Sunday, December 10, 2017

I, Tonya


Margot Robbie is outstanding as Tonya Harding, the disgraced figure skater, who in 1994 was at the center of an attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan, resulting in a broken knee sidelining Ms. Kerrigan from competition that year.

The film is biographical and is filled with comedic moments  born out of the tragic backstory of Ms. Harding's life.  We first meet Tonya as a three year old dragged to a skating rink by her overbearing and simply horrible mother, LaVona, played by Allison Janney.  The relationships between Tonya and her mother, and later, with her eventual husband Jeff Gillooley, played by Sebastian Stan are at the core of the film. Tonya is painted as a tragic figure who constantly laments "it's not my fault". The film is told from different viewpoints in a documentary style and occasionally breaks the fourth wall when characters speak directly to the audience. 

Tonya's horrific backstory is intercut with some terrific ice skating sequences, much of them done by Ms. Robbie herself (except for a CGI Triple Axel).  And of course, the centerpiece of the film is the planning and execution of the attack on Ms. Kerrigan, much of it conceived by Shawn Eckhardt, Jeff's best friend and Tonya's self proclaimed "bodyguard".  Mr. Eckhardt is played by Paul Walter Hauser, who bears a striking resemblance to the real Mr. Eckhardt, an outrageous character beyond description.

The film also features Julianne Nicholson as Diane Rawlinson, Tonya's coach and in a small role, Bobby Cannavale as an unnamed producer of " Hard Copy".  The film finds much humor in this real life story but you laugh as a response to the ultimately sad tale that was Ms. Harding's life.  An epilogue does explain that things are going better for her now. 

This is a perfectly cast film. Ms. Robbie completely disappears into her role and is bound for multiple award nominations. Mr. Stan has never been better as the dim witted Jeff, and Ms. Janney, as the most monstrous mother ever portrayed on screen, is simply remarkable and a shoe-in for an Academy Award supporting actress nomination.

The Shape of Water

      Co-written and directed by the always imaginative Guillermo del Toro, this new drama is unlike anything you can imagine and is his best since "Pan's Labyrinth". It has an outstanding cast but Sally Hawkins as the mute cleaning woman, Elisa, does her best work ever and is simply amazing.

      An easy description would be science fiction love story but it is so much deeper and richer than that. Elisa works in a government lab somewhere in Baltimore, circa 1962. When she discovers the lab's secret project is an amphibious humanoid creature, she feels a common bond with it and befriends the "asset", as it's called by the military, feeding it eggs and keeping it company whenever she can. The film co-stars Michael Shannon as Colonel Strickland, the head of security and one of the nastiest villains ever to appear on screen. Besides Mr. Shannon, the rest of the cast includes Richard Jenkins as Giles, Elisa's friend and neighbor, Octavia Spencer, as Delilah, Elisa's co-worker and Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Hoffstetler, another scientist studying the creature.

      The creature is not a CGI creation but rather actor Doug Jones, under a ton of excellent makeup. For the emotional core of this film to work, it's important that Elisa interact with a real being and not some digital creation. The film requires a leap of faith but Mr. del Toro's skills make it easy to accept where the story eventually leads. This off beat "Beauty and the Beast" is romantic, suspenseful and even musical. It's remarkable in it's plot, acting, cinematography, and the wonderful direction by Mr. del Toro. It's one of the best films of the year.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Wonder Wheel

          Borrowing heavily from "A Streetcar Named Desire",  Woody Allen's new domestic drama is a starring vehicle for Kate Winslet. The setting is 1950's Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York.

          As he did for Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine", Mr. Allen has created a memorable, tragic character for Ms. Winslet as Ginny, a married waitress in a Coney Island clam bar. It is a wonderful performance in an otherwise mediocre film.

          Jim Belushi co-stars as her husband "Humpty" along with Juno Temple as Humpty's estranged daughter, Carolina, from a previous marriage and Justin Timberlake as the object of desire for both Ginny and Carolina.  While Mr. Belushi and Ms Temple are both well cast and do surprisingly good work, Mr. Timberlake is terribly miscast as an intellectual Coney Island lifeguard who starts an affair with Ginny but later becomes interested in Carolina.

           It's a tangled web that collapses under it's own weight but the saving grace is the powerful performance of Ms. Winslet as a downtrodden woman spiralling out of control. What is remarkable about the film is the fantastic set design by long time Allen collaborator, Santo Loquasto.  The Coney Island of the '50's  is recreated in marvelous detail. A curious experiment for Mr. Allen is the lighting of the film. For the most part the film is awash in bright colors and glowing sunlight but in many scenes the lighting shifts dramatically to purposely underscore the scene. I found it artificial and distracting.

