Friday, November 17, 2017

Last Flag Flying

 The latest film from director Richard Linklater (who also cowrote the screenplay) is a meditation on friendship, loss, and patriotism. It is a very loose sequel of sorts to "The Last Detail" with both films taken from their respective source novels by Darryl Ponicsan.

The film stars Steve Carell as Larry "Doc" Shepard, a Vietnam Vet who is on his way to recover the body of his son who was killed in Iraq. He enlists the aid of his old Marine buddies, Sal, played by Bryan Cranston and Mueller, played by Laurence Fishburne. While they haven't seen each other in years, the three quickly reunite and Sal and Mueller agree to accompany Doc to help bury his son.

This is a heavy drama but the character of Sal acts as the comic relief and Mr. Cranston is just terrific as the foul mouthed, unfiltered Vet who refuses to back down from anything. Mr. Carrell plays against type and is stoic in his grief and pain throughout the film. And of course, Mr. Fishburne is a towering presence as the now, man of God who holds the trio together on their unlikely road trip. 

Mr. Linklater's script does starts to grow weary as repetition creeps in. It could have benefitted from tighter editing but the final act is so beautifully conceived and executed, any excess baggage is forgiven. This is truly a power trio of actors in a thought provoking, heartbreaking story, filled with sadness and unexpected humor.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

       I must confess to be a huge fan of Martin McDonagh. Whether it's his plays or his movies, his dark comedies and tragic characters have always affected  me in many ways. This new film, written and directed by Mr. McDonagh may be his best work yet. To call it a dark comedy is an understatement.  It is a serious drama filled with dark comedic moments designed to either break the tension or make it worse. It is politically incorrect, filled with unexpected violence, and most certainly not for everyone.

     Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother who has lost her daughter to an act of horrific violence and her murder remains unsolved. Woody Harrelson is Police Chief Willoughby, the target of her pain and grief. Sam Rockwell, is deputy Dixon, a racist screwup that Willoughby is convinced has some redeeming qualities. Ms. McDormand is ferocious and wears her pain in every facial movement and gesture. Mr. Rockwell's character is so easy to hate and yet he carefully conveys a potential for redemption that you end up rooting for him. And Mr. Harrelson brings a quiet strength filled with a overwhelming sadness to a role like nothing he has played before.

    Co-starring are John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, and Caleb Landry Jones. It is a great cast all doing fine work but the film is fueled by its three leads and they are just remarkable. Emotions run deep in this town as the unsolved murder of Mildred's daughter haunts everyone in different ways. The film cuts deep exploring all their anger and pain. But it's Mildred's pain that cuts the deepest.

     Mr. McDonagh's great script is filled with surprising dialog that will, at times, have you squirming in your seat for laughing during the most inappropriate moments. And his "no holds barred" direction takes chances that work. There is no justice if the film doesn't garner multiple award nominations.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

          The third film in the Marvel Comics Thor trilogy is by far the best in the series.  It takes the gravitas of the others seriously enough but infuses it with so much humor, the tone is lighter and more akin to the "Guardians" films set in the same Marvel universe.

             Chris Hemsworth is back as Thor and he seems to be enjoying himself almost way too much. Also returning are Tom Hiddleston as his brother Loki, Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Idris Elba as Heimdall, guardian of the Rainbow Bridge, and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk. The villain of the story is Hela, Goddess of death played by Cate Blanchett, also having a ball and possibly having the most fun of all is Jeff Goldblum as The Grandmaster, ruler of a planet where Thor is forced into fighting The Hulk. Additionally, Tessa Thompson is Valkyrie and Karl Urban as Skurge. The les said about their characters, the better. There are also some fun surprise cameos.

               The film is big, bold, exciting and very funny. Directed by Taika Waititi, what we see on screen is the closest thing to reading an issue of the Thor comic. The look and feel of the production captures that world perfectly. The tone may be lighter and more humorous than the comics but that only helps make it more enjoyable. The action sequences are loud and violent but it's all comic book violence. Unlike the Avengers films set on earth in a more realistic way, this film takes us to other worlds that make it easier to accept the collateral damage and mayhem brought on by it's characters. 

