Sunday, February 26, 2017

Land of Mine

This Danish historical drama is nominated for best Foreign film at this year's Academy Awards.

During World War 2, thousands of land mines were  buried along the Western beaches of Denmark by the Germans, anticipating an allied assault that never happened. After the war ended, the Danish army forced German prisoners, many of them teenagers, to remove the mines. This film is a fictionalized account of one group of prisoners. 

The Danes had a bitter hatred for the Germans after the war, and they are represented here by Sergeant Rassmussen. He is charged with commanding a group of 14 young prisoners to clear a particular beach. 

The Sergeant is played by Roland Moller and he is simply fantastic, slowly discovering an empathy he didn't think existed, for his prisoners . The young German actors who play the prisoners are also excellent with their various personalities winning over both the Sergeant and the audience. 

While the story never veers far from the beach, it remains incredibly tense as one mistake can set off a mine. There are explosions but, for the most part, not when you expect them.  It becomes a highly emotional story and one filled with moments of great humanity.

Written and directed by Martin Sandvliet, with wonderful cinematography by Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, this is a terrific film that should not be missed. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Salesman

 The new film from acclaimed Iranian director Asghar Farhadi ( "A Separation") is once again a domestic drama that starts out simple enough but turns far more complex after an violent incident occurs.

Emad ( Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are starring in a local theater production of "Death of a Salesman". When nearby construction causes a fracture in their apartment complex, they are forced to temporarily relocate to an apartment offered by their friend, Babak.  Unknown to them at first, the apartment had most recently been rented by a prostitute and this leads to a major turning point in the film.

Mr. Hosseini and Ms. Alidoosti are both excellent, portraying a couple who's life together becomes deeply tested. Mr. Farhadi's direction is actor focused and his screenplay, while not as intense as "A Separation", ups the suspense and tension as the film moves towards it's heartbreaking conclusion.

The film is nominated this year for Best Foreign film among a crowded field but based on the strength of it's acting, it certainly has a good chance to win.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Elle

     The new French film from director Paul Verhoeven is a master class of acting from star, Isabelle Huppert. It is a dramatic thriller that veers off into a twisted plot point that I'm sure appealed to Mr. Verhoeven, known for his controversial films.

Ms. Huppert stars as Michele, a divorced, business woman who runs a video game company with her partner, Anna (played by Anne Consigny). At the start of the film, Michelle is raped in her home by a masked assailant and from there, as they say, the plot thickens. 

As ghosts of the past collide with the rape and other sub plots,  Michele's world becomes more complicated and Ms. Huppert conveys an amazing range of emotion even as she finds a new coping mechanism to keep her life in control. It is a brave performance from a wonderful actress. Brave, not only for the realistic rape sequence but also for the fact Michele is not really a likable protagonist and yet, you can't help but root for her. All the characters seem stereo-typically French, carrying on flirtations and affairs as the order of the day. Sex itself, is represented by multiple definitions within the film. Love, power, guilt, boredom, desire and need all have their role to play.

The film leaves you feeling just a little bit dirty and in need of a shower to wash off the nasty bits. There are a number of surprising revelations and an important plot point that is definitely controversial and should lead to many a post screening discussion.

The Comedian

                 
Robert DeNiro stars as Jackie Burke, an aging insult comic looking to stay relevant and move past his old beloved T.V. character "Eddie". Everywhere he goes, the fans still want to see Eddie and the younger crowds don't find his brand of humor appealing. Mr. DeNiro grows comfortably into the role as the film goes on, turning Jackie into a fully formed character that you can root for, even when his act becomes painful to watch. 

With a very well known supporting cast of characters including Danny DeVito as his brother, Patti Lupone as his sister-in-law, Edie Falco as his agent, Leslie Mann as a new woman in his life, and Harvey Keitel as Ms. Mann's father, you would expect comedic sparks to fly but I found the film to be a sad drama with a few good laughs. The jazz soundtrack underscores the sadness in Jackie's life and there are so many scenes that are literally hard to watch that you wonder what director Taylor Hackford and a quartet of writers really had in mind for the direction of the film.  As painful as some scenes are, they play a crucial part in the film, which ultimately has something to say about today's society.

