Roma

December 9, 2018 at 6:47 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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Alfonso Cuarón has given the world some wonderful movies. There is the sweet, sexy “Y Tu Mamá También,” the bold and frightening “Children of Men,” the best “Harry Potter” in the series (“Prisoner of Azkaban,” of course), and the beautiful “Gravity.” Cuarón is a master filmmaker in his prime and “Roma” is his masterwork. Perhaps like Jodorowsky, he is at his best when he is at his most personal. Here he is digging into his own childhood in La Roma district of Mexico City where he grew up. The film follows a well-to-do Anglo-Mexican family and their Indian housekeeper in 1970 and ’71. Ultimately, it is about how women of two different socio-economic classes deal with betrayal by the men in their lives, and how they find the strength to persevere. Not only did Cuarón write and direct the film, but he was his own cinematographer and he should absolutely win an Oscar for the job he did. This was a stunningly gorgeous film! Filmed entirely in black and white, each scene was nevertheless so full of color and energy. Despite having no musical score at all, this was not a quiet film. Things were happening on screen constantly. In fact, one of the truly brilliant things Cuarón did was to force a conflict in the audience between the foreground and background– what should we be paying attention to? In an amazing scene early on, we have two people tightly framed in the foreground, on the left, in a dark movie theater. Meanwhile, a very dramatic film plays behind them and fills most of the screen. Our eyes are constantly being drawn to the slapstick action comedy (which happens to be in English) and away from the real drama happening quietly in the corner. He does this over and over and over throughout the film (eg a singing man and a forest fire, a loud dynamic crowd and a sad young woman, a mother on a hospital table and her child in the background, and on). This technique keeps the audience on edge and suggests that so many of life’s important moments are happening underneath the flashy stuff. Also, scene after scene had an amazing depth of field: a huge crowd in the streets, a beautiful valley, a roiling ocean. There was just so much to see in every scene. This film is a visual feast that demands rewatching again and again on the biggest screen you can find. But there is more than just imagery here. There is also warmth, genuine humor, heartbreak, strength, and healing. The film is filled with so many small moments. Moments that feel absolutely real. Moments that bring depth to all the central characters. You’ll love this family just for being like so many families we all know. You will root for them and you will feel their very real pain. There are no cataclysms here, just moments of life being lived and survived. But it is that normalcy that gives the film its weight. And it also gives us one of the most heart-wrenching scene I have seen in years. Every moment of every scene felt exactly right to me. And the ending felt perfect. This is not a traditional story with a traditional story arc. It is something far more than that. This is an homage to strong women and the families they raise.

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Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

December 9, 2018 at 5:55 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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What a long journey this film has been on. It has been a sort of passion project for Andy Serkis, best known for his motion-capture work as Gollum, Caesar in “The Planet of the Apes,” and others. This was the first film Serkis wanted to direct and he signed on almost a decade ago. Then, Disney announced their live action remake of “The Jungle Book,” which ended up beating this one to the theater by two years. That apparently slowed the available funds to just a trickle, but Serkis soldiered on. It took so long, in fact, that the young actor Rohan Chand, who was ten when he played Mowgli, is now fourteen. The last indignity was in finding out (while they were in finale editing) that Universal had sold the film to Netflix; it looked like a potential money loser and they wanted to recoup their loses. Serkis is now trying to put a brave face on, but he is clearly disappointed. And rightly so. This is a genuinely beautiful film. While the 2016 “Jungle Book” remained remarkably similar to the 1967 animated film (right down to the songs), this is a much darker telling of the tale that hews more closely to Kipling’s original. In fact, I am hard pressed to call this a children’s movie; I would not recommend anyone under 10 or 11 seeing it. That said, the added darkness brings added depth to the characters. Mowgli, in particular, is more fleshed out and I felt a greater investment in this version of him. It is worth noting that the CGI is not as good as in “The Jungle Book,” but there is a reason for that. Serkis put’s his emphasis on the motion-capture element; he really wants to give the audience expressive faces in his animals, but that also makes them look less realistic. This is especially noticeable in Shere Khan, which is where this version is weakest. That said, this film’s Baloo is far superior. He is acted by Serkis, himself, and he has so much more depth and personality than the previous versions. I absolutely loved what Serkis brought to that character. Cate Blanchett gave voice over narration that, at times, seemed lifted right out of the “Lord of the Rings” series. It’s clear that Serkis was trying to bring a sense of grandness and a sense of scale to his film. Mowgli is more than just a boy among wolves in this version; he is something of a savior on an epic journey. And, like other heroes, he must be tried and transformed by the experience. That element can get a bit heavy handed at times. this film is at it’s best when it is focused on the relationships. But, fortunately, those moments when I felt Serkis’s heavy hand were fairly briefly. This was really such a good film (just as good as the last one, in a different way) that I wish it had gotten the wide release it deserved. I hope many people take advantage of seeing it for free on Netflix. Frankly, you’re getting it for a song.

