages: "Raped While Dying," "And Still No Arrests," and "How Come, Chief Willoughby?" The last message refers to the town's sheriff (Woody Harrelson), who in any other film would be the villain, but here is most likely the most sane member of the town.

Willoughby is, similar to Mildred, frustrated about the lack of clues to the murder and he only becomes the target of Mildred's billboards because he's the sheriff and, well, the buck has to stop somewhere, right? In fact, the two appear to have an element of respect for each other and Mildred gets a slight lesson in humility after finding out that Willoughby has his own cross to bear.

If anyone is hostile in "Three Billboards," it is Dixon (Sam Rockwell), the rogue, racist and violent cop for whose humanity Willoughby holds out hope, although no one else appears to do so. Other town members include a dwarf (Peter Dinklage) who harbors feelings for Mildred, the timid man (Caleb Landry Jones) who reluctantly rents the billboard space to Mildred and Mildred's ex-husband (John Hawkes), who clearly beat her and is now living with a 19-year-old girl. Mildred lives with her teenage son (Lucas Hedges), who acts as her semi-voice of reason and appears mortified by her behavior. There's a particularly unsettling scene when Mildred's ex stops by, nearly hits her, is stopped by their son and then everyone goes back to what they were doing as if the scene were routine.

There have been numerous films about people who behave very badly and we've often been forced to identify with them - in other words, the human elements of their atrocious behavior. But it's not often that we are asked to empathize with them. "Three Billboards" does this - and it's a risky move, but ultimately an effective one. Every character in the film is flawed, some more than others. We may be compassionate regarding Mildred's grief, but she's also reckless and occasionally dangerous - take, for instance, her firebombing of the police station, which results in the permanent scarring of a character. And while Dixon, at least for the film's first half, is an unrepentantly disgusting individual, we witness behavior later on that could be seen as some sort of a redemption.

"Three Billboards" is often riotously funny, but also moving in a manner that often sneaks up on you. It also feels true. The film has an ending that will likely be much discussed and debated. Some might call it abrupt, but it ends in a manner that is open ended for a specific purpose. One's take on the final scene might depend on one's view of human nature.

McDonagh's debut, "In Bruges," was a screamingly funny movie about criminals that concerned itself with elements of the soul. Its follow up, "Seven Psychopaths," was amusing, but not on par with the playwright's directorial debut. "Three Billboards" follows in the footsteps of those films in that it deals with crime and punishment and some unsavory characters. But it's also a little deeper, more melancholy and thoughtful in how it examines the grieving process. McDormand should easily earn some awards attention, but Harrelson is also great and Rockwell gives what could be the performance of his career. In other words, I'd highly recommend it.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Review: Lady Bird

Image courtesy of A24.
In a scene near the end of Greta Gerwig's wonderful autobiographical semi-directorial debut "Lady Bird," a minor character notes how the titular character - high school senior Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) - describes Sacramento, the city in which she lives, with such loving detail. Lady Bird is surprised by the compliment, considering her feelings for the city she calls home. For much of the film, Lady Bird talks about how much she hates Sacramento, but the nun at her Catholic school who pays the compliment mentions that the girl had paid such great attention to detail while describing the California town.

And that, at its heart, is sort of on what Gerwig's lovely - and often hilarious - film fixes its attentions. Much of the picture follows the uneasy relationship between Lady Bird and her taskmaster mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who our protagonist believes is unnecessarily harsh - she chides her daughter about her wardrobe, her choice of schools, her behavior and much more. But the thing is: Marion pays attention to her daughter and, during a scene late in the film, Lady Bird recognizes that often paying attention to and taking interest in another's life is one of the greatest ways to show love.

"Lady Bird" is a coming of age story during which a witty, precocious and, let's be honest, occasionally bratty young woman makes a mess of things and, in the process, becomes wiser. Between her work here and her terrific performance in "Brooklyn," Ronan is easily one of the best actors of her generation and Metcalf takes what could be the thankless role of the overbearing mother and provides a deeply felt portrayal. Playwright Tracy Letts is also great as Lady Bird's easygoing father, who has well-hidden melancholia, while Lucas Hedges shines as a love interest - who has a secret - for Lady Bird and Beanie Feldstein plays one of the most well-drawn sidekicks in recent memory as Lady Bird's kindhearted pal Julie.

