Lucky

October 15, 2017 at 7:31 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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This film follows in a long and venerable line of films that feature an elderly person on some journey. They are typically beautifully shot, languid films that act as a showcase for an older actor who has never been the lead before. The first film that I know of in this series, and perhaps the one I loved the most (I saw it multiple times while it was still in the theater) was 1985’s “The Trip to Bountiful,” starring Geraldine Page. Between then and now, we have also seen “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989), “The Straight Story” (1999), “Nebraska” (2013), and probably others that I don’t remember. They typically center on an older person taking some sort of quixotic journey and the people they meet along the way. Here, Harry Dean Stanton’s eponymous Lucky just hangs around his Arizona time pondering mortality. Perhaps that is why this film did not connect for me the way those other ones did; it just felt like it was going nowhere. Lucky is much like the turtle “Franklin Roosevelt” that ambles along at the beginning and end of the movie, reinforcing it’s incredibly slow pace. Lucky has nowhere to go and is in no hurry at all. Stanton, who died just a few weeks ago, was 89 when he made the movie and it really focuses on death and how one wants to live out one’s remaining days. Which is not to say that it is depressing. It has real moments of humor and exuberance, as when Lucky sings at a young boy’s party. But it is deeply nostalgic, with everyone reminiscing about a simpler time. Even the turtle’s name is a nod to the past. The film was beautifully shot and was, at times, moving. But, overall, it lacked any direction and I think I needed that.

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Columbus

October 9, 2017 at 10:50 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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And so, for Columbus Day, I give you “Columbus.” They have absolutely nothing to do with each other but, oh well. I couldn’t resist. If you are going to watch this film, then you must be prepared to see it. This is a film for seeing more than listening. It is slow and quiet and graceful and beautiful. It’s filmed entirely in Columbus, Indiana, which is apparently a mecca for modernist buildings. Who knew? The story is about a young librarian named Casey, played by Haley Lu Richardson (“Split,” “The Edge of Seventeen”) and a literary translator named Jin, played by John Cho (the “Star Trek” and “Harold & Kumar” movies). They meet and walk around Columbus looking at beautiful architecture, while only tangentially talking about anything other than architecture. But don’t think that there isn’t anything going on here. This is a film about symmetry and dissymmetry and all sorts of things being slightly misaligned. Every single scene is so beautifully constructed, with so many of them gorgeously symmetrical and some of them having just slightly skewed symmetry, much like Casey and Jin. Both work with books but in different ways. He has come to Columbus to care for a father he does not want to care for. She cannot stop caring for a mother that nobody wants her to care for. The whole film is like this but all of it is at a distance. The fantastic cast of actors play their characters very low key, even when strong emotions are present. The film feels like much more of an intellectual pursuit. In fact, in one fascinating scene, Casey is talking about why she likes a particular building. Jin accuses her of sounding like a tour guide. This is a clever joke, because the whole film feels a bit tour-guidey. Casey tries again but Jin pushes her to go deeper. She finally says that the building moves her. Jin gets excited and wants to know how it moves her and she begins to tell him. And we are suddenly shifted inside the building. We are now watching Casey’s animated explanation through glass and cannot hear a single word. First time director, Kogonada, has removed the audience from any emotional connection with the film. That is a very interesting choice. We are clearly just meant to be observers of an intellectual process of understanding. Characters do grow and move, especially in relationship to each other, but more as part of a landscape than as people. In the end, the human characters seem no more (or less) important than the buildings around them. They are all part of some larger symmetry. I found that beautiful but not particularly moving. I’m not saying that I want to film to be different from what it was. I think it works exactly the way it should and I think it’s an interesting way to tell a story. I did really really like it. I just didn’t love it.

