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.  

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Zookeeper's Wife


       Jessica Chastain stars in this true story of courage and compassion during World War II.  Ms. Chastain plays Antonina Zabinski, who along with her husband, Jan ( Johan Heldenbergh) run the Warsaw Zoo. When the Germans invade and create the Warsaw Ghetto, the Zabinski's help hundreds of Jews hide and escape from the Nazi's.

       The early scenes of the bombing of Warsaw, including the zoo, are horrific. Most of the animals are either killed instantly or shot later roaming the streets free from their destroyed cages. The Zabinskis turn what's left of the zoo into a pig farm to supply food for the German army, while secretly transporting and hiding Jews from the Ghetto. 

         Daniel Bruhl plays, Dr. Lutz Heck, a Zoologist from Berlin who is overseeing things in Warsaw. There is a growing sexual tension between him and Antonina. She is eventually repulsed by Heck but continues to feign a flirtatious friendship with him, for self survival and the safety of her "guests". Ms. Chastain dominates the film with another powerful performance continuing to expand the range of her talent.

         There is a sadness that permeates over the whole film even though it is an heroic story. And while it ends on a hopeful and positive note, it serves as a reminder that similar atrocities still exist in the world today and we need to appreciate people like Antonina and Jan Zabinski more than ever.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Life

     A complete ripoff of "Alien", which of course was a blatant ripoff of "It! The Terror From Beyond Space" (1958). How many times will an audience be sucked into watching a alien monster pick off crew members one by one trapped in their spaceship? Often enough I guess, especially if the film stars audience bait like Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal.

      The rest of the crew is filled out by Rebecca Ferguson,  Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, and Olga Dihovichnaya.  Everyone plays their part well and the film literally becomes a guessing game about who will be the last to survive as the ridiculous looking alien (it reminded me of the octopus in "Finding Dory") starts picking them off.

       There is a great attention to detail on the space visuals (everyone floats weightless around the ship) but more attention should have been paid to the script. The film, while suspenseful at times, never really scares and one twist in the story does not make for a rewarding experience.

        Sorry but "Life" is dead on arrival (you saw that coming). Bring on "Alien: Covenant".

Beauty & The Beast

        The Disney machine rolls on with this new live action (for the most part) version of the classic fairy tale. The film is a visual treat and is great family entertainment. Director Bill Condon certainly has a flair for musicals having directed "Dreamgirls" and "Chicago" and he brings a Broadway sensibility to this film as well (Although nothing can match the magical stage adaptation of this story).

         Emma Watson stars as Belle and she is a delight.  Dan Stevens also stars as The Beast, and while not that scary, (his roar is not quite that convincing) he still manages to do a good job winning our sympathy. Kevin Kline plays Belle's father who sets the story in motion. And, as the narcissistic Gaston, Luke Evans fits the bill nicely. Rounding out the human cast is Josh Gad as LeFou as Gaston's best friend and comic relief.

          The enchanted members of the Beast's castle are voiced by Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, the candlestick, Ian McKellan as Cogsworth, the clock, Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza, Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as  Plumette, Nathan Mack as Chip, the cracked cup and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, the tea kettle. They all do fine vocal work and surprisingly decent singing.

           The scene in the woods with the wolves remains a bit too scary for very young kids but everything else about the film is a delight from start to finish.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

T2: Trainspotting

Director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge reunite the original cast and return to familiar territory 20 years later in this sequel to "Trainspotting". If you are a fan of the original, then of course, your interest is piqued as to what our quartet of junkies and losers have been up to two decades later.

Returning are Ewan McGregor  as Mark Renton, Johnny Lee Miller as "Sick Boy", now known as Simon, Ewen Bremner as Spud, and Robert Carlyle as Begbie. When the film starts, all four still have troubles of their own but soon are drawn in to thoughts of revenge and common schemes. Also back but underused are Kelly McDonald and Shirley Henderson. The story is focused on the "lads" and all four actors wear their old roles like familiar skin slipping easily back into character. The boys are back, all older but not all wiser.

Its fun to be reacquainted with these characters and director Danny Boyle interacts scenes from the original film to neatly tie the story together. Using various camera techniques and once again, a great soundtrack, "T2" moves with the same kinetic energy as the original.