As the film opens, Lady Bird has set her sights on college in New York City and away from Sacramento, a town that she feels is vapid and culturally lacking. The year is 2002 and scenes of post-9/11 America are splashed across TV screens in the background. The film is based, in part, on Gerwig's youth. She sort-of made a directorial debut alongside Joe Swanberg with the mumblecore film "Nights and Weekends," of which I was not a fan, but her work here is that of a mature artist. This is a wonderfully warm, very funny and terrifically written movie. It's a film about youth that it took the maturity of an adult to bring to the screen.

Although named Christine, the titular heroine gives herself the name Lady Bird to distinguish herself from the other Catholic school kids with whom she attends school, but doesn't feel a connection of any sort - other than Julie, a good natured girl who appears to have a crush on a math teacher. Lady Bird first chases the affections of Hedges, a theater kid with whom she performs in a school play, and - after that romance fizzles - a pretentious hipster in a band whose aloofness tricks Lady Bird into thinking he is interesting.

There are some musical cues - Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River" - that alert us to the era in which the film is set, but many of the songs in the movie are late 1990s nuggets that are well used - such as Bone Thugs N Harmony's "Tha Crossroads" and Dave Matthews Band's "Crash Into Me," which is utilized to startlingly great effect.

Many of the best films from the past few years have been small budget dramas about existences that don't feel too far removed from ordinary life - for example, "Boyhood," "Moonlight," "The Florida Project" and, now, "Lady Bird." In Gerwig's film, Lady Bird makes the type of relatable mistakes many of us have made while forging our paths through the world. Her character might be a self-imposed outcast - at least, before she attempts to fit in for a brief spell with a few of her school's vapid popular kids - but her life follows a trajectory that many will find familiar.

There's also a wonderful mother-daughter dynamic in the film. The picture opens with Lady Bird and Marion tearing up as they listen to an audio book of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" during a college road trip and then quickly begin bickering after it's over as to what they should listen to next. There are a few grand gestures - a prom sequence, albeit a lovely one, and a goodbye at an airport - but "Lady Bird," much like "Boyhood" and "Moonlight," finds its magic in the smaller moments. This is a lovely film, a genuine calling card for Gerwig as a director and one of the year's best movies.

Review: Last Flag Flying

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios.
Considering that his films frequently feature young men behind the wheels of cars, it is surprising that Richard Linklater has never made a road trip movie. His latest - "Last Flag Flying," a sequel of sorts to Darryl Ponicsan's novel and Hal Ashby's classic 1973 film "The Last Detail" - is a movie about three men on the road that is occasionally funny and often melancholy and boasts three excellent performances from its leads.

In the film, Bryan Cranston plays Sal Nealon, who is seemingly the Jack Nicholson character from "The Last Detail," although his name in that film was Buddusky. Laurence Fishburne fills in for Otis Young as Rev. Richard Mueller and Steve Carell takes over Randy Quaid's Larry "Doc" Shepherd. While Ashby's original film was a dark comedy, this sequel - while often funny - is a more sombre affair.

As the film opens, Doc wanders into a bar owned by Sal in Virginia. The year is 2003 and the two men haven't seen each other for years. Although Sal owns a business, he is by no means tied down by anything and it doesn't take much arm twisting for Doc to convince him to take a short road trip. They end up in a church where Mueller, once a hard partying ladies man, is now a reverend and are invited to dinner at his house, where they meet his pious wife.

But the happy reunion is interrupted after Doc confesses that his beloved wife had died earlier that year from cancer and, most recently, his son - a marine - was killed while deployed in Iraq. Doc has sought out his two former buddies - with whom he served in the Vietnam War - to accompany him to pick up his son's body and ride along while it is transported to Arlington National Cemetery for burial.

Similar to Linklater's other films, "Last Flag Flying" focuses on people and the way they gab with one another. The director is a great writer and each character - including Cicely Tyson as an elderly mother of a soldier whom the three men knew in Vietnam and J. Quinton Johnson as a soldier pal of Doc's son who travels along with the trio on their journey - gets at least a few scenes of great dialogue. Each of the performances is strong - Fishburne lends a certain gravitas, while Cranston gets to let loose as the incorrigible Sal. But it's Carell who nearly steals the show in a soulful performance as Doc, whose life has, in some ways, been the rockiest of the three characters.

The film is not perfect. There are a few scenes played for laughs that don't quite work - for example, a discussion of Eminem's music by Mueller and Sal, a sequence during which the three leads are mistaken for terrorists and an ongoing joke regarding Sal's newfound obsession with cell phones. But otherwise, "Last Flag Flying" is a film through which - similar to Linklater's other films - the characters come alive through conversation. There's a particularly funny scene during which the three men - and Johnson's character - laugh about the older men's exploits during Vietnam and a quietly moving scene later on a train when they realize that soldiers' experiences in wartime don't vary much from generation to generation.

