Lady MacBeth

July 31, 2017 at 8:54 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Based on the 1865 Russian novella, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” this grim little film hews closely to the first two thirds of the original story before diverging wildly for its final scenes. This story has been made into film 5 times since 1927, though this is the first one in English. Director William Oldroyd (in his feature film debut) has set this version in rural 19th Century England. The story centers on the titular character, named Katherine in this version, and her less-than-healthy relationships with the various males in her life. This is a dark and ugly story with remnants of the class injustice and nihilism you might expect from a Russian work. Oldroyd understands that and magnifies the mood with his choice of scenery, color, and sound. The empty heaths and cold stone house lend a sense of lonely despair to the whole film. The scenery, walls, furniture and clothing are all in shades of brown, black or white, with the exception of Katherine who often wears a deep blue dress, accenting how much she doesn’t belong in this world. The musical score is sparse and large portions of the film pass in silence as people share their despair, rage, and impotence with scornful looks rather than words. The film really hinges on the powerful performance of Florence Pugh as Katherine. Pugh had only done one feature length film before but this one could help her break through. She brought a cold, steely determination to Katherine that helped root the entire film. If there is a reason to see this film, it would be her performance. But I was also left wondering if that was enough. This is a grim story that reaches its grim conclusion without much respite along the way. If you are in the mood for that sort of thing, then I think this film was fairly well done. I don’t think anyone would call it a masterpiece but it sets its teeth, bares down and does its job.

 

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Endless Poetry (Poesía sin fin)

July 23, 2017 at 4:45 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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When I was a young man, half my life ago now, I read a book by Tim O’Brien called, “The Things They Carried.” In it, he had a chapter called, “How to write a true war story,” in which he explained that telling the “truth” sometimes meant making things up. That was a revelation to me, that emotional truth could sometimes only be told by abandoning one’s adherence to what actually happened. Alejandro Jodorowsky is on a journey to tell his life story in film. But not the facts of his life nearly as much as the feeling of his life. First with 2014’s “The Dance of Reality,” and now with this film, he seems to be trying to understand his own life by explaining it to us. The first film covered his early childhood. This one tells the story of his adolescence and young adulthood. Again, his troubled relationship with is father and his anxiety about death are central themes. And, again, he does not deal with any of this in a straight forward narrative. Instead, everything is metaphor. His mother only sings her lines, which represents the fact that she was a failed singer who was deeply sad about her missed opportunities, though nothing in the film will explain that to you. The movie is loaded with images just like that and you will miss the meaning behind most of them. But that really is okay because what comes through so clearly is how deeply emotionally honest this film is trying to be. As with the last one, Jodorowsky appears frequently behind the actor who plays him, commenting about the events on screen. His father in both movies is played by his eldest son and, in this film, the young adult version of Jodorowsky is played by his younger son. This is a deeply personal affair. It is at times evocative, touching and often quite beautiful. It can also be strange, uncomfortable and oddly funny. And, as with the last one, it was just a bit too long. Though how do you tell a man which bits of his life to leave off the screen? It’s clear that he plans on making at least a couple more of these, if time allows. This man is on a journey toward self-understanding, acceptance and forgiveness. I’m grateful he has invited us all along.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

July 23, 2017 at 10:50 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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½