Ms. Mann shares most of the screen time with Mr. DeNiro and the chemistry that develops between them is believable despite the age difference.  Her character, aptly named Harmony, brings out the best in the cynical, angry Jackie. There are also many "blink and you miss them" cameos from a majority of stand up comics and comedic actors including Billy Crystal, Charles Grodin and Cloris Leachman (in an unforgettably painful scene, that proves she's a good sport). 

Watching Mr. DeNiro in his scenes with Harvey Keitel will make you long for a screening of "Mean Streets", the film that put them both on the map and two hours better spent.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

20th Century Women

          A semi-autobiographical comedy/drama by writer/director, Mike Mills, the film takes place in Santa Barbara California in 1979 and is basically about Mr. Mills (here called Jamie) and his unconventional mother, Dorothea, played by Annette Bening. It is an intimate portrait of an unusual nuclear family.

         15 year old Jamie lives with his divorced mother and two renters , William, played by Billy Crudup, a single Bohemian man earning his rent by renovating the house and Abbie, a 24 year old very complicated woman. Jamie's life is also heavily influenced by Julie, a 17 year old neighbor that frequently sneaks in to literally sleep over. Abbie, played by Greta Gerwig and Julie, played by Elle Fanning are both charged by Dorothea to help teach Jamie about life and love.

           Ms. Bening bares herself physically to play Dorothea and chain smokes her way through the film. It is a brave performance by a wonderful actress. Jamie is played by Lucas Jade Zumann, who has a fine career ahead of him should he continue to act. While all the acting is well done, the story drifts in and out of moments that ultimately add up to nothing. There are pearls of wisdom by various characters, heartbreak and love affecting everyone but it's all told in a dull flat tone that I found rather boring. Mr. Mills actually speeds up many scenes as if he too, realizes he needs to move things a long. I did enjoy the soundtrack though, very much.

          I suppose there are those who will find the story charming (it is, in a dull way) and enjoy it very much. Perhaps if Mr. Mills had given his script over to another director who could be more objective, it would have made for a much better film but alas, that was not to be. 

The Founder


Based on a true story, this biographical drama is the story of Ray Kroc and how he "stole" the fast food giant, "McDonald's" out from under the McDonald brothers. It is a very engaging story and a great object lesson in business scruples. Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc and moves through the film like the cartoon Tasmanian Devil.

The film starts in 1954 when Kroc is selling Malted Milk mixers to drive in diners. When he discovers that one of his clients has ordered 6 mixers (highly unusual), he drives to San Bernadino, California and meets brothers "Mac" and Dick McDonald, played by John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman. Kroc soon realizes that their new method of preparing and selling hamburgers has huge potential and he integrates himself into their lives in a partnership to franchise.

The film also co-stars Laura Dern as Kroc's first wife Ethel, doing the best she can in an unflattering role, B. J. Novak as Harry Sonneborn, a financial consultant that brings Kroc to his tipping point, Patrick Wilson as an investor and Linda Cardellini as his wife Joan, who ends up playing a much larger part in Kroc's life. Director John Lee Hancock gets the look and feel of the late '50's just right and like McDonald's itself, after a slow start, he moves the story along briskly and economically.

It soon becomes clear that Kroc is a ruthless business man and when his "tipping point" arrives, he eventually finds a way to make the business his own. Today, McDonald's is a multi-billion dollar global industry. How it got that way is a fascinating story and the terrific casting, Mr. Keaton and Mr. Offerman especially, make it very entertaining.

In the end, it's a cautionary tale of business where nice guys do finish last.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Toni Erdmann


Reviewed by many as a riotously funny German comedy, I found this new foreign film to be tenderly amusing but far from riotous.  While the film skewers sexual politics in a geo-political  business world, it also explores a unique father/daughter relationship in an amusing and unusually loving way.

 Wilfried is an older divorced music teacher fond of practical jokes and silly disguises. When his elderly dog dies, he drops in unexpectedly on his uptight, no nonsense, daughter Ines who is a business executive for an oil consulting firm in Romania.  Looking to reconnect with Ines, Wilfried takes on a alter ego , "Toni Erdmann" and upends her buttoned up life.

Peter Simonischek plays Wilfried as a sly fox of a father who realizes his daughter's unhappiness and takes things to the extreme to make her see life differently. Sandra Huller is Ines and she is wonderful as we watch her personality shift ever so slowly under her father's annoying but loving influence.