               Since it's a Marvel brand, of course look for two short clips during the credits that both act as a tease for "The Avengers: Infinity War", coming next year and a comedic coda to this film.

Lady Bird

        Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, this coming of age dramedy is a terrific first time project for the actress. While we've seen the basic plot hundreds of time, there is something so vividly original and refreshing about the film that it's easy to succumb to it's charms.

         The film stars Saoirse Ronan as "Lady Bird", am eighteen year high school senior in Sacramento California who dreams of a better life upon graduation. Ms. Ronan continues to impress with every film. She has a wonderful chameleon like quality to disappear into every role and illuminate the screen with confidence and natural ease. Her family dynamic is beautifully written with fully formed characters played by wonderful actors. Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts  play her parents and the mother/daughter relationship is the center of the film.  The chemistry between Ms. Ronan and Ms. Metcalf is fantastic.

           Co-starring are Beanie Feldstein as Julie, Ladybird's best friend, Stephen McKinley Henderson as a priest directing the school play, Lois Smith as the kind but stern head nun of the high school, and Lucas Hedges as Lady Bird's first crush. It's a wonderful cast who bring these characters to life. 

             The story, at once familiar and yet original as well, takes unexpected twists and turns but stays on a course you will want to follow. Ms. Gerwig, already so good in front of the camera, has found a new home behind it and I look forward to seeing more from her in the future.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Florida Project

Directed and co-written by Sean Baker, this new drama could be called docu-fiction. It's a scripted film about real people starring many non-actors living in a cheap motel along a strip just outside Disney World. Filmed at the real "Magic Castle" motel, the film centers on Moonee, a precocious six year old living with her young, single mom, Halley. Moonee, play by first time actor, Brooklynn Kimberley Prince spends her days playing with her best friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) among the motels and seedy gift shops on the outskirts of the Magic Kingdom. They get into their share of trouble but are usually bailed out by the tough but kind hearted motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe) .

Mr. Dafoe and Caleb Landry Jones (who plays his son Jack) are the only"real" actors in the film. Moonee's mom Halley is played by Bria Vinitre, also in her first role. Mr. Baker takes us inside the world of a pocket of society, poor and living on the fringe, just trying to survive one day at a time. In many ways, the film feels like an urban version of "Beasts of The Southern Wild", another film starring a six year girl living in poverty in the Louisiana Bayou.

Ms. Prince is just terrific, wise beyond her years, filling her role with wonderful one-liners. She leads her band of motel kids like a modern version of "Our Gang" with Moonee the new "Spanky". Ms. Vinitre is raw and wild but underneath, a loving and caring mother. Mr. Dafoe gives one of his best performances as just a nice "normal" guy who does his best to keep things together at the motel, for himself and his residents.

The film is anchored by Ms. Prince's wonderful performance that is a delight to watch but also heartbreaking as it shines a light on an population living on the poverty line in America that is far too real. The irony of the final moments is not lost on the audience.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

           It takes a lot of guts to attempt a sequel to the original "Blade Runner". Director Denis Villeneuve takes his best shot and creates a gorgeous feast for the eyes and ears, but ultimately is too in love with his own filmmaking and the finished product is a pretentious, overblown, and boring letdown.  

            The film runs almost three hours due for the most part for dialog spoken in slow motion with pregnant pauses before and during every conversation. Also, endless shots of the futuristic landscape, while amazing, lose their "wow" factor as the film goes on. The film stars Ryan Gosling as Detective K, a "Blade Runner" hunting older rogue replicant models. Mr.  Gosling is well cast for his character but acts like he's slogging through quicksand. 

             The other big draw here is Harrison Ford, reprising his original role as Rick Deckard, however, he doesn't enter the film until the second half. Thankfully he does eventually show up as he injects a energy into both his co-star and the film that both were sorely lacking. The film also co-stars Ana de Armas as "Joi", a very unique character, Sylvia Hoeks as "Luv" (Ms. Hoeks has a great future ahead as a Bond villain), Robin Wright as K's boss, and Jared Leto as the head of the Wallace Corporation, the company creating replicants.