Linklater has, for a while, been on a roll with his "Before" films, the remarkable "Boyhood" and excellent "Everybody Wants Some." His latest isn't quite on par with the aforementioned, but it's still very good and it ends on a profound one-two punch when the men visit the mother of a fallen comrade and then Sal and Mueller attempt to be there for Doc after receiving a letter written by his son prior to his death. This is a powerful, beautifully acted movie that does justice to its source material and the classic movie that preceded it.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Review: Suburbicon

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
There's a whole lot of talent involved in "Suburbicon," a movie with two stories that never quite successfully coalesce, but the results are, unfortunately, middling. This is a film that can't decide whether it's a satire, straightforward thriller or socially conscious period piece.

The film's director is George Clooney, an actor who has proven that he has talent behind the camera, and two of the picture's four screenwriters are Joel and Ethan Coen. The cast includes Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac and a bunch of other great character actors. And yet, "Suburbicon" never truly gels.

The picture opens with an ad for the titular town and gives an annotated history of the blossoming of the suburb. The film is set in the late 1950s and as the story opens, a black family is moving into the town of Suburbicon, much to the dismay of the town's predominantly racist population. One of the film's few funny jokes is during the prelude, during which the town is referred to as diverse, which we learn means that white families have moved there from New York, Mississippi and Ohio.

One of the many issues with "Suburbicon" is that, other than a few characters, nearly every person who appears onscreen is repulsive - to an extent that seems near impossible. The film's protagonist, Nicky (Noah Jupe), who lives next door to the black family, is prompted by his mother and aunt to befriend the new neighbor's son. Meanwhile, the rest of the block takes up a vigil of banging drums and other racket outside the black couple's home to scare them away.

Near the beginning of the film, a tragedy strikes. Two nasty men break into Nicky's home, tie up his mother (Julianne Moore), aunt Margaret (also Julianne Moore), Nicky and his father, Gardner (Matt Damon), and knock them all out with chloroform. However, nothing appears to be stolen and the entire scene comes off as fishy. Nicky's mother, who is wheelchair-bound, dies as a result and the boy's uncle vows to find out who was involved in the home invasion.

Nicky begins to sense something is up shortly afterward when Margaret moves in to his house and takes up with his father, who becomes increasingly nasty. In fact, I don't believe I've ever seen Damon play such an outright villain. His character in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" comes off as a Boy Scout in comparison. Moore's aunt also gives Nicky a creepy vibe and it begins to appear as if the boy could be in danger himself.

One of the biggest problems with "Suburbicon" is its attempt to juggle the story involving the murder of Nicky's mother and his growing distrust of his father with the story of the black couple being taunted by Nicky's racist neighbors. At times, it feels like two films being blended together that merely share a similar setting and era, but not much else.

Also, the scenes involving the tormented couple are meant to be moving and anger-inducing - which they are - while the other story is occasionally humorous, but mostly dark and in the manner of the Coens' debut, "Blood Simple." In other words, it doesn't blend well. It's only when Oscar Isaac shows up as an unscrupulous insurance adjuster that "Suburbicon" is made more lively. Otherwise, the film is a blend of tones and concepts that never come together convincingly.

Clooney has shown that he has an eye as a director for period pieces - most notably, "Good Night and Good Luck," but also the decent "Monuments Men" and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." But his latest didn't work for me and it's his least successful outing behind the camera.

Review: The Square

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Ruben Ostlund's "The Square" is an occasionally funny, often frustrating and frequently too obvious satire of the art world that, somehow, won the Palm d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. The picture is a follow-up to the director's previous Cannes favorite, "Force Majeure," a much funnier and sharper satire of bourgeoise foibles.

There's a fair amount to admire in "The Square," especially the performances by Claes Bang as art director Christian, around whom much of the film's action revolves, and Elisabeth Moss as an American journalist who sleeps with Christian after having interviewed him. But many of the film's targets are too easy and the picture, at times, feels reactionary.

The movie opens with Christian, who runs the operations of a gallery known as the X-Royal Museum, stopping to help a young woman from being attacked by a man on the street, only to find out that the whole scene was a scam and his wallet has been stolen. Meanwhile, people on the street hold up signs and ask passersby for subscriptions to social services, while a few feet away homeless people are sleeping - or maybe dead - with no one paying them any mind.

