Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Insult

       Nominated for best Foreign Film at this year's Academy Awards, this Lebanese film is a terrific and tense drama about how a war of words can easily escalate into something much worse. 

       An exchange of words between Yasser, a Palestinian construction foreman and Tony, a Lebanese Christian, over Tony's broken balcony drain lead to insults that escalate into physical violence, courtroom appearances and National attention.

       Adel Karam plays Tony and Kamel El Basha plays Yasser and both men are excellent. Tony, with his short fuse and pride, stubbornly refuses to back down after Yasser's insult. He demands an apology but Yasser, who, in his quiet dignity, refuses feeling he is the one who should get an apology. In fear since he is the minority refuge, Yasser would prefer to say nothing as their argument ends in a courtroom that does nothing to resolve the issue and only make things worse.

       The war of words that escalates is easily a universal situation but here is heightened by the social, religious and political background in Lebanon.  As the tension mounts, there are surprises and hidden facts revealed.  The complexity of Middle Eastern politics can be difficult for an American audience but this is a film with a message that is both thought provoking and entertaining. It certainly deserves it's Oscar nomination and very possibly a win.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Black Panther

       Culturally significant, this new superhero film sets itself apart from the rest of the Marvel films with its predominately African American cast and director. It also features women in strong key roles. It's a enjoyable stand alone film but definitely reminds it's audience of it's ties to the Marvel Universe (especially in a final post credit scene).

       Racial and sexual politics aside, it's well cast and directed (by Ryan Coogler, who also co-wrote the script) and includes some dazzling special effects. At it's core, the film is a cross between James Bond, Star Wars, and The Lion King. It strives to be important (and it is) but also takes itself far too seriously. It tackles some heavy subjects with too little comic relief. To be fair, there are a few good laughs and a visual gag or two. The armored rhinos were a bit over the top though.

       Chadwick Boseman stars as T'Challa, prince of Wakanda ( a fictional African country) who is also the Black Panther, a living symbol of his people. When his father is killed, he inherits the throne but heavy is the head that wears the crown. He soon finds himself in a fight with Klaue, the man who killed his father and also Erik Killmonger, a challenger for the throne. He must also decide to keep Wakanda's technology hidden or share their knowledge and resources with the rest of the world. Mr. Boseman handles himself aptly in and out of his costume.

           Klaue is played by Andy Serkis, who chews up the scenery and appears to be really enjoying himself. It's probably due in part that he finally has a role that isn't motion capture. Killmonger is played by Michael B. Jordan, who is a formidable villain. Also in major roles are Dania Guria ( Michonne from "The Walking Dead") as Okoye, the leader of the Dora Milaje, T'Challa's all female royal guards and Lupita Nyong'o as Nikia, T'Challa's former lover and Wakanda spy. The large cast also features Daniel Kaluuya as W'Kabi, Letitia Wright as Shuri, Angela Bassett as Ramonda, Forest Whitaker as Zuri, Winston Duke as M'Baku and Martin Freeman as Everett Ross. In a film striving for authenticity, it's interesting to note that Mr. Freeman who is British plays an American CIA agent. Sterling K. Brown has an important cameo as well. The characters are fully realized played by a very talented ensemble.

            With this film, Marvel once again raises the bar for superhero films. Mr Coogler has brought to life an iconic, comic book Black hero that a culture and community can proudly call their own. And better yet, he stars in a major Hollywood vehicle that should still appeal to a mass audience, regardless of race or sex.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

A Fantastic Woman

    Selected as a nominee for Best Foreign film at next month's Oscars, this is a heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting drama from Chile. It is co-written and beautifully directed by Sebastian Lelio. It features a remarkable and yes, fantastic performance by Daniela Vega as Marina, a transgender woman struggling to get her life in order after her lover dies suddenly.

     After a birthday celebration, Orlando (played by Francisco Reyes), thirty years her senior, awakens feeling ill. While waiting for Marina, his illness is complicated by a fall down a flight of stairs. Marina takes him to the hospital but he soon dies, leaving Marina in shock and confusion. Questioned and examined by the police, harassed and ostracized by Orlando's family, Marina's world is further turned upside down.  

     While a fictitious story, there is so much ugly truth here that it only serves to heighten the amazing performance by Ms. Vega. As a transgender woman, one must believe she has dealt with (and may continue to deal with) many of the prejudices and hate faced by Marina in the film.

     What makes it even more compelling is just how universal her story really is. Anyone can relate to the terrible circumstances faced by Marina, made only more complicated for her as a transgender woman. Ms. Vega performance is heartbreaking but her strength shines through the sadness and her raw, honest portrayal borders on magical. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

12 Strong

   A military action drama based on the true story of the U.S. first response against the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11. A month after the Twin Towers were brought down, an elite squad of 12 soldiers were sent to Afghanistan to work with the local freedom fighters against a Taliban stronghold. 