Based on a set of French comics that ran from 1967 – 2010, the film focuses on a Flash Gordon-type hero named Valerian and his partner, Laureline. They do amazing things and save the good guys from the bad guys. That’s hardly a revolutionary story line, though it doesn’t need to be. We go to films like this for a lot of reasons but being surprised isn’t typically one of them. However, we do expect to be entertained. And, in a movie so full of spectacle and action, I am sorry to say that I was bored, almost from the first scene to the last. The backbone of any good film is an engaging plot; it draws the audience in, creates the context for everything we see, and defines what’s at stake for the protagonists. But, right from the start, it’s clear that the emphasis is on surface over substance. Whole scenes are unnecessarily convoluted just as an excuse to play with more visuals and the plot as a whole makes virtually no sense. Similarly, the dialogue and character development feel frankly adolescent. Valerian and Laureline are supposed to be falling in love but the actors had no chemistry. In fact, none of them appeared to be trying particularly hard. Dane DeHaan, who played Valerian, is a terrific actor; watch him in “Kill Your Darlings.” But, here, he seemed to be channeling Keanu Reeves, as though Luc Besson thought he was making his own sort of “Matrix.” Besson, who is best known for directing “The Fifth Element,” shows all the subtlety here that he did there, though at least that film was visually arresting at times. Filmed almost entirely against a blue screen (there could not have been more than 3 or 4 actual sets in this whole film) for a whopping $180M, you would think “Valerian” would at least be fun to look at. You would be wrong. The imagery was all too much too often and without a coherent whole. Visuals were created just because they looked good and not because they served a consistent vision of this universe. The film lacked an internally compelling aesthetic. Also, because the characters all lacked depth, it did not matter that the CGI was good. None of their emotions meant anything. I kept thinking about the most recent “Planet of the Apes” and the character of Caesar. He was such a real and complex character that the CGI served to bring him to life. But CGI cannot animate the lifeless. As a tool, it can add new dimensions to film and allow the director/actors/audience to explore core truths in new and compelling ways. Or it can simply be gratuitous overload; visuals for the sake of the fact that you can create them. That’s what we have here. This film is all surface with nothing below a very thin veneer of pretty. Why bother? There are so many other better films to see. I can’t give this film a ∅. I mean, it didn’t offend me. It just felt like an 137 minute waste of time.

Lost in Paris (Paris Pieds Nus)

July 17, 2017 at 11:27 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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“And now,” as Monty Python would say, “for something completely different.” So much of what I watch and love is dark, cynical, disturbing that I am delighted to say how much I loved this goofy little charmer. This comedic love story is so essentially French and a lovely nod to the slapstick comedies of a different era. It was written and directed by husband and wife, Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordan, who apparently met through the circus in the 1980s and have been together ever since. They have made multiple movies together, in which they always play characters named “Dom” and “Fiona.” Here, Fiona is a Canadian woman who goes off to Paris for the first time after getting a letter from her aunt, played by Emmanuelle Riva, who looks almost unrecognizable from her Best Actress Oscar-nominated role in “Amour” (my favorite film of 2012). In Paris, Fiona encounters Dom and lots of misadventure. Both Gordan and Abel are terrific physical actors, who look and act half their age (I found it shocking to discover that both are 60). They bring such a joy to their roles that it’s hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm. This is a bright, playful movie that whisks its audience along from scene to scene atop a froth of giddy energy. Everyone on screen is having so much fun, it’s almost impossible for the audience not to. In fact, the restaurant scene is a sheer joy from start to finish. In some ways, the film plays like a cartoon with wildly exaggerated facial expressions, ridiculous coincidences, beautifully staged sight gags and a palette rich in primary colors; Fiona is all in green and red, Dom wears various shades of yellow. In fact, bright red is a recurring color that often dominates the screen, reminding us of how cartoonish and larger-than-life this whole caper is. The unfortunate thing about slapstick is that it can wear a bit thin and the latter third of the film drags a bit. But, at only 1:20 long, the film never manages to overstay its welcome. Just at the time I was really about done, it was also. This was a good, fun, light-hearted joyride of a movie. I don’t see enough of them and I suspect most people don’t, either. See this one; it’s worth your time.

War for the Planet of the Apes

July 15, 2017 at 9:25 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Director Matt Reeves made his name as the writer and director for the “Felicity” t.v. series. He then went on to direct “Cloverfield,” “Let Me In,” and the last “Planet of the Apes” film.  “The Batman” is next on his roster. Reeves brought a much needed depth to the previous “Apes” film. The first one had little to offer beyond the (then revolutionary) CGI. The story itself was painful. Reeves is now also the writer of “War” and has further developed the story established in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Taking place just 2 years after that film, we are in the middle of the war between humans and apes that started at the end of the “Dawn.” Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his troop have been hiding deep in the woods until they are forced to look for a new, safer home. This film is less of an action/sci fi film and really more of a psychological drama. It explores how someone deals with trauma, battle fatigue, mistrust, rage and hatred, while still trying to be a leader to his people. The CGI is now good enough that a film like this can allow for a whole range and depth of emotions to play across a character’s face and Andy Serkis is a master actor. Though Reeves has cleverly evolved Caesar’s speaking abilities with each film, he does not rely on dialogue to convey most of the emotions we see on screen. Instead, we get beautiful close ups of Caesar’s and the other ape’s faces as they wrestle with complex and sometimes heartbreaking emotions. This film works because Caesar is such a beautifully realized character. The action scenes are fine, though nothing stands out as being as impressive as the Golden Gate Bridge scene from the first film. Also, there was a welcome amount of humor in an otherwise very serious story. But those are not the reasons I am recommending this film. Rather, see it because it completes the story arc in a really satisfying way. Though I am sure there will be more in the series, this trilogy is a better character study than most. See this film because it is beautifully acted. See it because it is touching. See it because I was surprised by how moved I was by its final moments. See it because great acting is always worth watching.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