           The only real wonder in "Wonder Wheel" is Kate Winslet.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Mudbound

           Co-written and directed by Dee Rees, this period drama tells the story of two families, one Black and one White in the 1940's Mississippi Delta.  Henry McAllen, played by Jason Clarke buys a farm in the Delta and moves there with his wife, Laura, played by Cary Mulligan, his father, played by Jonathan Banks, and their two daughters. A tenant farmer, Hap Jackson, played by Rob Morgan, his wife Florence, played by Mary J. Blige, and their family also work the same plot of land.

            Henry's younger brother, Jamie is a pilot overseas at the same time Hap's oldest son Ronsel is a  tank sergeant fighting in Germany. Jamie, played by Garrett Hedlund and Ronsel, played by Jason Mitchell return home after the war and bond over surviving the horrors of war. Their friendship, however, remains a secret due to the racial divide that exists at the time.

             It is a fine ensemble cast that provide a depth of human emotion in every scene. The film shows the everyday struggles of life for both families at home while cutting to scenes of Jamie and Ronsel fighting respectively overseas. It is an uncompromising look at the racially charged south at the time as well as the social order of the day.

              Ms. Rees explores the microcosm of the day to day for both families and is at it's best capturing the smallest details, good and bad that cross the social and racial borders of a particular time and place.  I can't say enough about the cast and and the terrific work they do bringing life, in all it's beauty and flaws, to these characters. The film reflects the raw and sometimes brutal honesty of the period, with no easy answers. It is an artistic achievement in storytelling.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

              Denzel Washington outdoes himself in this new drama from  writer/director, Dan Gilroy ("Nightcrawler"). Mr. Gilroy has created a unique and memorable character and Mr. Washington disappears into the role which is unlike anything he has ever done. 

              Mr. Washington enjoys good dialog. He chewed up the scenery with verbal gymnastics in last year's "Fences". With Mr. Gilroy's intelligent and surprising script, he once again gets to show off his verbal skills but this time, the words come out honestly from the depths of the character and not Mr. Washington himself. Mr. Israel, Esq. is a lawyer, who as the film opens, is the man "behind the curtain" of a two man law firm, preferring to do the background work while his partner appears in court. Circumstances force him down a different path which is the central plot of the film.

               Colin Farrell co-stars as the head of another firm and while the film is about lawyers, it is not about "the big case" but rather about the characters themselves, their ethics and belief system that drive them through the legal system and the choices they make navigating that complex world.

               The film is continuously surprising and there are so many quotable lines, I wish had had brought a pad and pen to keep track. The less said about the plot, the better. It's a terrific film and Mr. Washington will surely garner another Oscar nomination.

Justice League


            After the critically panned Batman vs. Superman, DC tries again with it's follow up "Justice League". Using the first film to set up the characters and eventual storyline, director Zack Snyder (and later an uncredited Joss Whedon) tries hard to correct the mistakes of the earlier film. Unfortunately some things cannot be undone.

              Ben Affleck is not a credible Batman. His acting does not help the film at all and Batman is the central character bringing all the other pieces together.  The first part of the film is the recruitment phase where we meet the rest of what will become the Justice League. Aquaman, played by Jason Momoa, is the first of the underwritten characters. For a superhero who is master of the oceans, he spends most of the film literally a fish out of water. Hopefully his proposed solo film will feature character development as its main strength. Then we have Cyborg, played by Ray Fisher. Cyborg is a combination human/robot with angst as his main character description. Flash, played by Ezra Miller, brings the most humor to the film and is enjoyable enough (Marvel still did a better job with Quicksilver showing off his super speed though). And then we come to Wonder Woman, once again played by Gal Gadot. Ms Gadot is the best thing about the film. Her acting, action sequences, and beauty through it all belong in a better film. (Hopefully that film is "Wonder Woman 2").

                Since his name comes up in the opening credits, it's no surprise that Henry Cavill as Superman will eventually be resurrected to help save the day from the horde of CGI monsters led by a CGI villain named Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds). I imagine they are saving the bigger bad guy, Darkseid, for the next installment. Since Superman does return, we have the requisite cameos by Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Diane Lane as Martha Kent. And of course, if Batman is in the movie we need his loyal butler Alfred, played by a droll Jeremy Irons and Commissioner Gordon, played by the always dependable J. K. Simmons.

