Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review: Marshall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Review: The Florida Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Blade Runner 2049

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Review: Super Dark Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Review: Woodshock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Review: Mother!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Review: It

Image courtesy of New Line Cinema
One of Stephen King's most successful elements as a writer is his ability to craft stories that are imaginative genre attractions (hotels that posses their caretakers to commit atrocities and cemeteries that enable the dead to rise again) filled with people who feel all-too human. His characters are flawed but lived-in - occasionally horrible, sometimes noble and frequently recognizable.

His 1986 opus "It," which ran well over 1,000 pages, featured two of King's most well-trod attributes - a terrifying villain and an achingly nostalgic story featuring young characters. His novella "The Body" was, in 1986, adapted into the movie "Stand by Me," which is not only one of the very best cinematic adaptations of King's work, but also one of the most wistfully thoughtful coming of age movies of that era.

Much like "Stand By Me," the novel "It" was set - during its first part - in the 1950s. Its second half took place in the 1980s. In Andy Muschietti's film adaptation, the story of "It" has been transferred to the 1980s and only covers the action from the first half of the book, while the book's second half will likely be made into a second movie that will be set in the present.

As the film opens, a young boy named Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) sails a paper boat made by his brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) down the rain-drenched streets of the fictional town of Derry, Maine. The boat sails into the gutter, where Georgie attempts to retrieve it and comes into contact with the story's demonic villain, a sinister presence that takes the form of a creepy clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). Needless to say, things don't turn out well for poor Georgie.

One year later, Bill - still traumatized by his brother's disappearance - befriends a motley crew of the town's outcasts - a much slut-shamed girl with an abusive father named Beverly (Sophia Lillis); a small, asthmatic kid named Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer); a chubby, picked-upon kid with a penchant for New Kids on the Block named Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor); a perpetual jokester named Richie (Finn Wolfhard); the town's seemingly-only African American youth, Mike (Chosen Jacobs); and a Jewish kid named Stanley (Wyatt Oleff). The group's members refer to themselves as the Losers Club.

Each of the children have had run-ins with Pennywise, but also the town's sadistic bully, Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), and his cohorts. In the novel, Pennywise often took the form of 1950s horror movie villains - the Wolf Man, for example - that scared the various Losers, which played well for the purpose of the novel, but came off as slightly silly in the 1991 TV adaptation. In Muschietti's film, these sequences are thankfully missing - as well as the highly controversial sex scene involving the Losers Club - and replaced with scenes of the children being taunted by Pennywise as he summons up their worst fears. A painting that frightens Stanley is particularly creepy.

The film's genre elements mostly work. As I've mentioned, Skarsgard is creepy as Pennywise - especially during his first appearance in the gutter - although his ability to constantly pop up directly in front of the kids and take various shapes tilt a few scenes toward the absurd. But the film's biggest selling point is the camaraderie between the Losers, all of whom are likable and appropriately awkward as one might expect of kids at their age.

Whether the second chapter of "It" - in which the adult versions of the Losers Club returns to town to combat Pennywise once more - is successful (in the TV version of the novel, the adult section wasn't as convincing as the one involving the Losers as kids) remains to be seen, but this first chapter is a mostly successful endeavor. Although it doesn't belong in the pantheon of the best adaptations of King's work - which includes "Stand By Me" and Stanley Kubrick's iconic reimagining of "The Shining" - it's an amusing horror funhouse with more heart than you'd typically expect from the genre.

Review: The Unknown Girl

Image courtesy of Sundance Selects
The films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne frequently concern themselves with lives on the edge - persons facing economic plight, weighty decisions and, occasionally, both at the same time. Their previous works include "The Son" (featuring a boy responsible for another young man's death making a connection with the dead kid's father), "L'Enfant" (a young couple gives up a child for adoption and then tries to get the child back) and "Two Days One Night" (a woman about to lose her job attempts to get her co-workers to help retain the position).

