Don’t Breathe

August 29, 2016 at 6:55 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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Horror seems like a deceptively simple genre; all you need to do is scare your audience. However, it is how you scare them that makes all the difference. So many films use gore and savage violence as a stand in for creating real tension. A good horror film knows how to play with its audience and this film does it well. Director and writer Fede Alvarez (this is only his second feature film, after “Evil Dead”) plays cat-and-mouse with the audience around a simple conceit: the villain is blind. This allows for a shifting of power between him and the kids trying to escape his house. His blindness is a significant disadvantage that helps to balance the scales against his military skill and generally craziness. Alvarez then cleverly tips those scales back-and-forth, using light/darkness and sound/silence to great effect. This allows for the tension to build and makes it believable why these kids can’t simply get past an old blind guy or, for that matter, why a trained soldier can’t simply dispatch a couple of kids. Alvarez does show a tendency toward the heavy handed in parts. He has clearly read his Chekhov and follows the playwright’s adage (ie if you have a rifle in the first scene, it must go off by the third one). Virtually every single thing we are shown (and every memory shared) is going to be relevant later on. There is a scene early on, when the kids just enter the home, where the audience is treated to a long, panning shot through a whole wash list of items (including a gun) that was so obvious I had to chuckle. That said, though, there was some fun in anticipating how each of those things would show up again. Very effectively, the old man scarcely spoke at all, which just added to the tension as the kids panicked and whispered. In fact, the one big misstep the film took was during the man’s monologue scene. Almost everything he said was over-wrought and silly. That entire scene brought the film dangerously close to high-camp and most of my audience fell into giggles. Fortunately, the scene was brief and the film resumed it’s original tone and pacing. Another misstep to me was in introducing the character Rocky’s little sister. She existed only to make Rocky more sympathetic and to justify her actions. I hated that. It felt cheap and I think it sells the audience short. Rocky does not have to be a girl scout in order for the audience to root for her. But this really was a small complaint about a good film. Many horror films end anti-climatically, unsure how to resolve the central tension. That isn’t a problem here. I really liked the ending of this film. It seemed completely believable and hit just the right note of resolution/uncertainty.

Hell or High Water

August 21, 2016 at 5:26 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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Let me start with a scene. Let me start with the very first scene, in fact. I want to describe the first 30 seconds of this movie as an indication of what’s in store. We see a car pull into an empty lot. A woman gets out (she has a hand brace, which is irrelevant to the film but is one of the nice small touches we find throughout). She starts walking and the camera pans away from her in a slow arc, past graffiti about being an Iraq war vet who can’t get any support. It pans through a dusty driveway as a beat up Trans Am drives past. It rests on the woman again, on the other side of the parking lot, under a Texas bank sign. She then walks toward the front entrance. There is a church in the background whose crosses are framed by the bank drive-through. It’s a simple few seconds that pass in silence but set the stage for everything that is about to unfold. Without any exposition, the audience knows we are in a rural, poor white Texas community and that this is a film about those folks. In fact, this film tells its story masterfully with almost no exposition at all (with the exception of a brief conversation between two sheriffs sitting on a porch waiting for a robbery. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves). We are lead through images and bits of dialogue to understand who these people are. And what we get is a taut and desperate thrill ride through dangerous country. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers up to no good and Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham are the men trying to stop them. In some ways, this is a paint-by-numbers cops and robbers movie but there is always more under the surface. Each of these four characters (and many of the background ones) are fully realized and utterly believable. They are all angry, in fact everyone in this film is angry, but they just find themselves on different sides of the problem. The script by Taylor Sheridan (who wrote “Sicario”) has no wasted space; everything moves quickly and for a reason. And director David Mackenzie, who I did not know at all, constructs scenes beautifully, knowing just how to tell a story with images. He also builds tension beautifully (as in a great scene, where a slow to turn-over ignition had my entire audience gasp). But it is the four fantastic leads that give this film its weight. This is a story about America’s rotting underbelly. We are a nation of glass castles built on a collapsing working class. Over 40 years, working class and poor Whites have been ignored politically, culturally and economically. This film gives small voice to some of that desperation. And, frankly, we need more like it.