July 9, 2017 at 10:53 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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The Spider-Man franchise, in its various incarnations, has been the gold standard for superhero franchises, having brought in just over $4 billion in its 15 year run. Not bad for a kid in tights. So, expectations have been high for this reboot, especially after the Andrew Garfield one failed to take off. Right from the start, they were off to a good start because Marvel was back in control of the franchise and they have shown a deft hand at translating even the goofiest of characters to the screen (think “The Guardians of the Galaxy), where others have failed, even with hugely popular characters (think “The Fantastic Four”). Marvel chose to bring Spider-Man right back to his roots. What made him unique when he debuted in 1963 was that he was an awkward teenager, so unlike the cool and supremely talented heroes we had seen in comics to date. I think this is part of why Garfield’s Spidey never worked; he was too cocksure and smirky. Nothing about him read awkward teen. This time, Marvel hired the youngest actor yet to play Peter Parker, 21 year old British actor Tom Holland (“The Impossible,” “In the Heart of the Sea”). Unlike previous actors, Holland is able to believably play a 15 year old. In fact, the real contribution of this film to the genre is in just how different its hero is. This Spider-Man is every bit the nerdy, self-conscious, angst-ridden teen. He is impulsive, eager to please, clumsy and incredibly endearing. Holland’s charm as the character is what makes the film work. The storyline is not particularly better or worse than any of the other films. Again, the writers have dragged out a couple of classic Spider-Man villains. This time it is The Shocker and The Vulture. Robert Downey Jr’s cameo as Iron Man adds some humor and deeper context, but only if you are a fan who has watched all the other Marvel movies. Otherwise, he looks like a confusing add-on. Far funnier were Chris Evans’s cameos as Captain America. They were brilliantly clever (make sure you wait until after the final credits to see the last one). But the real star to watch was Michael Keaton as The Vulture. Keaton is having a well deserved revival after “Birdman” reminded everyone of how brilliant he is. He imbues this villain with just the right balance of menace, cynicism and blasé attitude. He is the perfect foil for Spider-Man’s goofy energy, wide-eyed wonder and perkiness. I found their in-costume battle scenes to be a bit dull, but when they were face-to-face, sparring verbally, that was just a joy. Keaton commanded every one of those scenes, but that’s okay because he should have. This geeky boy, despite his super powers, was no intellectual match for his enemy. I love that Marvel was willing to give us such an incomplete hero here. Usually, super heroes are all so automatically super and heroic. Even previous Spider-Men (Men? Mans? What’s the right grammar here?), had a “learning my powers montage” or two and then were remarkably proficient. I loved that this film chose to tackle the character so differently. As an action movie, this was about par with the most of them and not nearly as good as the likes of last month’s “Wonder Woman.” But, as a character study, this is really one of the best superhero films we have had to date.

The Beguiled

July 2, 2017 at 5:46 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment

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After yesterday’s whirling dervish that was “Baby Driver,” this slow burn was a shock to the system. Based on the 1971 film of the same name, starring Clint Eastwood, “The Beguiled” shows the unraveling of a group of women and girls when a man enters their world. It is the 1860s and the American Civil War is raging. Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) runs a girls’ boarding school in Virginia. Most have left to return home, but Martha and one teacher, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), are left to care for the half dozen girls who have no place to go. While out picking mushrooms one day, the youngest girl comes across a wounded Yankee soldier. She brings him back to the house, where Martha feels it is her Christian duty to help heal him. Though the girls are reticent to have an evil “blue belly” in the house at first, that fear becomes fascination and trouble begins to brew. Director Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation,” “The Bling Ring”) lets the tension build slowly. Kidman, Dunst and Elle Fanning (as the oldest girl) are masterful actors and can convey an array of feelings with just a glance. Coppola lets the story unfold (or perhaps unravel) at its own pace. There was a lot to like here, particularly the strength of all the performances. And I have to give Coppola credit for taking on what looked to be such an obviously sexist film (watch the original hilarious trailer here) and giving it a modern sensibility. But the story never really drew me in. Nothing felt at stake, perhaps because I never felt engaged with any of the characters, except the youngest girl. For a story that seemed to be so much about intimacy and need, it felt oddly distant. There were some beautiful scenes, including the final one, but, without the depth to back them up, all of the those scenes ultimately fell flat.