In the Belgian brothers' latest film - "The Unknown Girl" - the protagonist, a doctor named Jenny Davin (Adele Haenel), is seemingly well-to-do, but she becomes caught up in another's tragedy. Davin takes pride in the level of care and commitment she displays to her patients and her aim is always to remain sympathetic to the plight of others. One night, she makes an uncharacteristic slip after failing to buzz in someone who rings her office's doorbell after hours.

The next day, Jenny finds out that a young woman - seemingly, the one who rang the buzzer - was discovered dead near her office. Wracked by guilt, Jenny sets out to discover the girl's identity with the intention of notifying the family of the deceased, but ends up drawing herself into a mystery that provides an element of danger.

Similar to "L'Enfant" and several of the Dardennes' other pictures, "The Unknown Girl" plays out as a humanistic drama that often feels like a thriller. The movie is intense - especially as Jenny puts herself in harm's way - due to its storyline, but also in the manner in which human emotions play on the faces of its actors. The Dardennes' films often play as parables or allegories, but "The Unknown Girl" ends on an uncharacteristically mysterious note, during which Jenny meets a young woman claiming to be the girl's sister.

While "The Unknown Girl" doesn't rank among the Dardennes' best - that would include "L'Enfant," one of two Palm d'Or winners for the brothers, and "The Son" - it is an intriguing, well acted and engrossing drama that features a sympathetic and well rounded lead character and a theme of kindness toward strangers that hits home, considering the current state of the world. When it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last year, the film was noted to be a "minor" Dardennes movie - and, perhaps, it is - but it's still a good one.

Review: Twin Peaks: The Return

Image courtesy of Showtime.
When David Lynch's spellbinding "Twin Peaks: The Return" first aired on Showtime on May 21, it was the first time that a new feature-length work from the filmmaker had been released in 11 years. After having watched all 18 incredible hours of the Showtime series, one thing that jumped out at me was that the show not only appeared to wrap up the story of the titular Washington town where much of it was set - and I doubt he'll revisit it again - but also acted as a retrospective of Lynch's work, utilizing themes and visual cues from "Eraserhead," "Blue Velvet" and, naturally, the original "Twin Peaks" series and film ("Fire Walk with Me") and blending them with the darker visuals, themes and Mobius strip-like setups from such later works as "Lost Highway," "Mulholland Drive" and "Inland Empire."

Naturally, I'll be greatly disappointed if Lynch never makes another TV show or movie - and it's possible he might not - but if "Twin Peaks: The Return" is his final - in the words of Kyle McLachlan's Agent Dale Cooper near the climax of the 18-hour series - "curtain call," then it is a fitting one.

But rather than regurgitate the plot of "Twin Peaks: The Return," which would be a Herculean feat in and of itself, I've decided to explore some of the concepts that particularly stuck with me while watching it - which is, arguably, the best way of going about watching the show itself.



Sunday, September 3, 2017

Review: Wind River

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Taylor Sheridan's "Wind River" has been labeled as a murder mystery and while that's true, the picture - which is the second outing behind the camera for the "Hell or High Water" scribe - is also an old school western - and a very good one at that. Somewhat similar to Michael Apted's 1992 thriller "Thunderheart," Sheridan's film is a mystery set on a Native American reservation.

Only, this time, the setting is the harsh, wintry wilds of Wyoming, where Jeremy Renner's hunter and tracker Cory Lambert bides his time preventing wolves and mountain lions from killing local steer and sheep. Lambert, who has a young son and an estranged wife, is - much like the western heroes of old - hiding some pain from his past that is only slowly revealed.

His scars begin to come to the surface after a young Native American woman is found raped and seemingly murdered in the snow. Lambert tries to console her grieving family with the knowledge that the girl ran six miles in freezing conditions in which most people would last only a few steps, therefore making her a fighter. But he knows from personal experience that nothing, as he points out on several occasions, can make the pain go away, other than time.

