The Hero

June 26, 2017 at 8:21 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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“The Hero” is a good example of how much can rest on a single performance. Sam Elliot has made a name for himself as the iconic, laconic cowboy, perhaps most famously in “The Big Lebowski.” However, Elliot’s trademark voice and great white mustache can distract us from what a fine actor he truly is. This film gives him the opportunity to really shine beyond his typecasting, while also slyly poking fun at it. Elliot’s character, Lee, is an actor, most famous for playing a cowboy in “The Hero.” He now does voice-over work because nobody else is calling. And then he get’s a cancer diagnosis. This scene, very early in the film, really shows Elliot’s skill. The camera is focused on him over the doctor’s shoulder and, as he begins to prepare Lee for the news, we watch Elliot’s face shift so expressively as he realizes where this is going. In fact, the film is really just a series of shots of Elliot’s face as he moves through various emotions. For someone who loves acting, it’s a joy to watch and helps to raise this otherwise cliche story up higher than it deserves. There is not particularly any new light shed by anything said or done during this 90 minutes but Elliot shows such vulnerability that I found myself genuinely moved several times. The other actors do their best to keep up but mostly just give space for him to shine. This is his film and he takes the bull by the horns (sorry, I just couldn’t refuse a cowboy metaphor). It is touching and sweet and often feels really genuine, even when it’s also a bit heavy-handed. Again, we can thank Sam Elliot for that. For any of you who enjoy fine performances, this film is well worth watching.

 

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Beauty and the Beast

June 26, 2017 at 7:45 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I really don’t have much to say about this live action remake of the 1991 animated film, other than “why?” This film is essentially exactly like that one. The story is the same, the characters are the same, the songs are the same, the tone is the same. It is even visually the same, which is an impressive feat, given that the previous film was animated. But, that doesn’t really seem like reason enough to remake it. While I found it very pretty to look at, it added nothing to the original and suffered from the same lack of character depth that plagued most Disney films from the period. In many ways, while this felt like a visual step forward, it felt like a step back in most other ways. It was mildly entertaining but little more than that. There are really so many better children’s movies out there. Go see one of those instead.

My Cousin Rachel

June 11, 2017 at 5:04 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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This has been quite the weekend for ambiguous thrillers. One of which worked and, this one, not so much. That is not to say that this was a bad movie. In fact, some elements worked well. It just wasn’t a very inspiring one, either. The rather famous novel of the same name by British author Daphne au Maurier has been the bases for multiple adaptations before, including one staring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland. Though written in 1951, it is set on an estate in mid-19th century Cornwall. Ambrose as has just died in Italy and his young cousin, Philip (Sam Claflin), suspects his wife, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), of having murdered him. Rachel comes to visit Philip on the estate and the audience spends the rest of the movie wondering if Rachel is a cunning killer or a kindhearted and misunderstood widow. Director and screenwriter, Roger Michell, does a good job of teasing both possibilities. Weisz knows how to play her role well, allowing the faintest smile or glance to suggest that maybe… just maybe… she isn’t what she appears. But, then, maybe she is (because, did I imagine that smile?). It’s a clever performance. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t live up to it. Despite the truly stunning scenery, this is, overall, a largely dull affair. There are brief moments of tension, surrounded by long periods of tedium. The story builds toward another, nicely uncertain ending but this film just was not nearly as impactful as “It Comes at Night,” which I reviewed this morning. It lacks any of the vitality that made that film so watchable. Of the two, go see that one. Wait until this is on t.v., you have binged all your shows, and there is nothing new on. Then watch it; it will be much better than sitting through another “Pirates of the Caribbean” for the umpteenth time.