Blade Runner 2049

October 9, 2017 at 10:03 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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There’s a reason Spielberg never made a sequel to “E.T.”  There is just so much at risk when you follow up a beloved film, especially as time passes and that film becomes a classic. There are so many more ways to go wrong than to go right. That is the risk Ridley Scott ran when returning to the “Blade Runner” well. Yet, with the help of the original screenwriter (Hampton Fancher), he manages to pull it off. Scott turned over the directing reigns to  Denis Villeneuve, who is skilled at making both psychologically explosive films (“Incendies,” “Prisoners”) and pensive sci-fi (“Arrival). Villeneuve managed to successfully recreate and add to Scott’s world. This film is stunning in every single scene. From the deeply crowded LA streets to the vast desert wastelands of San Diego and Vegas, everything was a joy to watch. Each detail in the background was so carefully and cleverly constructed. Of equal importance to recreating this world, was recreating the mood of the first film. Ryan Gosling was perfectly cast, matching the world-weary cynical tone that Harrison Ford’s Deckard had. The story is somber and pensive. It could be accused of being a bit slow in part, particularly for viewers who expect high doses of “The Fast & The Furious” in their modern sci fi. But this is not an action film. Deeper themes are being explore here. When are we sentient? What makes us alive? Is it our feelings? Our empathy for others? Our memories and our connection to the past? There is rich stuff getting explored in some very clever ways. We know from the start that Gosling’s K is a replicant. Just like Deckard was in love with a replicant in the first film, K is in love with a hologram, now removing the question of life one-step further out. The complexities of this question are played out beautifully when a giant 3D billboard version of that same hologram talks to him late in the film. It calls him “joe” in a generic way, calling into question the name “Joe” that his girlfriend-hologram gave him earlier. That is brilliant and heady stuff. Much has been said and debated about the various endings to the original film. This one seems to fit with several of those endings (maybe even all of them). The story could have gone in a very obvious, cliché direction. I was sure it was going to and I am so pleased that I was wrong. If there is anything I regret about this film is that there was no Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) character. There was no one nearly as menacing, nor as poetic. Jared Let0’s Niander Wallace comes close. Leto steals every scene he is in (as he does in most of his films) but there are just far too few scenes with him. I would have liked much more of him, which is admittedly difficult in a film that is already creeping towards 3 hours. But, I never felt bored. Not for one minute during that entire time did I wish I were anywhere else. And that may be the best review I can give.

Mother!

September 22, 2017 at 11:19 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

I saw this film almost a week ago and I have been sitting on my review because I just wasn’t sure how I felt. Reviewers have been wildly divided; the film has a 74% on Metacritic, not because most people thought it was just okay, but because the majority either really loved it or really hated it. “Mother!” has also gotten the alt-right up in arms, screaming about sacrilege and how much they hate Jennifer Lawrence. And Britain’s The Guardian called it the most controversial movie since “The Clockwork Orange.” That’s a lot of emotion for a so-called “horror” film. But, I will admit that I left the film feeling pretty divided myself. In the end, I think this is a film that deserves multiple viewings. Darren Aronofsky (the brilliant director of “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Wrestler,” and “Black Swan”) has proven himself to be unafraid of complex symbolism and bizarre imagery and this film dives more deeply into both of those areas than any film he has made to date. On the surface, the film is about how the titular character’s (Jennifer Lawrence) life is disrupted when her husband (Javier Bardem) starts letting people into their home. But little in this movie makes any sense on the surface. It is clearly all an allegory, but for what? If you believe Aronofsky and Lawrence (and, I guess, why wouldn’t you?), the film is symbolic of humanity’s relationship with the Earth. Lawrence’s “Mother” is Mother Earth. Bardem’s “Him” is God. The house they live in represents the planet that Mother is continually trying to improve. But then Him let’s in “Man” (Ed Harris) and “Woman” (Michelle Pfeiffer), followed by their two sons who fight (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson). You can see where this is going. While that may be true of what Aronofsky was trying to say, it isn’t what resonated with me about the movie. In many ways, it reminded me of “Black Swan,” which is about artistic obsession. Him is a poet who needs a muse and, the more that muse suffers while still worshiping him, the more inspired he is. That seems like a very personal story. The things artists/performers do to themselves and those they love runs through much of Aronofsky’s work. So, whatever else this film is about, it is on that level that it most resonated with me. This is a long, winding and sometimes dizzying story. The camera follows Lawrence almost exclusively as she spins in circles within this huge home. The circular nature of the set was brilliant because it allowed for all of that spinning that added to the chaos and dysphoria. As everything spins so utterly out-of-control, it would be easy for the audience to get lost in the spectacle. Seeing Him and Mother as human archetypes of artist and muse (rather than larger Earth/God metaphors) grounded the film for me and made the final scenes more impactful. But, that is just my reading of a film that begs for each viewer to bring her/his own interpretation.  I encourage you to see the film and bring yours.