Meanwhile, Christian and his work cohorts are debuting a new exhibition known as Square, which is a box surrounded by glowing light strips. The exhibit is intended to be a "safe space," combining art and sociological study, and Christian must come up with a way to relay the exhibit's message to the public. Unfortunately for him, he brings in two exaggeratedly obtuse millennials who come up with a ridiculous advertising concept for the Square involving a little girl being blown up - as in detonated - inside it. For some reason, Christian agrees to the concept and soon finds himself in a PR nightmare.

Simultaneously, Christian enlists the help of several work friends to carry out a mission in which he delivers an accusatory letter to every single mailbox in a building after he discovers that the people who stole his wallet are among the tenants. Miraculously, his wallet is returned, however, he is now plagued by a young boy who tells him that his letter caused his parents - who assumed that the boy stole the wallet - to punish him.

Some of these scenes are amusing. One involving Moss's character bringing Christian back to her apartment for sex, which involves a live ape and a tug of war involving a condom, becomes hilariously awkward, especially after she confronts him later at his museum. Other sequences are just flat-out awkward, such as one in which Tourette syndrome is utilized for laughs or another during which Christian agrees to pay for a homeless woman's meal, only to have her suddenly become picky in regards to what she'll eat.

The piece de resistance of the film, if you will, involves a banquet held by the museum, during which a performance artist takes his aggression a bit too far, resulting in the guests attacking him. However, the point of this sequence appears to be just how far the guests at the museum will allow the scene to play out before intervening. Much like the film's aforementioned early scenes in which people pass by the homeless without noticing them, the picture's sociological observations are, well, a little too obvious.

In the 1960s and 1970s, filmmakers such as Luis Bunuel and Pier Paolo Pasolini often created furiously hilarious attacks on bourgeoise attitudes and lifestyles. During the past few decades, director Michael Haneke has made a few such films - for example, "Funny Games," of which I was not a fan, and "Cache," which I thought was terrific - that have covered similar ground. Yorgos Lanthimos' "Dogtooth" was also a highly inventive film exploring such concepts.

But two recent films - Lanthimos' "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" and "The Square" - are films in that vein that give off the vibe of sneering at liberal societies and making easy targets of them. The titular art piece in Ostlund's film appears to satirize the concept of what right wing commentators might call "PC culture." And in both "Sacred Deer" and Ostlund's film, the protagonists are both flawed men who are, perhaps, out of touch with the lives of the less fortunate, but ultimately attempt to do the right thing. And for that, they are castigated.

In the film, much like Eli Roth's "The Green Inferno" - I know, an odd comparison - do gooders are seen as foolish. But none of the films provide better alternatives - other than to take easy potshots. "The Square" is a well made, well acted and occasionally amusing film, but it's not as clever as its makers seem to think it is. It's certainly not a bad movie - and a few sequences are examples of bravura filmmaking - but I'm a little surprised that this picture took Cannes' top prize.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Review: The Killing Of A Sacred Deer

Image courtesy of A24.
Yorgos Lanthimos' "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" is the type of film for which I admired the filmmaking more than the content itself. The film begins as a Greek myth as told by Stanley Kubrick before becoming a Greek myth as told by Michael Haneke or Lars Von Trier at their most shocking. That's not to besmirch the latter two filmmakers - both of whom have made more than a few films that I adore - but Lanthimos is clearly attempting to emulate some of European cinema's enfants terribles with his latest, which often comes across as a picture that wants more than anything to be controversial and unsettling.

This intent is made clear from the picture's first image - a long-held, grotesque close-up of a heart beating during an operation being conducted by Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a surgeon in an undisclosed American city. Something seems off by Steven's interactions with his family - he holds conversations with his children, Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy), that are clinical and cold, while sex with his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), involves her pretending to be anaesthetized while he does his business.

Even more oddly, Steven meets on the sly with a teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan, of "Dunkirk"), although there's nothing particularly salacious about their relationship. The two mostly meet at diners, where Steven picks up the check, or take walks by the waterfront, where Steven often plies Martin with gifts. As it turns out, Martin's father died on the operating table under Steven's care some years before and the surgeon, although not likely negligent, appears to feel guilt over the matter.