Watching the original again or for the first time will make seeing the sequel a much more enjoyable experience. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Get Out

    A comedy/horror film from writer/director Jordan Peele is a contemporary racial twist on the classic film, "The Stepford Wives".

       When Black photographer Will (played by Daniel Kaluuya) goes on a weekend visit to meet the parents of his white girlfriend, Rose (played by Allison Williams), things take a very disturbing turn for the worse. Rose's parents are played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener. He is a neurosurgeon and she is a psychiatrist. They welcome Will with open arms but as the weekend progresses, all is not what it seems.

       Mr. Kaluuya is a very engaging young actor and fun to watch. His best friend, Rod, is played by Lil Rey Howery and he is very funny comic relief. Ms Williams, as Rose is a departure from her character on Girls and it's good to see her stretch a bit.

          There is an underlying racial tension throughout the film that comes to a head in an unexpected way. Without revealing details, Mr. Peele's social commentary is fairly obvious and presented in a satirical fashion that takes a very sharp turn in the last act of the film.

           Having finally seen it, the big controversial buzz about this film seems really unwarranted. It's clever and has it's twists but it has it's flaws as well.

Kong: Skull Island

                 After a run of serious foreign films for this critic, it was a nice change of pace to check my brain at the door and settle in for a good old fashioned monster movie adventure. Although there is nothing really old fashioned about the excellent special effects of this new version of the Kong legend.

                 The film stars a well known cast of Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, John C, Reilly and Shea Whigham. However, just about all the characters are completely superficial and exist to either end up victims or survivors. Ms. Larson's character is the "plucky" female hero that gets her closeup with Kong. Tom Hiddleston is the good looking solder of fortune hired as a tracker by scientist John Goodman. He agrees to join the expedition for lots of money. I'm sure that's the same reason he agreed to do the film. John C. Reilly's character provides the welcome comic relief.

            And of course there is Samuel L. Jackson. He is the crazier by the minute, Army Lieutenant Colonel leading his soldiers into a battle they can't win. We are treated to another great Samuel L. Jackson movie quote though, when another character says we need to wait for the cavalry, Mr. Jackson's reply is "I am the Calvary".

            This is a monster movie version of "Apocalypse Now". The story takes place at the end of the Vietnam war and the script seems to be making a very loose allegory about war but it never really gets there, instead opting to descend into monster mayhem.  And that is where the film does excel. The real stars are the special effects team and cinematographer, Larry Fong. The film looks great. The location is beautiful and Kong is magnificent in his raw power and fury. The various monsters are fun but far and few between. The climatic battle though, between Kong and the giant "skull crawler" is just terrific.

             For those who care, stick around for a brief scene, after the credits, setting up the inevitable sequel.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Logan

       Story and directed by James Mangold,  this is the final installment of Wolverine, as played by Hugh Jackman (according to Jackman) and it is spectacular.

        Mr. Jackman wears the claws for the 10th time as Wolverine/Logan but he is an older more vulnerable mutant. The script turns the superhero genre on it's head. This is by no means a typical "superhero" movie. It is an action drama in the mold of a '70's Clint Eastwood film.  It takes itself and it's characters very seriously and keeps the special effects to a minimum, only when necessary.

        Mr. Jackman deserves an Oscar nomination for this film but his performance will most surely be overlooked and forgotten by year's end.  He is simply fantastic alternating between his raw mutant ability and strength to a more human and vulnerable side. It is a wonderful send off to a beloved character. 

        Patrick Stewart reprises his role as Charles Xavier, also known as Professor X, and his chemistry with Mr. Jackman is perfection. Their interplay is both fun and heartbreaking. The film also co-stars Stephen Merchant as the mutant Caliban, Richard E. Grant as Zander Rice, Boyd Holbrook as a villainous Donald Pierce, Eriq La Salle as Will Munson and the sensational Dafne Keen as the mutant child, Laura. Ms. Keen steals the film right out from under Mr. Jackman. Laura is central to the story and Ms. Keen is a natural in a physically demanding role with little dialog.

        The story has a mature quality of depth and emotion but plenty of adrenaline filled action sequences, quite visceral in nature, to satisfy the fans. There is no "extra" scene after the credits as in other Marvel films but come early for an unexpected surprise.

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.