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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Justice League

November 19, 2017 at 10:09 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Admittedly, the bar was low for this one. “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” was just a mess, with moments of visual wonder amongst the horrendous dialogue and muddled, overly-stuffed story line. I did not expect much as the curtain rose (I go to an old-timey theatre, where there actually still is two layers of curtains that do rise and a guy playing on the organ before the show starts). When the final credits rolled, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this film. Director Zac Snyder (“Batman v. Superman,” “The 300,” “The Watchmen”) has toned down the moody visuals he is known for. They were really the only thing I like about the last film, but they aren’t missed here. In their place, we get a tighter and less grim story arc, with genuine humor and even some actual character development. DC has a long way to go to match the camaraderie and complexity of the Avengers’s relationships. That said, I think Joss Whedon, who wrote the screenplay, does a good job of getting us halfway there. Each of these characters had his/her own distinct personality and way of interacting with the others. Even a character like Cyborg, who I had worried would get lost against the larger and more iconic characters, was a vital member of the team, with his own unique personality and compelling story. Whedon and Snyder even managed to create an Aquaman who was not wholly ridiculous. Much of that credit also goes to Jason Momoa who gave the character a sly humor and gravitas that he desperately needed. Most of the laughs centered around the Flash, with Ezra Miller well cast in the part. Miller’s Flash is hyperactive, giddy, wide-eyed and a bit goofy. He’s far more interesting than the boy-scout TV version. At times, the humor around him felt a bit forced and fell flat for me. But, the funniest laughs also centered around his character. Overall, I think this film lacked the comfortable humor of “Wonder Woman” and the action scenes were not quite as fun. That said, I found the plot here to be much more interesting, the story arc more satisfying, and the ending avoided the silliness that crept into “Wonder Woman’s” final moments. This was a fun, high action romp with characters I would love to see more of. In the end, I think DC did exactly what it needed to.

Murder on the Orient Express

November 12, 2017 at 10:13 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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To be honest, I’m not quite sure why Kenneth Branagh felt the need to remake this movie. The 1974 version was a rather sufficient telling of Agatha Christie’s overwrought novel. One has to judge a film like this on two different levels. The first would be to discuss the plot as based on a pulpy 1930s murder mystery novel; we can hardly lay the blame for any flaws there at Branagh’s feet. The second would be to evaluate the directing, acting, staging, etc of the film itself. So, as to the story, Christie was the most famous mystery author of her day (perhaps the most famous author, period). She wrote 73 novels between the 1920s and the 1970s. In fact, she wrote one or two a year for many years. That’s a lot of unexpected twists to come up with. As a result, her stories have a tendency to stretch credulity, and this one is no exception. You should not go to this film expecting a complex but ultimately logical plot (“The Spanish Prisoner” this is not). The story arc is largely cliché, the characters are stereotypes, the clues are discovered absurdly, and the final reveal is pure silliness. But that is not to say that it cannot be a fun ride. There is a certain degree of campiness to it all that can be delightful to watch. However Branagh is not known for his campy directing. In fact, he seems to bring a sort of Shakespearean seriousness to everything he does. Seeing his ridiculous mustache in the previews, I had high hopes that this film might be a great deal of fun. It has a fantastic cast, equal to the original, and they could have had a great time playing off of each other. But everyone seems to be playing her/his character so seriously. And Branagh most of all. He brings us an exhausted, disenchanted Poirot, who has a depth of character unlike previous Christie films. He would be an interesting and empathetic character if the source material weren’t so silly. That said, the scenery was lavish. The train was truly exquisite from end to end. I could be persuaded that Branagh only made the movie because he wanted to make that set. It gives him the opportunity for some great staging, lighting, and camera angles. And the arctic surrounds were also beautifully done. It was the perfect stage for a story more sinister and scary than this one could ever hope to be. We might all have been better served if he had used that set for a more modern-styled thriller. As it is, this film is not a dead loss. It is lovely to look at and there is fun to be had as the story unfolds. You will never gasp out loud at the twists, nor will you laugh out loud at the humor. But, you may find it to be a perfectly enjoyable way to spend an evening on the couch.

 

Victoria & Abdul

November 5, 2017 at 5:43 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ½

1887, for her 50th year on the throne, Queen Victoria asked for two servants to be sent from India to serve her during her Silver Jubilee celebration. One of them, Abdul Karim, became her confidante and closest friend for the last decade of her life. After her death, the royal family was so scandalized by the relationship that they tried to wipe all evidence of it from the historical record. Thus it remained for 100 years until a scholar visiting a remote estate belonging to the royal family, came across a painting and bust of him. She did research that lead her to a still intact journal of Victoria’s written in Urdu (still intact because nobody in the royal estate knew what it said) and, eventually, to Karim’s own journals that had been kept by his last living relative in India. That scholar, Shrabani Basu, wrote the book that this movie is based on. Its a touching story about how alienating power can be and of how, even a queen, just wants to be treated like a person. Director Stephen Frears (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “High Fidelity,” “The Queen,” “Philomena”) takes every scrap of information he has to work with and gets it into the film somehow. The problem is that the information we have on their relationship is scarce. It is based largely on Karim’s journals and a few snippets of Victoria’s writing. The end result is a very unbalanced portrayal of Karim as an almost heroic figure and the royal household as a collection of bigoted, jealous fools. That may have been the case but it makes for a rather boring film, without much depth of character. Some complexities in Karim’s character are hinted at, like the possibility he was a chronic liar, but they were never explored. He was allowed to remain a sort of savior figure throughout the film. The end result was a story that was more melodrama than drama. It was hard for me to feel any connection to these characters because I kept second guessing how real they were. It’s a shame because there is an interesting story there about class, race, duty, faith, love and many other complex things. I just wish this film had gone a little deeper than the shiny surface we got to see.

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.

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.

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