Sunday, May 13, 2018

Tully

         The latest collaboration between writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman is a unremarkable family drama, worth your time if just for the terrific acting by Charlize Theron and MacKenzie Davis.

         Ms. Theron plays Marlo, a mother of two young kids (with a third on the way) whose life continues to beat her down. Her son has serious issues that others call "quirky". Her husband, played by Ron Livingston, is preoccupied with work and his video games before bed. After the third child is born, the needs of all three kids, and lack of sleep all take their toll. Marlo's rich brother, played by Mark Duplass, worried about her, treats her to a night nanny to help with the baby. Shortly thereafter, we met Tully, played by Ms. Davis.

         Never compromising, Ms. Theron plays Marlo, an overworked, overweight, tired housewife making what she can out of an unglamorous life. Enter Tully, every mother's dream of a nanny to help, not just with the baby but with Marlo herself. The two bond and with Tully's help, Marlo begins to once again feel alive. 

        The story follows a fairly predictable path, although it becomes increasingly obvious there is more to Tully herself, than meets the eye. There is excellent chemistry between the two leads and Ms. Theron, in particular, gives a raw honest performance but the simple script offers little. It's a fairy tale for tired, overworked moms everywhere.

The Rider


            Life and art merge beautifully in this poetic, contemporary western. Writer/director Chloe Zhao creates a narrative that focuses on the real life of rodeo cowboy, Brady Jandreau (Brady Blackburn in the film).

            Mr. Jandreau is a charismatic presence, unflinchingly willing to let Ms. Zhao's camera into his world. The film takes place in South Dakota and the unspoiled western landscape makes for stunning cinematography. 

            Ms. Zhao follows her subject, family and friends (all played by themselves) as he tries to find meaning to his life after a terrible rodeo accident leaves him unable to ride. The film begins shortly after Brady is released from the hospital leaving him wondering what his future will hold. He lives in a trailer home with his father, Wayne and younger sister, Lilly (who has Asperger's Syndrome). Life is hard for this family. No formal schooling, always behind in the rent, not much in the way of employment, they barely scrape by.

           What Brady and his father do know is horses. No longer able to ride, Brady hopes to work breaking wild horses. He has an uncanny connection to the animals. His scenes with the various horses are stunning. His friends, all cowboys themselves, try hard to cheer him up but Brady without the thing he loves most, sinks into a despair that is achingly real. 

           When Brady visits his friend Lane Scott, a paralyzed cowboy, in the hospital, he finds strength in trying to help his friend but it also forces him to confront the passion they have both lost. This is a remarkable film, a loose narrative wrapped in the real life of this young man and his world.  Sad, soulful and heartbreaking, it is an uncompromising look into a world many of us will never know but a human condition we can all relate to.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War

        It's hard to avoid the marketing machine surrounding this film but I have to say, it lives up to the hype...and then some. This is the blockbuster Marvel fans have been waiting for. Almost every Marvel film for the past decade has led up to this point and directors Anthony & Joe Russo make sure no one leaves the theater disappointed.

             All your favorite heroes are back, from Iron Man to Spiderman and Doctor Strange to Captain America and Black Panther to take on the cosmic threat of Thanos, the Mad Titan. Thanos is searching for the six Infinity Stones that will give him ultimate power and it's up to almost every superhero in the Marvel universe to try to stop him. That's the basic plot. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely keep it simple and yet when you have to cram so many characters into the story, they remarkably keep it balanced as well. The screenplay splits the characters into mixed teams, protecting the stones and coming at Thanos and from different directions.  The story contains plenty of humor but also moments of shock and devastating surprise.

           The Russo Brothers make sure there is plenty of action and everyone gets their fair share of screen time. Credit the writers and directors for structuring the story in such a well balanced way that every scene counts and never feels gratuitously overstuffed. Every shift in the story works and it's never boring. Even the quiet moments are important and emotional.

          While it gets a little sloppy in some of the big battle sequences, the CGI is generally excellent. There is great attention to detail in creating Thanos. Josh Brolin's features and voice are married to CGI and motion capture work to create a living breathing villain. The same can be said of Rocket Raccoon, voiced again by Bradley Cooper and Groot, voice by Vin Diesel.

          As with all Marvel films, it's become standard to stay for the post credits scene or two. In this case, there is only one but it is very important to the story and true fans will recognize the clue of things to come.