It Comes at Night

June 11, 2017 at 9:16 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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The woman in front of me declared this the worst movie she had ever seen. While I am not entirely sure what her canon of favorites would contain, I can understand her sentiment. Though I strongly disagree with her, I can see where someone would be disappointed if they were looking for something traditional here. With a name like, “It Comes at Night,” and a trailer like the one below, this looks like a very standard horror film. You might reasonably expect Stephen King-esque terrifying creatures and gore-a-plenty. But, if that is what you want, this is not what you want. Instead, this film is a genuinely taut creepfest, with lots of tension, mystery and an unnerving level of ambiguity. This is the first major film from director/writer Trey Edward Shults. He has a clear understanding of horror/thriller motifs and uses them to great effect. From the first scene, tension is ratcheted up slowly and unrelentingly over the 90 minute run time. Everything in this world is bleak, washed out and largely colorless, except the dark red door that represents the only way in and out of the house where most of the action happens. The story takes place some time close to now in some deliberately vague part of the United States. Some sort of illness is effecting people and that’s all we know. From there, isolation, anxiety and paranoia ensue. And that is what this film is really about. Calling it horror is a deliberate bait-and-switch on the level of calling “Fargo” a true story; the deception serves a deeper artistic purpose. Our anxiety and uncertainty about where the film is going is purposeful; Shults is trying to mimic in the audience the same experience that his characters are having. Right to the shocking and ambiguous ending, we are meant to be unsure what the hell is going on because the characters are unsure. I want to say more about this, so I am putting a spoiler alert here. If you have not seen the movie and don’t want the end ruined, do not read on. SPOILER: In that final scene, we are deliberately supposed to wonder what does the shock and grief on Paul’s (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah’s (Carmen Ejogo) faces mean. Is it because they wrongly killed an entire family without cause (and the last scene of their son was one more of his dreams) or was it because they were too late, their son is dead, and they should have killed the family earlier? In the end, we don’t know which was the correct path for them to take. We don’t know what the wrong choices were. And that is by deliberate design. We should leave that theater feeling unsettled because the world Shults has created is one steeped in uncertainty. What is it that comes at night? It is not, as we are mislead to believe, some monster. It is us. Perhaps, it is other dangerous human beings who come to threaten our family. Or, perhaps, it is our own paranoia that sneaks into our brains at night and makes us into our own monsters. That is also unclear. This ambiguity is what I love about the film. Shults is not just trying to make entertainment; he is trying to make us feel his movie. I think that takes a deft hand from a screenwriter and director. He took me places I did not expect to go and, for that, I am appreciative.

I, Daniel Blake

June 4, 2017 at 7:39 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I really agonized over my rating for this film. It is really the best film I have seen this year, in so many ways. This British film tells the story of two people, Dan and Katie, who meet while trying to get unemployment benefits. The story follows Dan’s struggle through the Goldbergian British bureaucracy, as he tries to get the benefits he needs while retaining his dignity. Along the way, he tries to help Katie and her children out wherever he can. This was such a simple, human story told so well. The lead actors were stunning. Dave Jones and Hayley Squires are mostly known on British television, but they gave such genuine performances that whole scenes felt entirely real and unrehearsed. The naturalness of these two actors made the story that much more impactful and this was a moving, difficult story. I have no idea what British social services is like but, if it is anything like this, it’s a tragedy. I only know my own experience with unemployment here in the US a few years ago. It was convoluted but manageable and I found the government employees to be as helpful as they could be. And this brings me to my struggle with this film. I do not know how to evaluate the story because I don’t know how realistic it really is. It takes some turns that are clearly melodramatic and, in so doing, it robs the story of some of its energy. I just don’t know how much hyperbole is happening on screen, so I don’t know how to evaluate it. That said, I was deeply moved by much of the film and was really taken in by the characters. So, in the end, I chose to rate it based on that. I think it’s a film everyone who loves great acting should see.

 

Wonder Woman

June 4, 2017 at 10:28 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I don’t think I need much from a movie in this genre. Mostly, it just needs to be fun. Some great visual effects, frequent and creative action sequences, and humor are really probably all I need. It’s an added bonus if there is a great story arc and compelling, multilayered characters. In DC’s newest superhero movie, and the first ever with a female lead, we get a lot of the first three things on my list but not much of the second two. Humor has mostly eluded DC until now. Their cadre of films (The “Dark Knight” series, “Man of Steel,” “Batman v. Superman,” “Watchmen”) have all been pretty grim affairs. Fortunately, under the direction of Patty Jenkins, they seem to have finally found their sense of humor. Jenkins, who has only directed one other feature film (2003’s brilliant “Monster”), knows how to develop strong female leads, as she did in that film and on the tv series “The Killing.” Here, she uses Gal Gadot to great effect, giving us strong doses of her emotional strength, physical strength and compassion. This film works largely because she works so well in the role. There is nothing campy or silly about this Wonder Woman, which then gives space for humor that feels more like laughing with, rather than laughing at, the characters. Jenkins’s visuals were also dazzling. I loved the choreography of her fight scenes and the way she continually slowed down the camera so that we could watch what was happening. Some might find that technique affected, especially with how frequently she used it, but I loved it. Far too often in CGI films, action happens too quickly for the audience to track it. Here, we were able to see all of the great dexterity and grace that Gadot and Jenkins instilled into this character’s fighting abilities. I found myself smiling over and over again at the creativity and fun of those scenes. More and more often, comic book films are able to look like the actual comic book panels that inspired them. The 12-year-old boy in me loves that. What I did not love quite as much was the silly gods-heavy plot line, which effectively minimized the travesty of war by laying the blame conveniently not at our feet. It also set up the very corny, saccharine ending that made me groan out loud at one point (actually, I think I said, “Oh, come on! Really?”). Fortunately, the worst of it comes in the last five or so minutes of an otherwise thoroughly entertaining and thoroughly fun adventure. I hope this film brings us a great deal more of all three of these women: Gal Gadot, Patty Jenkins and, of course, Wonder Woman.

 

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