 

The Favourite

December 9, 2018 at 10:50 am | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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I am struggling to figure out how to talk about this film, which I didn’t love, but didn’t hate either. The critics, on the other hand, clearly love this film; it has a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, and (even more remarkable) a 91% on Metacritic. It is one of the darlings of the Oscar race, which is why I chose to see it. So, why didn’t it land for me? The only other film I have seen by director Yorgos Lanthimos would be “The Lobster,” which critics also loved and I absolutely hated. So, it may be that I just don’t get Lanthimos’s style as a director. But, I do like this film a good deal more than “The Lobster.” It just wasn’t as enjoyable as I had thought it would be. I think, for me, it was a comedy that just wasn’t that funny. It certainly was funny and I did laugh in parts, but the humor was odd and a bit all over the place. Much of the humor was of the snarky-crude insult variety. This film is a sort of modern, British “Dangerous Liaisons.” Taking place around the turn of the 18th Century, it covers Queen Anne’s relationship with two women, as they jostle for her attention at court. The film focuses on the various ways they connive to manipulate the Queen against each other. All the characters of the film are historical figures, and the outcome also matches history. The story takes some salacious gossip, used to discredit one of the women, and takes it as fact, adding another bawdy layer to the story. And this is a film with plenty of bawdy humor, crassness, and profanity. Perhaps, that is what I disliked a bit; the humor was not nearly so clever and biting as in Dangerous Liaisons. It also, rather strangely, turned absurdist on occasion. There were scenes that appeared to be making fun of the whole conceit of the film, that of applying modern sensibilities to a period piece. Sometimes it worked, but often the humor left me flat. It’s a shame, because there are real elements to enjoy. All of the performances were fantastic, but I was particularly taken by Olivia Coleman as the Queen. Up until now, I have known her mostly for her TV work in shows like “Broadchurch” and “The Crown.” She is the focus of this film and her performance is fantastic. So much emotion plays across her face as she plays the tantruming, childish, and deeply unhappy Anne. I could happily watch that performance again and again. I can see why she has been nominated for a Golden Globe and it would be nice to see her get into the much tighter Best Actress category at the Oscars, along side Glenn Close and Lady Gaga. I think the film is right on the edge of funny enough and clever enough and entertaining enough to recommend, but it is Colman’s performance that tips it over that edge.

Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku)

December 2, 2018 at 6:22 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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Hirokazu Koreeda is perhaps my favorite living Japanese director. “Nobody Knows” (2005), “Still Walking” (2009), “I Wish” (2011), “After the Storm” (2016). His list of great films is long. He has shown a genius for capturing real, natural, powerful human relationships. Everyone in his films seems so real and fragile, so full of pain and hope and need, even when they stoically try to appear strong. I love his characters and the world they inhabit. “Shoplifters” is no exception. The story covers a family who lives on the fringes of respectability, stealing and deceiving to get by. These are the types of people society loves to scorn, but through Koreeda’s eyes, we see into their hearts. These are deeply flawed people who genuinely love each other and treat each other with real affection and respect. Koreeda contrasts them with other, “respectable” families, calling into question what concepts like “morality” or “family” really mean. But this is a complicated story, and the members of this family are not painted as saints. Just when you think you understand the film’s perspective, the story shifts, so slightly at first you almost miss it, and things become a whole other shade of gray. Oh, so you think you know what’s going on and that you’re onboard for the story Koreeda is telling you? Well, he won’t let you off the hook that easily. I love that. True to that uncertainty, the film has a beautiful, typical Koreeda ending. The little girl stands up, looks over a wall and… her expression changes. What does she see? And is it right or wrong? By the time the credits roll, you may well wonder what the moral of the story is. Perhaps, there isn’t one. Or, perhaps it is simply to live life aware of the complexities around you. Perhaps, the greatest sin is simply the moral laziness of believing in unambiguous truths.