         Marvel continues to raise the bar for comic to film adaptations. Keep them coming....

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Beirut

     Jon Hamm is a terrific leading man in this tense political thriller. Working as an American diplomat in Beirut in 1972, Mason Skiles life is shattered one night and the film quickly jumps ten years.  Now self employed as a corporate negotiator in Boston and drinking heavily, Mason is drawn back to Beirut to help rescue one of his best friends, who has been taken hostage by extremists.

     Co-starring Roseamund Pike, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, and Mark Pellegrino, the film is a real world "adult" drama with a engrossing story of political intrigue. In a past life, Mason Skiles would have a lot in common with Don Draper, Mr. Hamm's character on "Mad Men", so the transition to leading man in this instance is a comfortable one for Mr. Hamm. It's not a total stretch but enough to showcase Mr. Hamm in a solid leading role. Ms. Pike as Sandy Crowder, starts the film with not much to do but her part becomes stronger and more detailed as the film goes on and Ms. Pike handles the role admirably. 

     Tangiers substitutes for Beirut and the film looks very realistic.  It boils over with the tensions of the region and an epilogue reminds us of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and Beirut in the '80's.

Ready Player One

      The latest science fiction adventure from director Steven Spielberg is based on the best selling novel by Ernest Cline. It is high speed escapist fun that splits its time between the real world of Earth in 2045 and the virtual reality world of "The Oasis".

       Ty Sheridan stars as Wade Watts, a young man living in "the stacks", a ghetto of sorts in Columbus Ohio. He spends most of his waking hours as "Parzival", his avatar in the world of The Oasis. Designed by James Halliday, played by a terrific Mark Rylance, The Oasis started out as an immersive online game but has now become a way of life for most people. When Halliday dies, he leaves behind the ultimate game, find three keys that reveal clues to an "easter egg". Whoever finds the egg, will control the Oasis and Halliday's fortune.

       The film co-stars Ben Mendlesohn as Nolan Sorrento, the villainous CEO of a company out to control The Oasis for themselves.  Also starring are Olivia  Cooke and Lena Waithe as friends of Parzival, Simon Pegg as Ogden Morrow, the co-creator of The Oasis, and T. J. Miller as the voice of i-Rok, an Oasis villain.

      Mr. Spielberg is the perfect director for this story. He infuses his love of sci-fi as well as pop culture into every scene. Much of the viewing fun is spotting all the pop culture references, some more obvious than others. He also stresses themes of diversity and family with his cast choices and their interactions.

      There are eye-popping visuals in a story that never seems to slow down as it toggles between what's real and what's virtual reality. Targeted for a very specific audience, it is loud and overwhelming at times but fans of this genre will really enjoy themselves.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Quiet Place


    Co-written and directed by John Krasinski, this horror film offers a new twist on your typical monster movie. Mr. Krasinski stars along with his wife Emily Blunt, as parents of three young kids trying to survive in a world inhabited by creatures that hunt by sound.

     The film drops the audience right into the story without much of an explanation as to the origin of the creatures. They are devoid of sight and smell and rely completely on sound to hunt. They are powerful and fast and seemingly have wiped out most life on the planet as we meet the Abbott family scavenging in an abandoned town, avoiding the creatures by making as little sound as they can. The family communicates by sign language, walks barefoot and tries to make some kind of life on an farm they have found in the countryside.

     Without sound, the audience must adapt to the rhythm of the film, which heightens the visual impact. Mr. Krasinski employs a terrific score and amplification to create tension from natural sound and movement. This makes for a very suspenseful film as the creatures find their way to the farm despite the best efforts of the Abbotts to keep silent.

     The cast is terrific with Ms. Blunt a stand out. Her expressive acting is riveting especially in the scene where she endures giving birth, trying to remain silent under horrendous conditions. Millicent Simmonds, a deaf actor, plays their daughter and she too, is terrific, especially in the last third of the film. Noah Jupe plays the older son, Marcus and Cade Woodward is the youngest son, Beau.