Kubo and the Two Strings

August 20, 2016 at 10:02 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

I knew little of what to expect when I attended this, the newest animated film by Laika Entertainment.  They are a small production company, known for having made only 3 films (before this one) since their creation in 2005 by Nike’s co-founder Phil Knight. Those films all use stop-motion puppet animation combined with CGI and each one of them (“Coraline,” “ParaNorman,” and “The Boxtrolls”) are a delight. This one, however, is a small wonder. I cannot remember the last time I saw an animated movie more beautiful than this one, though I suspect it must have been years. I really was in awe watching scene after scene unfold. While it is worth noting that nobody has yet come close to the complexity of emotions in a children’s film that Pixar has managed in masterpieces like “Inside Out,” their animation has become staid and safe; nothing “wows” me in the visuals of a Pixar film like it used to. What Laika is doing, by comparison, is fresh and adventurous. The company is so small that this film was directed and produced by the current CEO of Laika, Travis Knight (son of Phil). That might sound like the recipe for a disaster but Knight has managed to make their best film yet. I could not recommend this movie enough, based just on the visuals. However, it also has a really lovely story that is full of drama, humor, action & peril, grace and genuine poetry. Kubo is the young son of a deceased samurai who must embark on a perilous journey aided only by his mother’s magic. Along the way, there is music, magical origami, talking animals, a fearsome ocean battle and a truly sinister set of twin sisters. The voice actors include Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, a brief cameo by George Takei (uttering his signature line “oh my!”), and Art Parkinson (known mainly as the unfortunate Rickon from “Game of Thrones) in the title role. This is a beautiful story with a beautiful message told beautifully.

Florence Foster Jenkins

August 14, 2016 at 4:17 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

What a lovely palette cleanser this was after the ugly meatfest that was yesterday’s film. Set in the early 1940s, this is the largely true story of the eponymous socialite who, despite her resounding lack of talent, fancied herself an opera singer. This could have been a snide, cynical affair that took its humor in winks and nods by laughing at Mrs Jenkins; playing to the ugliness in all of us is the easiest form of humor, shallow though it may be. Instead, in the hands of director Stephen Frear’s (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “Philomena,” “High Fidelity”), we get a light (dare I say lyrical) film that dares us to laugh at such a brave and tender person. In fact, the film is filled with bravery of all sorts. Several times, it makes a point of the bravery of the soldiers fighting in the War, as though suggesting the link between their obvious, overt bravery and the more subtle bravery displayed by each of the main characters. It takes a certain type of bravery to believe in yourself so fearlessly and another, beautiful sort of bravery to love and protect such a woman the way her husband (Hugh Grant) and pianist (Simon Helberg) did. I am not sure how difficult it is to pretend to be a bad singer, but I imagine it must be difficult to play that person with sympathy and reverence. Meryl Streep made her strong and delicate, at the same time. And, in a way that only the finest actors can, she let fleeting moments of awareness cross her face; her Jenkins knew more than she let on but chose to remain naive. Grant played her husband beautifully. Despite his many flaws, he so obviously loved her completely and it was his love and generosity that moored the film. The genuine surprise for me was Helberg, who I have only known from “The Big Bang Theory.” He did a terrific job of embodying the prim Cosmé McMoon and, ultimately, his journey was the audience’s. From start to finish this was a lovely, sweet, funny and touching film. In the cynical and mean-spirited time in which we now live, there is a lesson to be learned here about the way we treat each other.

