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.

 

Wakefield

May 28, 2017 at 6:47 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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“The quality of mercy is not strained.” Wakefield quotes the Bard in what may be the pivotal moment of this evocative and sometimes muddy parable. And like “The Merchant of Venice,” this is definitely a parable, though perhaps more reminiscent of “The Prodigal Son” or “The Good Samaritan,” in that it almost seems to be a morality tale. What makes a man who he is? Is he defined by his job, his wife, his kids, his wealth, the choices he makes, his selfishness, selflessness, self-awareness? “Wakefield” seems to try and tackle all of these questions in 105 minutes. The film is based almost word-for-word on the E.L. Doctorow short story of the same name published in the New Yorker in 2008. In it, Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) returns home from work late one night and decides to spend the night in the storage space above the garage and then never leaves. From that vantage point, he watches his family struggle with his disappearance, grieve and start to move on. It’s an odd and utterly unrealistic premise but Doctorow and director Robin Swicord are going after things more important than reality; they want to give us truth. This seems to be so much a story of its time. A middle-aged American man who appears to have it all (the wife, the kids, financial security, etc.) but feels trapped by the routine, the safe predictability, of his life. I suspect this character resonates with many many man today. The film plays out a fantasy that has probably run through these men’s heads countless times. And, it seems to be suggesting to them, you’re self-involved and casually cruel because nothing in your comfortable existence holds you accountable. In “Wakefield,” we spy on Wakefield’s unraveling in the same way he spies on his family. The entire movie rests on Bryan Cranston’s performance. He is in virtually every scene and has the vast majority of the lines. Fortunately, Cranston is a fantastic actor and this film allows him to showcase his talent. He gives a brilliant, sometimes absurd, sometimes deeply touching, performance. Unfortunately, I felt as though I should have been more moved than I was. I suspect the film would be much more affecting for someone who has been on either side of that struggle, but having never chosen to go the wife and kids route, there was little for me to connect to. So, despite the power of Cranston’s performance, it never landed deeply with me. That said, I still respect a film that asks tough questions of its audience and then doesn’t give us pat answers. The film ends word-for-word as the story did; as it should. And we are left to ponder the implications.

Alien: Covenant

May 21, 2017 at 7:42 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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The genius’s curse. A filmmaker redefines the industry with a groundbreaking film. The second in the series is as good as, or better than, the first. And then it all goes down hill… And we end up with “The Godfather, Part III,” ewoks and Jar Jar Binks, and now “Prometheus” and “Covenant.” In fact, it seems that Ridley Scott has fallen into the same trap that George Lucas did– the need to over explain, and therefore over complicate. Everything was fine when the Force was just the Force and evil aliens wreaked havoc on unsuspecting crew members. But now we have midichlorians and an unbelievably complicated backstory about how humans and the aliens came into being. It is all so ponderous and complex that it cannot help but slow the story down. When this film is focused on the aliens, it works. Scott has faithfully captured HR Giger’s imagery beautifully. We spin through disorientingly similar passageways on spaceships and in dead alien cities. There are some great scary moments and several good jumps to be had, just not nearly enough of them. These scenes, which helped to make the first movies such classics, are painfully few and far between. The rest of the time, we get Michael Fassbender talking to himself about life, morality and who cares what else. Too much of this film was tedious and sometimes baffling. There was an air of weightyness that hung over the whole story, as though Scott has something important he wants to say. Unfortunately, that becomes the focus of the film. The audience would have been better served had he simply made another really good horror film. It seems that, as soon as a director understands that they have created something important, they shouldn’t be allowed to keep working on it. The line between importance and self-importance seems to be an awfully thin one that is just too easy to cross.

Train to Busan

May 20, 2017 at 11:54 am | Posted in 2017 | 1 Comment
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Over the past two decades, South Korea has developed an incredibly rich (and undervalued) history of film. Across a variety of genres, Korean filmmakers have been producing fantastic works, including “The Host,” “The Handmaiden,” “Mother,” and “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring.” I would add “Train to Busan” to that collection. Like “The Host,” it stakes a claim firmly within the Horror genre. In this case, we follow a group of people trying to survive the zombie apocalypse while on a train hurling toward rural South Korea. The confined space is used to maximum effect as panicked survivors have to fend for themselves against increasing numbers of zombies as they outbreak spreads from car to car. And these are not the lumbering, clumsy zombies of classic film; rather, we get screaming, maniacal, sprinting zombies, which only adds to the fun. And this film is definitely fun. It does everything a good zombie movie should do and it does it well. We have heroes and villains, a claustrophobic space, a goal that everyone is striving toward, and tons of violence, gore and close calls. In some ways, this film mimics the structure of another Korean film, “Snowpiercer,” though I much prefer this one. It relies less on visual spectacle and more on a taut and well constructed story. Substance over style. Like many Korean films, it sometimes strays from common American tropes, which means you cannot always predict how things are going to end up and that certainly adds to the fun. “Train to Busan” was, from start to finish, a thoroughly entertaining ride.