      The central theme is really about family and less about the monsters. The violence is kept to a bare minimum and so is any bloodshed.  Mr. Krasinski prefers the tactics of Alfred Hitchcock to create tension and suspense. Less is more in this instance. A nail in a floorboard becomes one of the scariest visuals in the film. I highly recommend seeing this in a theater with an audience rather than at home where I think it will lose some of it's impact. The scares are better when you can share them with others.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Isle of Dogs


             Written for the screen and directed by Wes Anderson, this stop motion animation features a great cast of vocal talent and is utterly charming. The screenplay is from an original story by Mr. Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura.

              The film takes place in the fictitious Japanese city of Megasaki, 20 years in the future  where dog flu has run rampant through the canine population and the cat loving Mayor has banished all dogs to Trash Island. His young ward Atari steals a plane and flies to the island to find his own dog, Spots. He is befriended by a small band of particular dogs who agree to help him.

       Mr. Anderson makes many interesting choices for this film. He sets it in Japan and all the humans only speak in their native Japanese. There are no subtitles. The audience is deliberately told this at the beginning of the film as well as letting us know all the dog barking is translated into English. There is one American human character as well as an interpreter that help fill in the story for an English speaking audience. The story is steeped in Japanese culture and yet completely relatable to a wide audience. Coincidently, the story is very timely as the young adult population of Megasaki rally to bring about a major turning point in the film.

                      The team of puppeteers and animators Mr. Anderson has assembled have done nothing short of brilliant work with amazing attention to the smallest detail. Every dog character has a very distinct look and personality. The large vocal cast includes Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Greta Gerwig, F. Murray Abraham, Liev Schreiber, Yoko Ono, Kunichi Nomura and Koyu Rankin as Atari.

            While a serious story at its core, it's an adventure filled with suspense and yet plenty of sly humor. Cute as it may look, it's not a film for small children who may find it somewhat confusing and even scary at times. Canine flu is a real disease and while the film takes it to an extreme, dog owners should consider vaccinating their own pets if they are social and spend a lot of time around other dogs.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Annihilation


      Written and directed by Alex Garland, this new sci-fi film is based on the best selling novel of the same name. It is a dazzling trippy story that takes place in "The Shimmer", an area of earth that has been taken over by an alien lifeform for no apparent reason. The story starts when a meteor crashes into a lighthouse and the shimmer appears and starts to spread.

        Natalie Portman stars as an ex-military, biologist whose husband, played by Oscar Isaac,  returns after disappearing into the shimmer for a year. Once he returns, his health immediately deteriorates and to save him, Ms. Portman and four other scientists head into the shimmer to try to figure out the source of the phenomena.

         The other scientists are played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny. To Mr. Garland's credit, the fact that five woman make up the major cast never seems out of the ordinary and and perfectly natural. From an audience perspective, it's a pretty forward thinking casting choice and the women make the most of their roles.

         Once inside the shimmer, the film turns into a very trippy adventure. The landscape is beautiful, filled with strange plants and creatures that are mutating from the original fauna and flora. The soundtrack as well, creates an alien sensation as the five woman go deeper into the shimmer to reach the lighthouse and source of the mystery. There are moments of violent surprise and constant suspense throughout the film. Once the destination is reached, the story goes off the rails in surreal craziness, giving us answers but even more questions.

          This is a thought provoking sci-fi adventure that keeps its audience off balance. Truly cinema escapism.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Foxtrot


      Making the short list for Best Foreign Film but ultimately not getting a deserved nomination at this year's Academy Award, this is a mesmerizing new Israeli drama from writer/director Samuel Maoz.

       Lior Ashkenasi and Sarah Adler star as grief stricken parents who learn at the onset of the film that their son, Jonathan has been killed in the line of military duty.  At once a meditation on grief, the film becomes so much more in a surprising and deliberately paced story.

       The film is divided into three sections. It is a deeply moving film filled with moments that catch an audience off guard. Mr. Maoz use of unconventional camera angles and surreal flashes as the story unfolds keep the viewer in an hypnotic state even in moments of pure tedium.

       Ms. Adler and Mr. Ashkenasi are both terrific but Mr. Ashkenasi, already a well respected Israeli actor, takes his skills to another level as a man torn apart by grief and guilt. Even in moments of silence (of which there are many), his expressive face, at once breaks your heart, as well as keeps you on edge waiting for his inner turmoil to spill out.

        When art is done right, it should leave an impact on it's audience. This haunting drama will leave you reeling and deeply affected well after the final credits.