             From a basic plot perspective, there's nothing new here. Take one weary detective, have him assigned by his "tough as nails" boss  to find a missing person and throw in an evil corporation with a nasty henchman (or in this case henchwoman) to block his way. Mr. Villeneuve and his writers dress it up in self important Sci-fi pretension and pass it off as a masterful work of art. As with his last film "Arrival" (which I thought was highly overrated), this film is far from a science fiction masterpiece although in a visual sense, it is breathtaking. Credit Mr. Villeneuve and his team for creating a brilliant landscape for his actors.

            As with the original film, there are a few good twists crucial to the plot and fans will appreciate some welcome cameos. Having the unexpected opportunity to view it both in IMAX and in 3-D (don't ask), I can say with confidence, avoid the horrific 3-D at all costs. The IMAX is far superior in look and sound although bring earplugs because it is LOUD.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

American Made

     Directed by Doug Liman, with his usual kinetic flourish, this "based on a true story" crime drama stars Tom Cruise in a very un-Tom Cruise like role. Mr. Cruise plays Barry Seal, a former TWA pilot, who in the late '70's and '80's became a drug smuggler for the Columbian Cartel as well as a double agent for the CIA and DEA.

      Mr. Seal's story is so colorful and crazy, it's a wonder it took this long to end up on screen. Mr. Cruise actually makes a solid effort to disappear into the role, which for an actor of his stature, is not easy to do. The story itself is a great secret history lesson during the Ronald Reagan presidency. The drug wars in Central America, the Sandinistas and Contras, Pablo Escobar and General Noriega are all central to the plot. 

        It really is an amazing story and Mr. Cruise is a perfect choice to play Barry. The look and feel of the film is designed beautifully to represent the period (even from the opening credits) and Mr. Cruise's winning smile is the best special effect in the film.  The man to count on to get the job done, he is constantly flashing that smile as he tries to satisfy many masters but mostly himself.  His co-stars include Domhnall Gleason as Barry's CIA recruiter and handler and Sarah Wright as Barry's wife, Lucy.

        The film does run a bit too long with excessive scenes of planes flying back and forth from the US to Central Amercia but it's refreshing to watch Mr. Cruise play a real character in a film with a real story and not just a Hollywood cardboard "blockbuster". And what a crazy story it is....

Monday, October 02, 2017

Battle of The Sexes

         Based on the true story of the highly publicized 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, the film only really comes to life in the second half. Brilliant casting and terrific subject matter gets weighed down in the first hour, concentrating far too much on Billie Jean King's sexual awakening and not enough on the tennis match of the title.  Misleading in the previews, rather than just a dramedy of the events, the first hour seems solely focused on Ms. King's conflict over her sexual identity.

         To be fair, the film does divide its time between Ms. King's  growing relationship with Marilyn Barnett, her hairdresser and eventual lover and Mr. Riggs midlife crisis. Unfortunately the divide is uneven. As Ms. King, Emma Stone is absolutely wonderful but the first half is rather dull except for the scenes with Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs. Mr. Carell injects a welcome energy whenever he is on screen and when the film finally gets around to the actual tennis match, it is fun and exciting to watch.

             While Mr. Riggs may come off as a buffoon in the film, Mr. Carell beautifully balances the cartoonish behavior with an underlying sadness . Just watch his face as he realizes the publicity stunt he has created has turned into serious business. Ms. Stone captures the essence of Ms. King on and off the court in a very layered performance. The rest of the cast is excellent as well. Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman, the women's tennis promoter and founder of Tennis World magazine disappears into her role and Andrea Riseborough as Marilyn Barnett is equally good.  The film also features Bill Pullman as Jack Kramer, Alan Cumming as Ted Tinling, Kin's fashion designer, and Elisabeth Shue as Priscilla Wheelan, Mr. Rigg's wife.

              The writing and direction could definitely been crisper but the film is ultimately entertaining and representative of the period both in it's views of women and the still hidden fear of open homosexuality in sports and life in general.