It

September 10, 2017 at 6:48 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Just yesterday, a friend and I were discussing what makes a good horror movie. We both agree that we don’t expect to get scared. No movie has really scared me since I was a kid, except maybe a documentary about government corruption (“Zero Days” or “Taxi to the Dark Side,” for example). I can’t really be scared by things I don’t believe in, like ghosts and demons and zombies. However, I can be startled and creeped out by a good horror movie. My friend and I both agree that it is more the latter than the former that really makes for a fun experience. Making the audience jump is a bit of a cheap thrill that can be produced easily enough, using every cliche in the genre’s book. But giving a film a genuinely creepy vibe takes some skill. It requires the right combination of plot, character development, acting, location, and camera work. When “It” works, it works best in those moments when it achieves true creepiness. Fortunately, there are quite a few of those moments. Pennywise is a great example of the evil clown trope and he is played well by Bill Skarsgård (yes, of that Skarsgård acting family). He manages some demented, sinister facial expressions that are the epitome of creepy. Unfortunately, he is less effective when he speaks. The voice sounds cartoonish and the dialogue is usually just silly. As is often the case, he is the most terrifying when he is just briefly on screen. The longer we get to see him, the less daunting he becomes, which, given the plot, may be the point. And the plot is an interesting one. Stephen King has been a master at creating characters you care about, something that so many horror films lack. Here he does so by essentially recreating his characters from “Stand by Me.” The story upon which “Stand by Me” was based, “The Body,” was first published in 1982, four years before he published “It,” and he draws heavily from those tropes when developing the coming-of-age story of these adolescents in the late 1980s. They had the same combination of nerds and bullies, sincere and sarcastic, clean-cut and sexually preoccupied that will look so familiar to anyone who has seen “Stand by Me.” So much so, that I felt those portions of the film were retreading old ground. I did not feel drawn into the cute, sweet adolescent dramas that were supposed to give these kids depth. I want character development, just not that particular sort, which felt like it was trying too hard to be a different type of film. I came to see a horror movie and I was happiest when this film was giving me that. When it worked at its best (as in the library basement, the basement in the kid’s home, pretty much any basement, in fact), it was really entertaining. Other times, it was cute and fun and sometimes silly and even a bit boring. Overall, this wasn’t one of the truly great horror films but I would say that it is better than most.

Wind River

September 4, 2017 at 11:17 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

“Wind River” starts out promising enough. Set in Wyoming in the dead of winter, the film begins with scenes of a stark and imposing landscape. The audience gets a sense of foreboding right off. There is a murder and an outsider comes in to solve it. Sometimes this works well (as in the terrific “Insomnia”) and sometimes not so much (as in “Thunderheart,” which this movie kept reminding me of). “Wind River” lies somewhere in the middle. An FBI agent sent in from Vegas (Elizabeth Olsen) to work alongside the local sheriff (Graham Greene) and a US Fish & Wildlife employee (Jeremy Renner). She’s in over her head but Renner’s character keeps her pointed in the right direction. If you have seen a film like this before, you have essentially seen this film. There are dark people doing dark things but the good guys will stop them. There are some twists and dead ends along the way, a couple of brief outbursts of violence and an ending rich in “justice” (or revenge, anyway). The scenery is visually arresting and helps to create the right mood for a film like this but mood alone can’t sustain you. Writer and director Taylor Sheridan has a great track record. This is the third film he has written. The first two were “Hell or High Water” and “Sicario,” both of which I loved. But this one lacks the humanity of the former and the punch of the latter. Sheridan appears very earnest in wanting to shine his light on the injustices faced by American Indian women but that goal would have been better served by a multi-layered drama, whose focus was on developing complex characters dealing with real life issues, including possibly the one that is the central focus of this film. Instead, what we get is a fairly paint-by-numbers detective thriller, in which two white people swoop in and save the day. The film appears to belie Sheridan’s intent, in that it consistently goes for cheap thrills (tension, violence, revenge catharsis) rather than for empathy or insight. Audiences will leave the theater having no more understanding nor feeling any greater concern for American Indians but they will have had a moderately successful thrill ride.