Elizabeth Olsen shows up as Jane Banner, the investigating FBI agent, whose proclivity is to not waste time with small talk and get to the point - which, to some, make her appear callous. Upon realizing that her best bet in discovering the girl's killer - or killers - is to work with Lambert, but also the local reservation sheriff (Graham Greene), she enlists both men in the investigation, for which Jane knows that she'll have no FBI backup, considering that the coroner pronounced the girl dead from frozen lungs, rather than the blows inflicted upon her.

Much like "Hell or High Water," the film soaks in the atmosphere of its setting. While that previous picture made great use of desert vistas, "Wind River" presents a frigid, harsh climate that makes one shiver by merely viewing it. During the course of the picture, the evils that men do to one another almost play second fiddle to the wrath of Mother Nature.

Sheridan's picture is an engrossing whodunit but, as I'd mentioned, it also tips its hat to the western genre - and a final showdown between a villain and Lambert's character is one that might have felt at home in an old Howard Hawks or John Ford movie. There's also a particularly tense standoff involving a whole group of characters that is shocking due to how quickly it escalates into a shootout.

"Wind River" is a genre - or genres - movie, of sorts, but it has more on its mind than this. Lambert's character is sympathetic to the plight of the Native Americans among whom he lives and there's an expertly made sequence during which he questions a local bad seed - and although he roughs the guy up after he gets out of line, he can also sympathize with the conditions that have led this fellow down a dark road. Much like the best of cinema's detectives or western heroes, Lambert is a conflicted and multi-faceted character - and "Wind River" is all the better for it. It's a well made and rich - both visually and thematically - thriller.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Review: Beach Rats

Image courtesy of Neon.
Eliza Hittman's "Beach Rats" is anchored by a strong breakout performance by its lead, Harris Dickinson, and weakened - to an extent - by the story surrounding him. On the one hand, Hittman does a nice job of creating a dreamy atmosphere and capturing the unhurried aura of wayward youths with no direction. Both her previous film, "It Felt Like Love," and this new picture explore young characters in New York City who are facing some sort of sexual frustration.

And yet, "Beach Rats" doesn't really go anywhere we haven't gone before in other, better films. It's a film that I admire - for the performances and laconic vibe - without ever being completely drawn in by it. You can see where it's going from a mile away and you won't be shocked where it ends up.

As the film opens, Frankie (Dickinson) pals around with his three meathead buddies in Coney Island, where he lives, and chases after women on the boardwalk. But one can tell that he's not completely at ease with this lifestyle, especially after he takes a young woman, Simone (Madeline Weinstein) - with whom he'll have an on-again, off-again relationship throughout the course of the film - home with him and makes excuses for not sleeping with her.

When left to his own devices - and primarily in the dead of night - Frankie meets older men online and, on occasion, meets them in secluded places for hook-ups. He's not exactly gay, but his romantic relationships with women clearly take some work and self-convincing. When prompted to disclose what he wants by the men whom he meets, he frequently replies that he doesn't know what he wants - which comes as no surprise to virtually anybody - and that he doesn't "have a type."

To complicate matters, Frankie lives at home with his sister - who is just old enough to take an interest in boys, much to her brother's dismay - and mother after his father, who is seen wasting away during the film's early scenes, dies from cancer. Although Simone works a retail job, Frankie - and his friends - are seemingly unemployed and not in school. That his mother lectures him on his late-night habits and possible drug intake, but not on the fact that he has no job, is a curious touch.

The film is at its best when Frankie is juggling the make-believe persona that he puts on for his friends and Simone and who he actually is after hours. Unfortunately, "Beach Rats" takes a turn toward the obvious when Frankie suggests calling one of his hook-ups to buy weed and allows his buddies - who are completely unaware of his nighttime activities - to tag along.

Based on her two films, Hittman's subject matter of choice appears to be the challenges of discovering one's sexuality during the teenage years. Her movies remind me of a slightly kinder, gentler companion to those of Larry Clark ("Kids" and, to a lesser extent, "Bully" and "Ken Park"). Neither of her films left me completely convinced, but she does a fine job of capturing the indecisiveness of the age range that she is portraying. Dickinson's lived-in performance is the selling point of "Beach Rats," which is otherwise a mixed bag.

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.