Your Name

May 14, 2017 at 6:50 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Makoto Shinkai directed this lavish anime movie based on his novel of the same name. Visually, it is everything you would expect from anime; as far as traditional (non-CGI) animation, this is some of the best I have seen in a long time. Each scene was rich with color and small details: reflections on glass, the movement of clouds, the closing of sliding doors. I was often so taken by the visuals, I stopped reading the subtitles, just so that I wouldn’t miss anything. The subtitles were actually somewhat of a problem and I would have preferred this film to be have been dubbed. The subtitles moved by sometimes very quickly and were often combined with supertitles, so that you had to read the bottom and top of the screen and it became a bit confusing. And this could be a confusing story. Steeped in magical realism, it tells the story of a boy in Tokyo and a girl in rural Japan who find that they swap bodies randomly from time-to-time. In the process, they learn about each other’s lives and figure out a way to communicate to each other and then it just stops. So, the boy goes on a journey to find her. The film’s mood is one of sentiment and pathos, punctuated by moments of slapstick humor. This is ultimately a romantic movie and reminded me of the old Sandra Bullock/Keanu Reeves film, “The Lake House.” Love made possible through magic. If you like that sort of thing, you will undoubtedly like this, and you may even find yourself shedding a tear or two. If that is just not your thing, then perhaps the beautiful visuals will be enough for you. They certainly were for me.

 

Sleight

May 7, 2017 at 4:59 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Fandango called this film a combination of “Chronicle” and “Iron Man,” but I don’t think that’s quite right. To my mind, it is more closely aligned with urban black films from 1991’s “Straight Out of Brooklyn” to 2015’s “Dope.” The young guy, simply wanting to get out of poverty and take care of his family, gets involved with drug dealers and things go awry. The tropes are all too common and well-tread. J.D. Dillard, making his full-length directing debut, certainly gives the genre a twist by adding in superhero/sci-fi elements, but this film never strays far from its genre. That’s a shame because it is as its most interesting when it is at its most fantastic. If Dillard had more fully embraced the fantasy elements, he may have made a more interesting film. That’s not to say this was a bad film, but it never felt like it lifted too far above the cliché. The story went exactly where you might expect but never got as gritty or as scary as most films in the genre and it felt like nothing real was ever at stake. In the end, that’s the film’s biggest problem; it’s just lite. Dillard made a gangsta-lite film and a sci-fi-lite film. The result is that it isn’t very satisfying in either genre. The one way that I would compare it to “Chronicle” is in its intentions. I don’t think anyone made this film believing it would make a ton of money or win any awards or make them famous. I think they hoped it would serve as a resume to Hollywood, getting their names out there, building some buzz and generating other, bigger work for them. Tiny as “Chronicle” was, it launched the careers of Josh Trank, Dean DeHaan and Micheal B. Jordan. “Sleight”‘s lead actor, Jacob Latimore, does a fine job and probably deserves more exposure. The rest of the mostly unknown cast do fine but nobody stands out as a superstar. Of course, neither did Jordan in “Chronicle,” so perhaps they just need the right material. This film just doesn’t seem to have the buzz that “Chronicle” generated, even though I actually liked it slightly better. I hope to see Latimore and Dillard in the future; they both deserve more exposure. I’m just not sure this film is going to give it to them.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

May 7, 2017 at 9:55 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Vol. 2 is the right signifier for this film, not only because it cleverly hearkens back to 80s mixed tapes but also because this really is just a retread of the first film. It is exactly as entertaining as that one but not an ounce more. James Gunn is the right director/writer for these films. His sense of timing, humor and pacing are well-fitted for this series. But he has found his formula and doesn’t seem the least bit interested in breaking out of it. Given the films’ success, I can’t really blame him. He has gathered the same crew of actors (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker and Karen Gillan) and essentially put them through 2 ½ hours of more of the same. It is a fast-paced fun ride, full of good laughs, but it isn’t anything different from the last one. We are treated to a dazzling special effects overload (I was particularly impressed by the CGI used to make Kurt Russell look younger– it’s the best I’ve ever seen) and an over burdened plot that is equal parts silly and irrelevant. Marvel has dug deep to introduce us to some pretty obscure characters here (most of whom had a brief moment of notoriety in the 70s), including Ego, Mantis, the Watchers, Howard the Duck, the Grandmaster, and what appears to be a reference to Adam Warlock. In addition to obscure comic book characters, we are treated to a variety of random actors playing them (sometimes just as voice overs), including Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Yeoh, Seth Greene, Ving Rhames, Rob Zombie, David Hasselhoff, Miley Cyrus, Jeff Goldblum, Stan Lee of course, and the entirety of James Gunn’s family. And, like all Marvel movies, this one has post-credit scenes. In fact, it has 5 of them. So, if you are interested in that sort of thing (some of them are very funny), you will want to stay until lights up in the theater. It may all seem like a bit much, but that is part of the fun. The absurdity of it all just adds to the experience. The first film was a great, fun way to spend a couple of hours and this one is also. It isn’t anything new but, then, I guess it doesn’t really have to be. Especially when what it is works so well.

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