 

American Animals

December 2, 2018 at 6:04 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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There is a nervous energy that flows through “American Animals.” From the opening montage of paintings of birds “red in tooth and claw,” as they say, one get’s the intense feeling of something about to happen. That tension continues virtually unabated through the film’s entire 1:56 run time. This is a clever little film. It does not tell any epic tales, nor does it try to take on any grand ideas; but the story it does tell, it tells extremely well. This purportedly true story centers around four college students who are bored, lazy, ethically underdeveloped, and not nearly as smart as their parents have told them they are. They all apparently share an unrealistic expectation about how entertaining life should always be and how the world seemingly owes them that. So, to add some excitement and meaning to their lives, they decide to stage a grand burglary. The film brilliantly splices in interviews with the real men and their families, so we know from the outset that this plan is not going to go well. This mechanism not only keeps the film fresh and interesting, it also cleverly allows director Bart Layton (“The Imposter“) to step away from heavy-handed commentary, letting the truth do the talking for him. The acted portions of the film are played straight, like a standard caper/heist movie, equip with the obligatory tension, humor, detailed plans, disguises, montages, and models of the target building. The real fun of this film is how straight it plays these scenes. It only hints that it is laughing at these boys and not with them. The men themselves, when being interviewed, look earnestly at the camera, seeming to believe the audience will understand entirely. It is after everything has come undone, and they express the regret without introspection of those who have been caught, that the film’s true commentary is most clear. All of the goofy fun aside, there is something important being examined here. This is the story of spoiled, over-educated man-children, who are taught they are the center of the universe and, as a result, can’t quite ever grow up. What a unique creature of this particular moment in our history. American animals, indeed.

Leave No Trace

December 2, 2018 at 5:52 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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Director Debra Granik burst on the scene in 2010 with “Winter’s Bone.” The grim tale about Appalachian poverty also launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career. This is her first film in almost 9 years, and she has returned to Winter’s Bone’s emotional landscape, though this one is several shades less dark. Set in the woods around Portland, Oregon, the film covers the story of a single father (Ben Foster) and his adolescent daughter (relative unknown Thomasin McKenzie). They are living way off the grid, until their discovery, and subsequent government involvement, forces them to try and integrate back into society. Foster is an undervalued actor and he gets the opportunity here to really shine. His thoughtful, caring, but wounded father is an effective performance and helps to give weight to his daughter’s struggle. McKenzie’s character is the center of the film. Her struggle, and how she resolves it, is essentially the story arc. Though not the natural that Lawrence is, McKenzie does have a gift. She displayed her character’s anxiousness and ambivalence quite effectively. She is the core of the film and it works because the audience can’t help but root for her. But this film lacked Winter’s Bone’s bite. It was not nearly so dark or fraught. Though there were similar themes of worrying about/protecting family, McKenzie’s character never had to risk too much and her adversaries were well-meaning government employees, not the evil Lawrence’s character encountered. As such, this film was an enjoyable journey but never fully landed with me in the way “Winter’s Bone” did. I might have enjoyed it more, had I not been aware of the comparison to make.