The Big Sick

August 26, 2017 at 10:38 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Sometimes the most cliché of genres can offer the sweetest surprise. It is a difficult thing to convince me to see a romantic comedy, any more. I feel like I have seen it all and disliked most of it. They are cloying, predictable and only blandly humorous. Yet, “The Big Sick” manages to be something I almost never expect from a romantic comedy; it is deeply touching. Written by real-life spouses Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, the film tells us the story of how they met. In what is definitely an unexpected twist for a romantic comedy, the main focus of the movie is on Kumail’s relationship with Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter & Ray Romano), rather than with her, as they struggle to deal with her unexpected illness. This vehicle allowed the audience to get to know his character outside of the standard rom com clichés. The film’s humor is fairly gentle. There are no belly laughs and it won’t have you in tears, but it did keep me genuinely chuckling throughout. At times, scenes could feel like they were veering toward stereotype (particularly where Kumail’s family was concerned) but it always felt more like a gentle ribbing than anything else. Because this was so autobiographical, the film felt very loving and respectful toward its characters. There is nothing biting here. If you are looking for a side-splitting good time, this may not be the movie for you. But you will genuinely feel good throughout. You will find it hard not to like everyone and you will find it hard not to be moved. You probably won’t shed any tears from laughing but you might still shed a tear or two or other reasons.

Logan Lucky

August 20, 2017 at 8:10 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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This film could serve as a good lesson on how to use Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic in conjunction with each other. It got a sterling 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and a middling 78% on Metacritic. Given that the former is a straight up-or-down vote, whereas the latter is a graded score, the takeaway is that virtually every single critic liked “Logan Lucky,” but only moderately. And guess what? I liked “Logan Lucky.” I really did. But only moderately. Steven Soderbergh has always had a penchant for odd little films (“The Limey,” “Bubble,” “The Informant!”) that he mixes in with his massive successes (“Erin Brockovich,” all the “Ocean’s” movies). Here we get a blend of the “Ocean’s” type heist film mixed with the sort of mockery of its lead characters that you saw in “The Informant!” This is a heist movie for the current era, where NASCAR-loving, blue collar workers replace the slick cultural elites of the “Ocean’s” films. But Soderbergh doesn’t quite love these characters like he loved the originals. The “Ocean’s” films were all slick gloss and romanticism. This film is asking us to laugh at these characters, rather than with them. The humor is never cruel but it is poking fun, none-the-less. The caper they set about to commit is as ridiculous and unrealistic as one might expect, but that’s okay. A heist movie requires a suspension of disbelief. Though this film does talk out of both sides of its mouth; we are expected to believe these characters are both brilliant enough to come up with their plan and dumb enough for us to laugh at. The story starts very slowly and I found the begining dragged a lot. Channing Tatum did a passable job as the lead character, though he has never been a standout actor for me. Adam Driver, who I normally like, was odd here. I could not figure out where he was trying to go with his character; some of his acting and speech choices just felt a bit confusing for me. And we had to suffer through a painfully miscast Seth MacFarlane. The film really lit up when Daniel Craig’s character arrived. Whenever he was on screen, the film had energy and direction and had moments of genuine humor. In fact, the film could be very funny in parts. At other times, the film was clearly trying so hard to make us laugh that it fell flat. Overall, this was a fun, lighthearted ride. But it felt like there could have been more there. If the characters had just been a bit more developed, there might have been a real opportunity for some understanding, instead of just parody. And, frankly, we could all use a bit more understanding these days.