Baby Driver

July 2, 2017 at 5:20 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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It was impossible to not think of Nicolas Winding Refn’s brilliant “Drive” throughout this film. Both tell the story of a getaway driver who tries to leave the life after falling in love. And Refn’s film was so vital and bold that it feels like I saw it yesterday, even though it was almost 5 years ago. This was hardly a fair thing to do to “Baby Driver,” which can only suffer by comparison. That film was brilliant; this one was merely very very entertaining. But worth the price of admission, none-the-less. Beyond the similarities in story, these films could not be more different. The tone, temper, pacing, acting, and visual palettes were virtually opposite each other. Refn’s “Drive” was a sort of minimalist masterpiece. The pace was deliberately slow and brooding and all of the acting was appropriately understated. Scenes seethed with unstated tension. And the lighting was dark, long night scenes, and lots of orange/red hues. But “Baby Driver” goes in the opposite direction. Director Edgar Wright (“Sean of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz,” “Scott Pilgrim vs The World”) loves excess and draws over-the-top performances from his actors. From the first moments of the first scene, “Baby Driver” takes off and keeps going at an almost unrelenting pace for its entire 113 minutes. Every single performance is bursting with energy. Where Ryan Gosling’s driver was all coiled potential energy, Ansel Elgort’s Baby cannot stop moving. He is endless kinetic energy. The villains are equally as manic. Jon Bernthal’s Griff made his “Punisher” from the “Daredevil” t.v. series seem realistic by comparison. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it adds to the fun of a film that is clearly just meant to be fun. Jon Hamm appears to be having the time of his life as the absurdly one-dimensional Buddy. This film is all flash and buzz and hi-octane energy. It’s a cotton-candy thrill ride that knows how to be that, exactly that, and nothing more. Go, settle into your seat with a big bag of popcorn, and enjoy the ride.

 

Okja

July 2, 2017 at 4:47 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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You could possibly accuse me of cheating with this review, as the film has been released on Netflix and will not ever get a wide-release in the U.S. That said, Bong is a major director, this film has had wide-release in other countries and was shown at Cannes. So, I decided to treat it like any new release. Plus, it is one of my favorite films of the year, to date. Bong Joon-ho is responsible for some of my favorite Korean films, including “The Host” and the beautifully creepy “Mother.” He has an eye for the bizarre and loves a fantastic parable, as in the less successful “Snowpiercer.” Here, he takes on factory farming, evil corporations and mass consumption, in general. At times his message is as poignant as it is pointed. And at other times it feels a bit one-dimensional; his depiction of The Animal Liberation Front seems like propaganda, better suited for one of their flyers. But, look beyond that and what you’ll find is a remarkably funny, heart-wrenching and provocative story. Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) is CEO of a company that has secretly bred genetically modified pigs and now wants to send them all to mass slaughter. But 13 year old Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) has fallen in love with one of them. When the evil corporation takes Okja away, Mija goes on an epic journey to get her back. Swinton loves playing extreme characters and does a brilliant job of it, she was the best part of “Snowpiercer,” and she does not disappoint here. Jake Gyllenhaal also gives a full on, over-the-top performance as the far less than stable Johnny Wilcox. But the real credit goes to the young Ahn and the CGI team that created Okja. The creature was genuinely beautiful and expressive. The love between the two felt completely believable. In Ahn’s hands, Mija is an incredibly strong and unrelenting hero, and you can’t help but root for her every step of the way. This film was equal parts social commentary, laugh-out-loud comedy and non-stop action film. Every scene was a joy to watch. It will surprise and amuse and maybe annoy you, but it is unlikely to ever bore you.

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