The humor of the film can be interpreted in different ways, from odd to slapstick with a few truly strange scenes thrown in for good measure.  Written and directed by Maren Ade, loosely based on her own father, the film takes it's time (almost three hours) to tell it's story.  The film is in German with some English and Romanian and the emotions stirred at it's core will stay with you for some time.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Passengers


Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence play two hibernating passengers out of five thousand, traveling on a one hundred and twenty year voyage in space to a new colonized planet. For reasons I won't reveal, they both end up awake ninety years too soon and must learn to cope with life aboard the massive spaceship on their own.

Michael Sheen plays an android bartender named Arthur, Laurence Fishburne has a small cameo and Andy Garcia has what must be the shortest cameo in history. Otherwise the film rests completely with Mr. Pratt and Ms. Lawrence, both attractive and personal actors who try valiantly to hold the film together for two hours.  

The premise is intriguing  and the early parts of the film are interesting and hold your attention however, things begin to get tedious and more ludicrous as the film goes on.
There is a reveal that pumps some life into the story and one big action sequence to create a little excitement  (the outcome really strains credibility though) and the ending could have been far more interesting if it had gone in a different direction.

The special effects are very good (including Ms. Lawrence's make up which is always perfect) but the script ends up painting itself into a corner and the film ultimately has too much going against it to recover from a strong start that ends up a letdown. Unless of course, you want to watch a melodramatic, love story, space opera with less and less plausibility as it plays out.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Best and Worst of 2016


Top 10

The Handmaiden- Visually stunning, exciting, perverse, dramatic, humorous, surprising and erotic. You can’t take your eyes off the screen.
The Witch- highly original and very scary in a minimalist way.
Hacksaw Ridge- Tremendous World War II true story of courage under fire with remarkable battles sequences.
Manchester by the Sea- fantastic acting in a sad, sad story without a false note.
Hidden Figures- Uplifting true story of the African American women that helped the Space program
Moonlight- unique glimpse into a black American experience that is captivating and extremely moving.
The Man Who Knew Infinity- Little known true story of an Indian math genius that is remarkable and features fine acting by Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons.
Zootopia- Animated story that is hysterically funny, visually stunning and slyly gives a great morality lesson.
Captain Fantastic- Highly original and offbeat tale of a father raising his six kids in a very unconventional way.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story- Exists beautifully between episodes 3 & 4 of Star Wars. Even though you know the outcome this sci-fi war/heist movie is a great ride.


Honorable Mention
Miss Sloane
Sully
Hell or High Water
Sing Street
Florence Foster Jenkins


Bottom 10
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice- a boring mess
The Legend of Tarzan- Did anyone see this besides me?
The Girl on the Train- Just ridiculous
Allied- could it be any less boring or unsexy
Hail Caesar- rare miss by the Coen Brothers but great dance number with Channing Tatum.
Midnight Special- a disappointment by Jeff Nichols but he redeemed himself with “Loving”.
Miles Ahead- Don Cheadle would have been better off with a different director and a better script.
Demolition- What they should have done to the film.
War Dogs- not terrible but overindulgent
The Magnificent Seven- Boring remake. Just an excuse for actors to play cowboy. You don’t mess with the classics.

La La Land

The latest from writer/director Damian Chazelle recreates the lost art of the Hollywood musical. The film stars Emma Stone as Mia, a struggling actress and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian, a struggling jazz musician finding love in contemporary Los Angeles. 

The film is colorful and vibrant whenever there is a musical number but does contain a few dull spots between song and dance sequences. Both leads do pull off the difficult singing and dancing adequately and definitely have great chemistry between them. 

Opening with a great musical number on a crowded LA freeway, you settle in for the ups and downs of this young couple over the course of a year and then some. Without giving it away, I found the ending to be the best part of the film as it's very original and extremely satisfying. 

Mr. Chazelle uses Los Angeles as another character in what is a love letter to the city. Mia's struggles at acting auditions, the shallow parties, the Griffith Observatory all become part of the bigger story. It's a fun upbeat musical love story and the kind of film you just don't see anymore so Kudos to Mr. Chazelle for taking the successful risk.