Lady Bird

November 19, 2017 at 7:29 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Almost to the day a year ago, I saw a film very similar to this one. That film, “The Edge of Seventeen,” was a real delight, full of honesty and insight. “Lady Bird” made me feel very much the same way. The film is written and directed by Greta Gerwig, who has acted in “20th Century Women,” “Francis Ha,” and “Jackie,” among others. Gerwig’s film is set in 2002 and focuses on a 17 year-old girl’s last year of high school. Gerwig herself would have been 19 in 2002 and so much of the film felt so real that I wonder if she was writing from her own experience. Lady Bird, played beautifully by Saoirse Ronan, feels like a fish out of water. She believes she is too clever for the everyday life she has to put up with. Meanwhile, her overly anxious mother (Laurie Metcalf of “Roseanne” fame) stumbles over how to communicate with her daughter. This world is also occupied with a host of others: kindly father, nerdy best friend, cruel & shallow cute boy, etc. But the real focus of the film is this mother/daughter relationship. Fortunately, both Ronan and Metcalf are excellent actors. They create deeply sympathetic, flawed and funny characters. The end result is a story that feels utterly believable. The kids all act and think just like kids. This relationship between parent and child felt as frustrating and as powerful as a real relationship. This was a simple story about a critical moment in a girl’s life; she’s struggling with what it means to become a woman and to face an uncertain future. There were no shocking twists or garish surprises. Just a regular girl trying to figure out her life out. I found that struggle to be funny, insightful and touching.

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Thor: Ragnarok

November 5, 2017 at 9:52 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I liked this film so much more than either of its prequels (“Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World“), which is admittedly a pretty low bar.  Those were both dull and overly serious, relying entirely on special effects to replace any meaningful plot or dialogue. Come to think of it, this film is not so different. It is mostly a special effects spectacle with largely silly dialogue and a plot so full of holes that it is hard to decide which ones to highlight. How about the utter lack of explanation for how Hulk ended up on this planet, or how Bruce Banner’s ominous fear about himself is utterly ignored in the end, or how a creature vanquished so easily at the beginning of the movie becomes all powerful when it returns. The list could go on, but then you might be tempted to think that I didn’t like this film and I did. Why? Because there was one critical difference between it and its predecessors; it had a sense of humor. New Zealand born director Taika Waititi, who is most known for the tedious “What We Do in the Shadows” and the lovely “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” is primarily a comedy writer/director. He has brought that aesthetic to the Thor franchise, where it is much needed. This film was, first and foremost, a superhero action movie. As such, it had its main villain, played with delicious glee by Cate Blanchett. It had its various lesser baddies, played with varying levels of silliness, from the relatively straight Karl Urban (as “Skurge”) to the always over-the-top Jeff Goldblum (“Grandmaster”). And it had several well-choreographed fight scenes, including the Hulk/Thor battle that we have all seen in all the previews, and the final battle scene, which was beautifully scored to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” The best thing about these scenes was that the audience could actually follow the action, which has been a real problem in many CGI fight scenes in previous movies (think anything Michael Bay). But, as I mentioned, on top of all of this saving-the-universe-yet-again stuff, there was this nice layer of light comedy. At times it didn’t work, particularly when it was overly adolescent; I could have gotten through a Thor movie without ever hearing any masturbation, penis-size or anus jokes. But, what it did really well was to add dimension to two overly dramatic Marvel characters. Both Thor and The Hulk have suffered in overly serious films. Here, they suddenly became real people. These two characters were more alive in this film than in any film to date. Their buddy relationship was particularly fun to watch, as it allowed both actors to show a softer side to their characters, including warmth, humor, and self-doubt. I like this new Hulk a lot and I really like the new Thor who has evolved by the end of this story. I hope these are the two characters who show up in the “Infinity Wars” movies. I could definitely watch more of both of them.

The Florida Project

November 3, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Posted in 2017 | 1 Comment
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Two years ago, Sean Baker exploded onto the big screen with his first full-length feature film, “Tangerine” (see my review here). In case we were wont to think this was a one-time fluke, Baker ups his game and comes with an even stronger sophomore effort. Taking place in and around a couple of motels near Disney World, “The Florida Project” takes us inside a world in much the same way “Tangerine” did. Here, we experience life through a group of 7 year olds being raised by single mothers scraping to get by. Baker has such an affection for America’s disenfranchised; he shows us their resilience with great empathy and humor. Taking place in the the first few weeks of summer break, the film chiefly follows Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and the various other children that orbit her as she goes about entertaining herself as a dirt poor, wholly unsupervised, child. Moonee and her friends are watched over by the gentle Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who is the manager of the motel where she lives. We also see her relationship with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley is immature and poorly equipped to handle the role of parenting anyone, including herself, but she is still a loving mother and, through Baker’s lens, she’s impossible not to empathize with. The real miracle of this film is in the acting by this group of almost entirely untrained actors. Vinaite is powerful as Moonee’s mother, though this is her first film. She is raw and her emotions play so easily across the surface that I am tempted to believe she has actually lived the experiences she is portraying. This was a large cast of so many younger and older actors, and each of them seemed to genuinely inhabit their characters. This was nowhere more true that with our lead actress. Prince was astonishing. In a fair world, she would be considered for an Oscar nomination. For her to inhabit this character so fully was amazing for a child so young. She was loud, brash, sarcastic, charming, silly, playful, and demanding in all the right ways. At one point, she wept so painfully that I felt as though this young girl must really be sad and scared. I believed in Moonee fully. In so many places, this film felt as though it were a documentary. That is how real these kids and their behaviors seemed. This is a very funny, joyful film but it will also break your heart. Underneath the bright pink exterior, there is deep pain, with only more to come. This movie will make you laugh and, in its final moments, it will leave you stunned, sitting in a dark theater, trying to process what you just witnessed.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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