Sausage Party

August 14, 2016 at 10:16 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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Ø

I should have known. I mean, Seth Rogan has not exactly been coy about his sense of humor. I have seen “This is the End,” which he and Evan Goldberg also wrote and which stars most of the same folks. I wasn’t totally naive; I knew the film would be crude and full of innuendo. However, I was just not prepared to spend 89 minutes in a middle school boys’ locker room. Within 5 minutes of the film starting, I was wondering if I should just get up and leave (had I known that the two people I was with were thinking the same thing, I might not be struggling with this review right now). What I was not prepared for initially was the barrage of profanity that was so gratuitous that I felt like I could almost hear the little boys giggle at all the bad words they were getting away with. Perhaps that let up a bit over the course of the film or, perhaps, I just became inured to it. But, fear not, Rogan et al know plenty of other ways to be crass and shocking. The story takes place mostly in a grocery store and focuses on the relationship between a hot dog named Frank (Rogan) and a bun named Brenda (Kristen Wiig), so you can imagine all of the crude humor that can arise from a male hot dog and female bun. Actually, you can’t. It’s ridiculous how much they milk that joke, and every sexual joke they can think of. Have you ever wanted to see a teenage boy masturbating a hot dog sticking out of his pants? Well, lucky you! You’ll get to see it here. The saddest thing is that there is the semblance of a deeper story. Rogan and Goldberg are trying to explore issues of diversity, intolerance and faith. Humor can be a powerful and effective way to explore these deeply sensitive issues. I don’t mind that they were willing to take jabs at such charged topics as Arab-Jewish relations, sexuality & gender in Mexican culture, American race relations or belief in God. But it was done in such a juvenile way that I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the results. There is little room for insight if you only get as deep as a well-meaning 7th grader. I am not saying that the film wasn’t sometimes funny. It was. But only occasionally. The rest of the time I sat in silent uncertainty about where this film was going and if it could redeem itself. It couldn’t. That is unless you call a 3-minute long, fully graphic, animated orgy a redemption of sorts. Apparently, they had to tone it down to get the “R” rating. Given what I saw, it boggles the mind to think what ended up on the cutting room floor. But, I should note that the audience I was with loved it. With the exception of the couple who walked out during the orgy scene, they all seemed to be laughing and clapping throughout. And it has generally been reviewed well. And Rogan managed to get quite a group of actors to provide their voices, beyond just the standard cavalcade of adolescents he normally works with. So, plenty of people see the value of a film like this. Just not me. But, as I said, I really should have known.

 

Café Society

August 13, 2016 at 1:35 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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Woody Allen is, if nothing else, prolific. This film makes the 50th that he has written and directed in 51 years. During that time, he has made some masterpieces, especially during his 20-year heyday from the mid-70s to mid-90s. He has also made some less than successful ventures and a few that can only be described as bizarre (“What’s up, Tiger Lily?” has to be seen to be believed). “Café Society” is neither his best or his worst film. Even by recent standards, it lacks the charm of “Midnight in Paris,” the powerhouse acting of “Blue Jasmine” and taut writing of “Match Point.” That said, it does have charm, strong acting and some clever writing. There are moments (like a scene between Jesse Eisenberg’s Bobby and a prostitute) that are pure Allen, with all of his zany, anxious humor. There is also a depth of understanding about love and human beings that suffuses his best work. In fact, the final moments of the film are absolutely Allen at his best and end the film on just the right note. But the film often stumbled, with humor that fell flat, lifeless dialogue and some wooden acting. These moments were not few but they were balanced by truly delightful ones. Eisenberg has the affable nervousness that one associates with an Allen lead, even if he has more edge and less bumbling. He was particularly effective in his scenes with Kristen Stewart. To my mind, she is one of the most misjudged actresses in Hollywood and she gives a lovely, sweet performance here. Unfortunately, neither of them have the same level of connection with the other characters in the film; when they are not together, neither of them is quite as interesting. I should also note that the film was visually beautiful. Every single set and costume in every single scene was just stunning. 1930s LA and NYC were captured beautifully. I was mesmerized by how gorgeous and glamorous everything was, which, in a film about café society, makes perfect sense. This was far from a perfect movie but it was, in so many ways, quite lovely.

