Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Beguiled

             A remake of the 1971 drama starring Clint Eastwood, director Sophia Coppola opts to tell the same story from the women's point of view. The original was a star vehicle for Mr. Eastwood and contained it's share of action and stereotyped women to play off the sexual tension created by the plot. Ms. Coppola downplays the action and gives more personality to the residents of the girls school where the wounded Union soldier (now played by Colin Farrell) finds himself recuperating.

              The film takes place in 1864, three years into the Civil War. Nicole Kidman plays the matron of the southern Virginia school who is left in charge of just a few students (including Ellie Fanning) and one teacher played by Kirsten Dunst. When the youngest charge, Amy ( a very good Oona Laurence) finds Corporal John McBurney (Mr. Farrell) in the woods and brings him back to the school, it creates an immediate tension as the women and girls all find themselves drawn to him and taken in by his charms. 

                The story is a slow burn of sexual tension, filmed by Ms. Coppola in natural light and sound with very little music. Credit her originality but her choices don't necessarily work. The candlelight hides most of the film in near darkness and the substitution of chirping birds and insects do little to heighten the tension, the way a strong score would have done.

                 The acting is first rate but the pace of the film and lack of any real action, slows everything down to a crawl. There are repeated shots of the mansion and trees that add nothing. Ms. Coppola may be asking "just who is beguiling who?" but it becomes a bore answering that question.

The Big Sick

             This new romantic comedy finds  much humor in a very serious subject. It is based on the real life relationship of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon.  Written by the couple and starring Mr. Nanjiani as himself (Emily is played by Zoe Kazan), it starts out as a typical boy meets girl story but takes a very wide turn when Emily falls ill and is placed in a medical coma.

              Mr. Nanjiani and Ms. Kazan are both appealing actors and while the first half of the film contains some funny moments, it doesn't really take off until Emily gets sick. At that point, we are introduced to Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily's parents who basically steal the film. There is much humor mined in awkward moments and since Mr. Nanjiani plays a stand up comedian, there is an abundance of jokes and gags both from him and his comedian friends ( most notably Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, and Bo Burnham). 

              The cross cultural romance (Mr. Nanjiani is Pakistani) adds a fresh take on the relationship and the scenes of Mr. Nanjiani at home with his parents, brother, and sister-in-law are both humorous and heartbreaking. He can't bring himself to reveal he is in love with an American woman, while his parents continuously try to set him up with Pakistani women.

               The film is directed by Michael Showalter and he elects to film the screenplay completely intact.  Every moment of the story seems to be captured on film with what appears to be no editing. The lives of Mr. Nanjiani and Ms. Gordon are an open book and while refreshing, it makes a two hour film seem like three hours. The film would definitely benefited from more editing but overall, it is fresh, smart, heartfelt and funny. 

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Wonder Woman


          Since she was the best thing about "Superman V Batman: Dawn of Justice", I was looking forward to this origin story. And I'm happy to say, I was not disappointed. In the hands of another actress, the role may have been too comic bookish or just not the right fit but Gal Godot perfectly embodies the Amazonian princess and it's because of her the film works so well.

           The film starts in the present ( with a quick nod to another DC hero) but quickly goes back in time to tell the origin of Princess Diana. Connie Nielsen plays her mother, Hippolyta and Robin Wright, her Amazon Aunt and mentor, Antiope. When pilot Steve Trevor (ruggedly played by Chris Pine) crashes on their island home, Diana is exposed to men for the first time and becomes involved in fighting the evils of World War I, convinced the war is the result of Ares, the god of war's interference.

            David Thewlis, Danny Huston, Lucy Davis, Ewan Bremner, Said Taghmaoui and Elana Anaya all have supporting roles, either heroic or villainous and everyone is well cast.

            Ms. Gadot is so attractive and engaging that she makes every scene believable, exciting and fun to watch, overcoming clunky dialog and silly secondary characters. It a fresh take on the origin story and there is much humor in the beginning as Diana tries to adjust to life in the "real" world. The climatic fight with Ares is superhero cliche but the earlier battle sequences are thrilling and very well done.  

              Wonder Woman fills the definition of summer "popcorn" movie very well.  No need to think too hard, just sit back, munch and enjoy.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Norman

      The sub title of this new drama starring Richard Gere is "The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer". Without giving away plot points, it does sum up the story perfectly.

     Mr. Gere is absolutely wonderful as Norman Oppenheimer, an independent "consultant" who is desperately always trying to improve his connections, hoping to gain entrance into a circle of power brokers in business and politics. When a friendship of sorts develops with a deputy Israeli minister, Micha Eschel, Norman's life take a major leap forward (three years later) when Mr. Eschel becomes the Israeli Prime Minister.  Complications, however, ensue and Norman must take steps for the biggest "fix of his life.

      The film also stars Lior Ashkenazi as Micha Eschel and also features Michael Sheen, Josh Charles, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Steve Buscemi, Dan Stevens and a quick cameo by Hank Azaria. It's a terrific cast led by Mr. Gere, in one of his best performances in years.