       Chris Hemsworth stars as Mitch Nelson, the leader of the squad that includes Michael Pena and Michael Shannon. The film also co-stars Rob Riggle and William Fichtner as Nelson's superior officers and Naved Negahban as General Abdul Dostum, the leader of the Afghan Northern Alliance. There is no denying that Mr. Hemsworth is a dashing hero but rather than playing the mythical Thor, here he represents a real American hero and he is just terrific.

        The film is gritty and very realistic. The battle sequences are very exciting and what really sets the film aside is the horses that the soldiers find themselves needing to carry out their mission. The film is based on a book called "Horse Soldiers", written about the classified mission. It is amazing to watch the unit fight on horseback and even more amazing to know that the animals were't harmed during the making of the film. In the credits we learn there was an animation unit as well as a puppetry unit  that I'm sure were used to simulate the horses when they were in danger (and they are quite a bit).

        The story is thrilling and patriotic and you can't help but rally around Nelson and his men. What makes it even more remarkable is realizing that the film is a recreation of a real mission, carried out by real soldiers.  It's stories like this that reinforce an appreciation of our military and how they put their lives on the line every day protecting our freedom.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Call Me by Your Name

            A coming of age, romantic drama set in 1983, this is a story of first love and sexual awakening. It is beautifully filmed and extremely well acted by it's two leads, Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet.

           Michael Stuhlbarg is Dr. Perlman, a Professor of Archaeology who spends the summer at a house in Northern Italy with his wife (played by Amira Casar) and seventeen year old son, Elio, played by Mr. Chalamet. Every summer, Professor Perlman enlists the assistance of a student aid and when the film opens we meet Oliver (Mr. Hammer) who slowly awakens confusing feelings in Elio. What starts as a friendship soon turns to much more.

            The setting of the film is just exquisite. I found myself wanting to leap into the film and enjoy a summer, outdoor dinner among the fruit trees of the property. The film is a lush visual treat. Oliver and Elio begin their romance in a slow, subtle "dance" of mutual attraction and Elio is eventually totally smitten with the older Oliver. Mr. Hammer does his best work to date, showing a vulnerability underneath a confident exterior. Mr. Chalamet is simply amazing as he wrestles with his feelings and ultimately acts upon them. The closing moments of the film show a remarkable range in a dialog free scene for the young actor.

             Luca Guadagnino directs from a script by James Ivory. Mr. Guadagnino purposes limits the nudity and the sex scenes in the film to hopefully broaden it's audience. He prefers to leave much to the audience's imagination cutting away from the protagonists in their most intimate moments. He blends this tender, romantic story with a wonderful combination of acting, writing, music (by Sufjan Stevens) and cinematography.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Darkest Hour

        Directed by Joe Wright and starring Gary Oldman, this is a British war drama focusing on the early days of Winston Churchill. Having just won the Golden Globe for his portrayal of Mr. Churchill, Gary Oldman is now the front runner for a well deserved  Best Actor Oscar as well.

           The film is set in May 1940,  Mr. Churchill has just become the new Prime Minister just as Hitler's forces are occupying most of Europe and bearing down on England. The British forces are trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk and Mr. Churchill is faced with ultimate decisions affecting the troops, England and the outcome of the war. 

            Portraying Winston Churchill may very well be the pinnacle of Mr. Oldman's career. It is a towering performance that presides over the entire film. Praise must be given to his co-stars as well though, including Kristen Scott Thomas as Mrs. Churchill, Ben Mendelsohn as King George, and a wonderful Lily James as Elizabeth Layton, Mr. Churchill's loyal secretary.

            Mr.  Wright's direction moves the film along at a brisk clip with wonderful sets and cinematography, faithfully recreating  wartime London. I didn't want to see it end. The film makes a great companion piece to Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" as history is seen from both sides in what was truly a darkest time for England.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

In The Fade

           Written and directed by Fatih Akin, this new German foreign language film is sadly based on incidents taking place worldwide everywhere that hate and prejudice continue to fester. 

          It is the story of Katja, a German woman, who's husband and son are killed by a bomb at the onset of the film. It's a difficult but important story anchored by an incredible performance.

           Katja is played by Diane Kruger, who is simply amazing in the role. Her grief, anger, guilt and all the emotions tumbling around in her head in the aftermath are brutally honest. Every note of her performance is raw and her outrage and hatred is so intense, the audience is on edge wondering how this will all play out. 

          What the police initially believe is drug related violence, turns out to be something far more sinister, when it is discovered the people responsible are a neo-nazi group targeting minorities in Germany (Katja's husband is Turkish). The film parallels an episode of Law & Order, first the crime and then the trial but the consequences are unexpected and the drama far exceeds anything done on a weekly TV show.

          The title of the film is taken from a song by Josh Homme (who composed the music for the film). It represents Katja's state of being after the bombing. Ms. Kruger has done fine work in many American movies and television shows (find "The Bridge" on Fox demand or Netflix) but this represents a new high for her in her native German.