Creed II

November 25, 2018 at 6:51 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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I feel as though I should almost just refer you to my review of the first “Creed” movie. My review of this one feels essentially the same. Michael B. Jordan has a charisma that’s undeniable, and his combination of ferocity and vulnerability really work with this character. He also has great chemistry with Sylvester Stallone; their interactions, both playful and serious, have a comfortable, natural cadence to them. It is no surprise that Stallone lives this character. He has been living with him for 40 years. But, that Jordan can slip so easily into his character is impressive. This story is a call back to “Rocky IV” where he has to fight the Russian solider, Ivan Drago, in a battle of the Cold War superpowers. Well, we may no longer be in a cold war, but tensions between the US and Russia are higher than for most of the past three decades. Drago has returned with his son, Viktor. Drago killed Adonis Creed’s father and he’s hoping for more of the same. Dolph Lundgren returns to play Drago in a remarkably understated performance; he is all shame and simmering rage. Viktor is played by the gigantic Romanian boxer, Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu. He says very little, probably because he doesn’t sound Russian, but he does not need to. He is so ridiculously big that his just being on screen is intimidating. Woven throughout the larger story are subplots about Adonis’s relationship to his wife and his mother, and Rocky’s relationship with his son. These stories can often feel distracting or given short shrift, but not here. They are paced well, add depth to both characters and allow the audience to feel what is at stake. Stallone’s own son, Sage, who played his son in “Rocky V,” died in 2012. You can feel Stallone bring this pain to Rocky’s discussions about his son with Adonis. Stallone was robbed of an Oscar in 2016 for this role. It will be interesting to see if he get’s nominated this year. With the studios placing so many of their lead actors in the Supporting Actor category this year, so as to avoid competition, Stallone will have an uphill battle to win this time around. But, let’s not forget, this is a fight movie first. It rouses the audience with swelling music, has the appropriately inspiring training montages, and a couple of truly thrilling fight scenes. I must say that, for at least a couple of slow-motion hits, I thought, “these men must be really getting hit. I don’t know how you could fake that.” So, either Jordan and Munteanu really took a beating for the job, or there was some amazing CGI at work. I warn you, those fight scenes are intense, they look grimly real, and the final one goes on a while. This is not a film for those who are squeamish of violence. This film is, in the end, a genre film (sports film, boxing film) and a very specific type of genre film (“Rocky” movie). As such, it fulfills its duties admirably. You will not be surprised by a single thing on screen, but you will likely have a good time, none-the-less.

Green Book

November 25, 2018 at 9:41 am | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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I can just hear the Hollywood pitch now, “ya gotta make this movie! It’s ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ only with the roles reversed! People can feel good about how far we’ve come!” Well, sort of. This is a lovely, charming movie, as long as you know what it is and what it isn’t, and you can take it as it is. Based very loosely (as I understand it) on the real friendship between Dr. Don Shirley (a cultured, well-educated, wealthy, gay, Black man, played by Mahershala Ali) and Anthony Vallelonga (aka Tony Lip, a brash, vulgar, working-class, straight, Italian-American, played by Viggo Mortensen). Dr Shirley hired Vallelonga in the Fall/Winter of 1962 to drive him/protect him on his musical tour of the Deep South. Heart-warming hilarity ensues. This is a feel good movie painted in broad strokes. Most of the characters are caricatures, none more so than Tony Lip. Mortensen hits on every possible stereotype of a 60s Italian-American with such glee that it is near impossible not to laugh along. He chews through every line he is given in much the same way Tony chews threw the endless supplies of food he devours– with great gusto and little finesse. Mortensen’s commitment to the eating needed for this role seems as strenuous as any method acting required of Bale or Day-Lewis. But, it’s worth remembering that Mortensen is a world class actor, not some hack. And he may well get an Oscar nod for this role, not because of the bigness of this performance, but because of the small gestures he managed to slip into such a big character. As loud and over-the-top as Tony was, you could always see him thinking. Mortensen beautifully captured the kind, thoughtful human being under all the bravado. It would have been easy to just play Tony as one note, but he was as complex as any of Dr. Shirley’s piano performances. Speaking of which, Ali is another award-winning actor with tremendous talent. His skill is easier to see in this performance of the prim, overly-controlled, and deeply lonely Dr. Shirley. If you have seen him in “Moonlight,” “House of Cards,” or “Luke Cage,” then you know his range. In many ways, this film was essentially an “Odd Couple” buddy comedy, and it is so easy for the “uptight” one to play the straight man for the “loose cannon” (think “Lethal Weapon,” “48 Hours,” or “The Heat”). It’s a credit to Ali’s skills that he can make his character both rigid and genuinely funny (and laughing-with-him funny, not just laughing-at-him funny). In fact, I suspect most viewers will find themselves laughing throughout the entire film. Even the ugliness of racism in the South is handled with so much concern for the audience, lest anyone be uncomfortable for too long, that it always resolves well, fairly quickly, and often with another laugh. This film is sweet going down, from start to finish. In that way, it is very like “Driving Miss Daisy,” in that it wants to talk about racial issues but only in a way designed not to offend the majority of its primarily White audience. Some might legitimately take issue with that. You could argue that we are long past platitudes and gentle pats on the back. We are long past whitewashing our past and feeling smug about how far we have come. We need films that are angry, confrontational, unflinching, and do not care how uncomfortable they make a White audience. Now, perhaps more than in many decades, we need to name racism for exactly what it is, pull no punches, and leave no one (especially the audience) unscathed. I would agree. We do need those films and I am delighted that we are starting to see more of them (“Get Out,” “Sorry to Bother You,” “Blackkklansman,” “Blindspotting,” “The Hate U Give,” just to name a few). But, I don’t think the need for those films, as real as that is, means that films like this one don’t also have value. It is not such a bad thing that we can laugh at/laugh with two very different human beings learning how to respect and care for each other. We could use some more of that in today’s world also.