Things take a turn for the extremely strange when, suddenly, Steven's family members begin to lose feeling in their limbs - first, Bob can't get out of bed, although Steven's colleagues can't figure out exactly what is wrong with the boy. Martin informs Steven that to set things right regarding his father's death, Martin must choose one of his family members to kill - or all of them will gradually lose feeling in their limbs, stop eating, start bleeding from the eyes and then die. Shockingly, this begins to happen as Steven attempts to figure out a plan of action.

There are some interesting ideas to be found in Lanthimos' picture, but they are - unfortunately - overshadowed by the director's seeming desire to provoke and outrage his audience above all else. Also, Keoghan's character is, from the start, irritating and it's difficult to determine whether this is a matter of performance or how the character was written and directed. The movie culminates in a sequence that wouldn't feel out of place in Haneke's "Funny Games," which is one of the few films in that great director's body of work that I just can't get behind.

Lanthimos has talent, I've no doubt of that. His breakthrough was the bizarro shocker "Dogtooth," which chronicled the story of two parents who convince their children that the outside world is dangerous and, therefore, keep them locked up in their home and fenced-in backyard, where they take part in increasingly disturbing games. Yes, that film also aimed to get under its audiences' skin, but the film was frequently hilarious and more absurdist than punishing and cruel.

The director's follow up was "Alps," which didn't do it for me, and - after that - the acclaimed "The Lobster," which I liked and thought was highly original, even if I didn't love it as much as some others did. "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" is often gorgeously shot - its early tracking shots that follow Farrell eerily through the corridors of his hospital reminded me of the camerawork from "The Shining" - and some of the deadpan humor reminiscent of Lanthimos' earlier works pops up in the first half of the film - most notably, an extremely bizarre non sequitur in which Farrell brings up his daughter's menstruation at a dinner party.

But ultimately, this film is of the type that desperately wants to get a rise out of its audience - at times, to the point that it results more in eye rolls than outrage. This is a filmmaker with a unique visual and narrative style, so it's disappointing that his first film set in the United States comes off as slightly half baked. There's a lot of talent on display in this picture - from Thimios Bakatakis' cinematography to Farrell's committed performance - but it's often at the service of tiresome shock tactics and a concept that doesn't pay off.

Review: Wonderstruck

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios.
To say that "Wonderstruck" is a minor film in the career of Todd Haynes isn't an insult to the picture. Hayne's work from the past 20 years has been near flawless and included one great film after another, including "Safe," "Far From Heaven," "I'm Not There," the TV miniseries "Mildred Pierce" and "Carol." The director's latest may not be in the same league as the aforementioned films, but it's still a stylistically daring, enjoyable and often moving account of two wayward souls with a span of decades between them who connect through a twist of circumstance.

The picture is split up between two time frames - 1927 and 1977. The first section is the most stylistically unique. In it, a young girl named Rose (a fantastic Millicent Simmonds) flees from her oppressive father and high-strung actress mother (Julianne Moore) in New York City and is taken in by her older brother. The section is in black and white and is silent - however, one sequence takes pains to show us that the sequence is taking place during the era of talkies. Haynes' choice to make the sequence silent revolves around Rose being deaf.

In 1977, a young boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley) is mourning the loss of his mother (Michelle Williams), who was killed in a car accident, and flees from his home in Minnesota, where he is cared for by relatives, and heads to New York, where he believes his father is located. Prior to running away, Ben is the victim of an accident that damages his hearing. Once in New York, his wallet is snatched (hey, its the 1970s) and he's befriended by a young Puerto Rican kid named Jamie (Jaden Michael), whose father works in the Museum of National History.

Jaime shows Ben where he can hide out for the night in a nook of the museum while he makes plans to track down his father, whom he believes can be found at a book store for which he found a bookmark among his mother's possessions. Needless to say, Rose and Ben's stories converge - and in a manner that works both narratively and emotionally.

"Wonderstruck" bears some similarities to Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" in that it is also based on a young adult novel, but also in that it shows reverence to an artistic institution - Scorsese's film reveres the preservation of classic films, while Haynes' is an ode to museums. As I'd mentioned, it's not among his best films, but it's an occasionally wise, often charming and visually effective little movie. Rose's sequences are the main draw, but they also merge nicely with Ben's story and, thereby, deepen the meaning of both storylines.

"Wonderstruck" may be a movie about children that is more aimed for adults - but I think it would be a great viewing experience for kids. Unlike many American movies aimed at youngsters, it is intelligent and thematically rich. It's the rare type of movie that I could recommend to viewers much older than myself and much younger.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review: Marshall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Review: The Florida Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Blade Runner 2049

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Review: Super Dark Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Review: Woodshock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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