Sunday, June 25, 2017

Review: The Ornithologist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Beguiled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Review: Cars 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: All Eyez On Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Review: The Mummy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: It Comes At Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Review: Wonder Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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