       The main plot takes a little time to develop and there are complexities to the machinations going on but everything eventually comes together in brilliant fashion. This is a small independent film that quietly makes a big impact.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Alien: Covenant

Alien fans rejoice. Director Ridley Scott returns to form after the mythological headtrip of "Prometheus". The script by John Logan and Dante Harper build on that first prequel but tone down the mythology and add more action that recalls the first two films in the series.

                This story takes place ten years after "Prometheus" but still much earlier than the original crew of the "Nostromo" pick up that fateful SOS call. The plot does, however, closely follow the same story line. The recognizable names in the crew this time are played by Katherine Waterston ( in Sigourney Weaver warrior mode), Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, and Carmen Ejogo.  James Franco has a "blink and you miss him" cameo. And, of course there is Michael Fassbender, recreating his role of David from "Prometheus" as well as the updated android and new crew member, Walter. Mr. Fassbender, in his duel roles steals the film out from under Ms. Waterston's plucky action heroine.

                Mr. Scott and his writers bring some interesting new elements to the story but eventually it comes down to pods, facehuggers, acid blood, and that frisky alien trying get aboard the spaceship. There is quite a bit of exposition (especially early on) that bogs things down but the second half of the film picks up steam with plenty of action (including two great sequences that recall "Aliens") and an ending that may or not come as a surprise but certainly leaves the door open for continuing the series.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2

       The second installment in what is poised to become a franchise,  doesn't disappoint but lacks the magic of the original. When the first film came out in 2014, no one knew what to expect and everyone was surprised with an original take on the superhero film. It was truly a magical movie experience. Now writer/ director James Gunn, having lost that element of surprise, needed to up his ante and over stuffs Vol.2  with more of everything. Bigger battles, bigger bickering, more one-liners, more characters and a strong theme of family running throughout the film.

     The original cast is back (although everyone knows by now, Groot is just a sapling) and new for Vol.2 are Kurt Russell as Ego, Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Elisabeth Debicki as Ayesha, and Sylvester Stallone as the Ravager Stakar. There are an abundance of other surprise cameos, some of whom will probably play bigger roles in the next installment.

              Revolving around the common theme of what it means to be a family (stolen perhaps from the Fast & Furious franchise?), the film centers on the relationship between Peter Quill, Yondu and Ego, Glamora and her sister Nebula, and the makeshift family of the Guardians themselves. Wrapped around the the central theme are highly entertaining chase scenes, shoot outs, narrow escapes, space monsters, a little bit of "off kilter" romance, lots of humor and once again, a killer soundtrack.

               "Guardians" kicks off the summer movie blockbusters in great style. There is so much going on, it's worth repeated viewings. It is also worth noting to stay in your seats until the lights come on as there are plenty of mini-scenes during and after the credits ( including a big tease for the next film).

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Their Finest


      Gemma Arterton stars in this new independent British film. It is a  WWII wartime drama laced with humor about the British Ministry of Information, film division, creating an morale boosting film about the Dunkirk evacuation. Ms. Arterton as Catrin Cole, along with Sam Caflin, as Tom Buckley, play the writers of the film within a film.

       Co-starring are a fine ensemble of British actors including the wonderful and completely charming Bill Nighy, Helen McCrory, Richard E. Grant, Eddie Marsan, Rachael Stirling and Jack Huston.  Jake Lacy also co-stars as an American pilot cast to garner U.S. sympathy for England (the U.S. had entered the war as yet). The scenes where Mr. Nighy tries to coach "acting" to the pilot are priceless.

       The film makes a strong statement for female empowerment and even addresses homosexuality in a  subtle way through one of the female characters.  Filming under constant bombardment by the Germans, and script revisions by the British War Office, are not the ideal conditions to make a movie but the film mixes the drama and suspense with some light hearted humor and it all makes for fine entertainment. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Lost City of Z

             Written and directed by James Gray, this new adventure film is a throwback to Hollywood's golden age. It's based on the true story of explorer, Percy Fawcett, who in the early 1900's made several expeditions to South America in search of a lost civilization. 

             Charlie Hunnam, best known for "Sons of Anarchy" stars as Fawcett and while he may not seem the right choice at first, he grows naturally into the role and is quite believable. The film co-stars Robert Pattinson as fellow explorer, Henry Costin and Sienna Miller as Fawcett's wife Nina. Tom Holland plays his oldest son, Jack, later in the film. Mr. Pattinson is almost unrecognizable under his shaggy beard and he too, is very credible in his role. Ms. Miller refuses to just be the wife left behind and actually has some powerful and moving scenes. She becomes the all important, emotional anchor of the film.

             Credit Amazon Studios, Bleeker Street and Plan B Productions for taking a chance on this film, which, for all it's entertainment value, seems out of place in this age of "blockbusters".  Mr. Gray takes his time telling this true adventure and doesn't rely on CGI and instant audience gratification. The goal here is an attempt at epic storytelling in an organic way. The period costumes, locations and cinematography add an old fashioned depth to a compelling tale when "men were men" and expeditions into the unknown meant glory, fame, and a place in history.