Suicide Squad

August 9, 2016 at 4:03 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

In the newest film from the DC universe, we are beginning to see an emerging pattern that does not bode well for future films. Warner Bros did a brilliant job of marketing this movie and it is well on it’s way to being the highest August earner of all time. But, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” was a massive earner, as well. And both films are similar in another way: tons of people saw it and most of them promptly grumbled about it afterwards (there is even a guy in Great Britain who is suing WB because he is that upset about this film). The press has offered a dozen different opinions about why, often pointing out the tone of the recent Superman and Batman films. I don’t think that’s it, though. At least, not for me. I much prefer the darker vision over the cartoonish versions DC has put out in the past and, in “Suicide Squad,” we are introduced to some very intriguing dark characters. Margot Robbie’s (“The Legend of Tarzan,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”) take on Harley Quinn is brilliant, as she captures crazy/happy-go-lucky/sinister perfectly. I was particularly interested in seeing Jared Leto’s Joker. He has proven in films like “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Chapter 27” and “Requiem for a Dream” that he has a remarkable ability to disappear into a character. In that sense, he has the sort of intensity that Heath Ledger had. Leto’s take on the Joker is as unhinged as Ledger’s, but in a different way. Ledger’s Joker seemed to have a calculated craziness, whereas Leto’s is more impulsive, chaotic and randomly destructive. It’s a powerful performance that seems part Ledger/part Cesar Romero; I wish I had seen more of it. Additionally, I loved Viola Davis’s character, who she imbued with a deep cynicism (she is the dark-hearted version of the Avengers’ Nick Fury). I also liked Jay Hernandez’s ambivalent and heart-broken take on Diablo. However, most of the other characters fell flat for me and that’s a problem in an ensemble piece. In fact, Will Smith’s Deadshot is symptomatic of exactly what I think is wrong with DC’s films these days. This is a dark film about villains (psychopaths, essentially) who are forcibly recruited to do good against their will. Deadshot is a hitman. This should not be a nice guy. But, in Smith’s hands, he is a loving dad, a comedian to Joel Kinnaman’s straight man, and a firm leader with a conscience that his team can rally behind. But where this film most went astray was in its convoluted story, with excessive flashbacks, overly complex plot lines and uninspiring villains, which is exactly the same problem “Dawn of Justice” had. In both cases, it felt as though Warner Bros or DC were more interested in setting up the larger franchise than in making a good film. I say WB or DC deliberately, because I don’t think we can blame the director. David Ayer, who wrote the script for “Training Day” and wrote and directed the terrific “End of Watch,” knows how to create dark characters and write taut stories. Both this film and “Dawn of Justice” feel more like movie-by-committee, and therein lies the biggest problem. All of the reshoots for “Suicide Squad” have become famous. This is what doomed Marvel’s recent “Fantastic Four.” So much money is now at stake with superhero films that studios are unwilling to trust a director’s vision. The real wonder is the way Marvel has managed to avoid that with the MCU films. If there is any lesson for DC to learn here it is that one. Hire directors you trust and then trust them. Maybe then you will get well written films that viewers actually want to watch, recommend and watch again.

Eye in the Sky

August 7, 2016 at 8:08 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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We have no shortage of war movies in the vast canon of American film. We have films that glorify war, demonize war, or remain relentlessly neutral. We have films from every possible perspective and virtually every war. So, it’s hard to tell a new story or shed much light on the subject. That said, “Eye in the Sky” certainly tries hard and does, in part, succeed. It tells the story of a single event in the War on Terror, as a group of politicians and soldiers try to decide if they should initiate a drone attack on a house filled with known terror suspects. Collected in small rooms around the world, these decision makers range from the drone pilot up to Cabinet members from the U.S., Britain and Kenya. They debate, agonize and attempt to shift responsibility back and forth and time slowly runs out. The tight spaces and close camera angles effectively add to the building tension as director Gavin Hood (“Ender’s Game,” “X-Men Origins”) does everything he can to muddy the waters. The result is a mess made so morally ambivalent that it can feel a bit heavy handed. However, Hood seems to be creating an allegory as much as entertainment. But, where most allegories have a clear moral at the end, we are left wondering what was the right decision here. For those who have a strong opinion about drone warfare (on either side) and want the film to reinforce their beliefs, this will be an exercise in frustration. War is messy and Hood wants us to stare into the heart of that mess. He has no answers for us, only nagging questions.

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