Chef Flynn

November 24, 2018 at 10:04 am | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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As a character study of a chef or an examination of his food, this is no “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” but perhaps that’s an unfair comparison. That film was a masterpiece of pacing and mood, but it was made by a professional. “Chef Flynn” is essentially his mother’s home movies stitched together. It is frenetic, at times discordant, and also energetic, passionate, and very much alive. Flynn McGarry started cooking because his mother could not. He was bored of the handful of recipes she knew and was clearly born with an expansive palette, so he set out to create his own. By 10, he had his own pop-up supper club. By 15, he was on the cover of the New York Times magazine. After that, his world went nuts and his mother was there to record it all. There are legitimate reasons to be suspicious; this is a very singular view by an adoring parent. You will find no real criticism of his skills as a chef, or of the parenting choices his mother has made. That seems to bother some people, though I can’t figure out why. It helps that, since the film was completed, Flynn moved to NYC at 16, ran his own successful pop-up there, called “Eureka NYC” and, now at 19, owns his own successful New York restaurant, “Gem.” And, it’s worth noting, nobody accused “Jiro” of being one-sided, though it was far more one-sided then this film. Flynn’s mother, Meg, has an obsessive need to keep the cameras rolling, even when nobody else wants them to be, even when it means seeing her insecurities, tendency to complain, and self-involvement. There is something deeply intimate about the journey she takes us on. Flynn is a boy: sullen, snarky, whining, petulant, and everything else you would except a kid to be. Those moments are what allow his excitement, his sweetness, and his creativity to land. The overall production is unpolished for sure and you can see Meg sometimes trying too hard to get the perfect shot. But, in many ways, the messiness is part of the fun because it allows their humanity to shine through. I don’t know that anyone needs to run to theaters to see this film, but I wouldn’t miss it when it shows up on Netflix in the near future. Whatever else anyone might think, I am encouraged by a mother who is brave enough to let her son find his own path, no matter how unlike the mainstream it is. And, perhaps as the best testament to Flynn’s skills, I left the theater hungry.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

November 20, 2018 at 4:32 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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In their on-going attempt to expand their media empire, Netflix has scored it’s best coup to date in getting The Coen Brothers’ newest movie released on their site the same day as in theaters. And what a delightful film, too. This anthology is one of their best films in years, full of Coen wit (sometimes dry, sometimes absurd), and with a dark vein running through it. The story is made up of 6 “chapters” that are not quite evenly divided in it’s 132 minute run time. All the stories are humorous, but the tone of the film definitely shifts throughout. The first story, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” is delightfully silly. If that’s not your thing, don’t worry; none will be as light-hearted as that one. From there, it inches darker until the somber, meditative final scene, “The Mortal Remains,” leaves the audience with a feeling that there was a lot more going on in this film than meets the eye. In fact, that final story, with it’s dark blue hues and cut-out buildings felt more like an allegory; it was saying something about certainty and uncertainty that seemed to be the through line for all of these stories. The film begins with Buster, who speaks directly to the audience. It ends with a stagecoach ride, in which the riders all seem to be speaking bigger truths. In between all the entertainment, these characters are telling us something about life, cruelty, and justice. And, along the way from silly to somber, the Coens take us through scenes that are funny, heartbreaking, and deeply deeply creepy (I think “Meal Ticket” may be the darkest story they have ever made). As is typically true of them, every scene is beautifully constructed and full of rich details. They create mood so beautifully. From start to finish, this was a lush, gorgeous, disturbing work. And it was one of the best films I have seen this year.

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