Dunkirk

August 6, 2017 at 8:19 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” opens quietly enough, with young British soldiers strolling through an abandoned French village. But, it doesn’t stay quiet for long and, once the action begins, it does not let up for scarcely a moment of its two hour run time. Nolan pounds us unrelentingly with a sense of chaos and uncertainty. If there is anything truly brilliant about this film, it is the way in which we are made to experience it, rather than simply watch it. The story of the Dunkirk evacuation is told from three perspectives: air, land and sea. In each, we start with three guys (three fighter pilots, three civilians on a boat, three boys at Dunkirk trying to find any way home). Over the film, their stories twist, diverge and come together in a kaleidoscope of ways. Nolan has deliberately told the story out of order and it remains unclear for most of the film where each story fits in the timeline with each other. This confusion for the audience gives us a sense of the confusion at Dunkirk, with nobody aware of what is going on anywhere else. We are forced to abandon a traditional narrative and just take each intense scene within the context of its moment. Nolan also plays brilliantly with the camera. Occasionally, he gives us these vast, sweeping vistas. Often, we have tight camera shots, in the dark, and tilted at strange angles (“why is the ocean running along the right side of the screen?”). We can lose our sense of up/down, day/night in much the same way the poor soldiers did. There are times we watch people scrambling to escape sinking boats and the audience is no more sure of which way is up than the drowning men are. Nolan collaborated again with his favorite composer, Hans Zimmer (“Inception,” “Interstellar”) to create a discordant, driving score that succeeds in capturing the anxiety and madness of what we see on screen. While my favorite performance was the excellent Mark Rylance as the civilian father/boat captain, this was not an actor driven film. The real star here is the story itself. Chaotic, beautiful, unrelenting and poetic. I felt more in the middle of this film than any I have seen in a long time.

A Ghost Story

August 4, 2017 at 2:34 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I’m not sure I know how to describe this film because I am not sure how I felt about it. It is hard to know what to expect from a film that appears so patently odd, even in the previews. But, I think I was expecting something more emotional and less pensive. David Lowery is most famous for directing the utterly different (and entirely banal) remake of “Pete’s Dragon.” Whatever “A Ghost Story” is, it is not banal. At times, Lowery’s directing reminded me very much of Terrence Malick, particularly in the film, “Tree of Life.” Like that one, this film was suffuse with a ponderous mood, so much so that it occasionally threatened to drag the narrative to a halt. And I use the term narrative loosely, as this was more a movie of mood than story. The central character was simply a sheet with holes. He had no facial expression, no body language and no speech. He remained blank and, in many ways, utterly disconnected from us. Yet, he also could seem painfully intimate and human at times. Very little was ever spoken. In fact, I doubt there was even 20 minutes of total speaking in the entire film. We easily went stretches of 10-15 minutes at a time without a word being said. We watched Rooney Mara silently grief-eating half of an entire apple pie in real time. She stared at the floor silently eating for almost 10 minutes as we watched her. But that also seems like where the real power of this film lies. This is a treatise on love and loss and soul-crushing heartbreak. Lowery’s brilliance is in not showing that in the big, flashy Hollywood way that we would expect. But the grief and emptiness are all over the screen, none-the-less. This is mostly a film about grief and emptiness and the pervading silence captures that emptiness; it fills the theater with a sense of that emptiness very effectively. I say “mostly” because this film also has an undercurrent of an aridly dry sense of humor. It’s so dry that it’s barely visible, but it’s there with a wink and a nod. I warn you: this movie will make you endure it. But, if you do and can sit quietly enough, intently enough, you might just hear the elegiac voice whispered through the silence. For anyone who has truly, deeply, passionately loved and lost, there is something in this film that may just haunt you.

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