Goodnight Mommy

September 27, 2015 at 7:45 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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I noticed recently that I give a lot of 3 1/2 lozenge ratings; it appears to be my fall back for a movie that is more than just “I’m glad I saw it” but less than “I loved this film.”  I’m going to try and get off the fence over the course of this review and decide if this film is a 3 or a 4. This German thriller (“Ich Seh Ich Seh” was the original title) follows the relationship between twin brothers, Lukas and Elias (who look to be 9 or 10) and their mother, who has just returned home after major surgery. But, is she really their mother? Her head is entirely wrapped in bandages, except for her piercing eyes. She seems different, acts different. Where is the mole she used to have? Why is she so punitive and suspicious? What happened to the cat, anyway? The boys’ fears grow deeper as they become convinced this woman is an impostor and they hatch a plan to try and find out where their true mother is. This has all the right elements of a great thriller: an engaging mystery, people trapped in close quarters together, some child endangerment. Yet, it takes forever to get going. The first 45 minutes of the film moves mostly languidly and with long stretches of silence. There was so little tension, I was at risk of nodding off. Not a good thing for a thriller. However, things suddenly switch dramatically half way through and the remaining 45 minutes are a wild ride of increased tension and horror. While the first half is vaguely creepy/unnerving, the second half is full-on creepy/cringe-worthy. I understand why this had to be the case. The film is built on a massive (and clever) conceit and, if the twist is going to come as a surprise, the emptiness of the first half is a necessary evil. The twisting this film does, and there is definitely more than one, makes its final scenes great thriller fun. In addition, young brothers, Lukas and Elias Schwarz, are terrific in their roles and the audience gets totally drawn into their world. The end itself is quite a shocker and there were gasps in my audience. All great stuff for a thriller. And, yet, it’s a long slow set up for that pay off. Was it worth it? Was it… yeah, I think it was.

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Black Mass

September 26, 2015 at 5:06 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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I must confess that I have confusion over the term “character actor,” which, in theory, seems to refer to someone who is mostly known for playing a character type. Yet, in practice, it appears to refer to actors who are never in lead roles. I find that strange because, to me, nobody is a better character actor than Johnny Depp. He has rarely ever just played the average guy; he is always playing some larger than life character and, whether it works (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Pirates of the Caribbean”) or doesn’t (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Dark Shadows,” “The Lone Ranger”), it’s fascinating to watch. This time is works brilliants. Depp’s James “Whitey” Bulger is by far his most disturbing character to date. He imbues Bulger with such seething malice for everyone that tension flows through every single scene. The way he stares, smiles, holds his shoulders, walks, all make him look like a thing of incredible danger. I have no idea what the real Bulger is like (and he has taken issue with this portrayal) but this character is a great movie villain and probably the best I have seen in years. There is one scene between him and Agent Connolly’s wife (Julianne Nicholson) that is brilliant. She claims to be sick and he checks her vitals in the most menacing way; it’s a moment of nurturing turned into horrifying threat. That scene will stay with me a long time. The larger film itself is not quite as transformative. Corrupt cops in bed with gangsters is hardly new material and, in fact, we have seen variations of this film several times in the last few years. The Boston accents are fun and the story is gripping but it wasn’t exceptional. Also, be warned, it was extremely violent. And not cartoon, superhero, action violence. This was up close and graphically real violence. It was disturbing enough that I turned away a couple of times. Depp was not the only good actor here. Joel Edgerton (“Animal Kingdon,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) is a powerful Australian actor, known mostly for background roles here in the US. Hopefully, this film will give him a boost. As the deeply corrupt John Connolly, Edgerton is the other central character to what is essentially a relationship movie. Who these men are to each other and how they are using/being used by each is the central story arc of the film. It works because both actors are up to the task. Nicholson is also incredibly strong as Connolly’s wife. A whole bevy of other big actors show up in roles of varying importance. I had a hard time seeing Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s brother but this is a minor quibble. This biggest flaw, as I have said, is in telling a story that wasn’t so unique and, perhaps, in having no heroes to root for. This is a story of bad men doing worse things. Everyone with any screen time is so unlikeable and so bathed in violence that it can leave the audience a bit numb by the end. This is not a film that will garner any Oscars, nor should it. But it might give Edgerton’s career a much deserved push and jump start Depp’s. That would not be a bad thing.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

September 26, 2015 at 3:59 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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One might legitimately wonder why I am seeing a film when I did not like the first one in the series and, in fact, disliked all of the books. Good question and I have no good answer. Maybe I was a little bit curious, a little bit bored. Really, it’s what my friends wanted to see. That said, it was not quite as irredeemable as I would have thought. Close, but not quite. Based on the YA science fiction trilogy by James Dashner, the story exists in some non-nonsensical, post-apocalyptic future where the Earth has been simultaneously been ravaged by solar flares and a zombie-like disease. A small portion of kids are now born immune to the disease and, for reasons that strain credibility (even within sci-fi), these kids have to be put through a series of gruesome and deadly experiments so that the cure can be extracted from their blood. It seems infinitely more practical to simply kill them and drain the blood and it is never clear why this isn’t an option. Or, for that matter, how it could possible make sense to spend the billions up billions of dollars needed to build these elaborate tests rather than spending the money on research. But, then, maybe I am thinking to much. What the film does have is lots and lots of action from beginning to end, some of it mildly entertaining. Though, most of it looks exactly like what I have seen elsewhere many times before.  The latest “Mad Max” film is evidence that you don’t have to have much plot, or even dialogue, if the visuals are interesting enough. These ones were not. In the end, it was 92 minutes desert-zombie-teenage-peril. I can’t wait for the final one.

Phoenix

September 6, 2015 at 5:41 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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It has been a number of years since I have seen a film about World War II; they often just feel like they are telling some version of the same story over and over again. This one, however, was different. It could have easily taken place at any time in any number of places. WWII Germany was simply the backdrop for the story to play out on. Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) is returning home after having been imprisoned in Auschwitz. She was shot in the face and the plastic surgery has changed how she looks just enough that her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), does not recognize her. Or, rather, he is struck by how much this woman almost looks like his dead wife. Thus, the layers of subterfuge begin. He wants her to impersonate his wife so that she can claim the estate. So, Nelly pretends to be Esther pretending to be Nelly so that she can reconnect with her husband, in part to determine if he is the one who turned her over to the Nazis to begin with. The story can wind a bit slowly at times and often lacks the tension it could have easily had. But there is real humanity here. Nelly almost taunts Johnny to see who she really is but he has long accepted his wife’s death and cannot see past his defenses. The film is at times tender, with Hoss doing a fantastic job of playing a deeply traumatized person; the way she carried her body and every look on her face conveyed how haunted and diminished she was, which made the moment when she finally found her voice (quite literally), so thrilling. The film ends abruptly and without any resolution. I know this annoys some viewers but I loved it. It left the audience uneasy and unresolved, just like Nelly and Johnny were.

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