                 Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon are credited with the screenplay based on a story by Mr. Terrio and Zack Snyder. They try hard to lighten the tone but much of the humor seems forced.  Thankfully they managed to keep the film to a tight two hours and while not up to the successful Marvel formula, it's not a terrible superhero movie. An extended sequence after the credits sets up the next film so expect these characters to be around for a while. Maybe next time, they will even get it right.

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.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Mother!



       As far as allegories go, writer/director Darren Aronofsky takes a risk with the  biggest there is, Creation to Apocalypse and back again as represented by a house in a meadow. The house is occupied by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as an unnamed couple, who may or may not be God and Mother Earth (depending on your own interpretation).

       The entire story takes place inside the house, with a few outside POVs. What starts out seemingly as a domestic drama, soon explodes to biblical proportions. Mr Aronofsky drops plenty of clues throughout the film, some more subtle than others. Ed Harris, Michele Pfeiffer, Brian Gleeson and Domhnall Gleeson co-star as unnamed characters that again, may or may not seem obviously familiar. Kristen Wiig also has a small cameo.

      The film is beautifully shot as Mr. Aronofsky makes wonderful use of light and space. He also infuses it with an interesting combination of humor and dread. It is not a simple entertainment. There is a complexity and intelligence here that has to be appreciated and as a viewer, you will find yourself constantly challenged.

       You may find yourself tempted to walk out early as the film may confound and anger you but there is something about it that is so compelling, it deserves your attention to go the distance. Love it or hate it, you will be talking about it.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Gook


Written and directed by and starring Justin Chon, this new Indie drama examines multiple themes in a racially charged setting.

Mr. Chon sets his story in 1992 during the Rodney King riots in South Central L.A. and aims for a similar tension filled atmosphere as "Detroit" albeit on a much more intimate scale. 

This is the story of two Korean brothers  trying to make ends meet with the shoe store they inherited from their father. One is a hustler named Eli, played by Mr. Chon, trying hard to keep the business going while his older brother, Daniel, (played by David So) secretly longs to be an R&B singer. They share an odd friendship with an eleven year old African-American girl named Kamilla who hangs around the store everyday. Kamilla is played by Simone Baker and she is a revelation.

The microcosm of a growing confrontation centers in this one racially mixed neighborhood between the local African-American and Asian population. Connections between many of the characters are slowly revealed as the story plays out against the riots. 

As a first feature, there are some minor continuity and camera issues but they can be easily overlooked by the raw honesty of the script. Mr. Chon is heavily influenced by early Spike Lee, especially "She's Gotta Have it" with some "Do The Right Thing" thrown in. The influence is not in plot but rather style, as he opts for shooting in black & white, while using an eclectic jazz soundtrack and occasional slow motion to help drive his narrative. It's a strong first feature from a promising young talent.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Patti Cake$

       An Indie underdog story of a young girl in New Jersey with big dreams. Patti is a plus size white girl who aspires to make it big in the world of Rap. She lives at home with an alcoholic mother, whose own dreams were crushed once she got pregnant, and her loving "Nana", who is in failing health.

       Patti is played by Danielle MacDonald and she is just sensational. She is a big girl with a big personality and plenty of talent. You can't help but root for her. Her mother, Barb, is played by Bridget Everett, a regular on the downtown NY performance scene. Ms. Everett is also terrific and gets to showcase her own singing. "Nana" is played by Cathy Moriarty and she is, as is said, a hoot. The film also co-stars Siddharth Dhananjay as Patti's best friend Jheri and Mamoudou Athie as "Basterd", a mysterious outcast Patti befriends.

       Written and directed by Geremy Jasper, the film recalls "8 Mile" with a little "Rocky" thrown in the mix. The underdog story is a cliche but the film has enough originality and winning performances to overlook any flaws. While Mr. Jasper could have shown a little more restraint in the editing room, the film is a winner, anchored by a star turn performance by Ms. MacDonald.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Logan Lucky

       Director Steven Soderbergh ends his "retirement"  with this fun mashup of "Ocean's Eleven" meets "The Dukes of Hazzard". This new comedy is a heist film wrapped around the biggest Nascar race of the year.
  
       The cast all look like they are having a great time despite leaning too heavily on the southern accents. Starring is Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes, Seth MacFarlane, and for some odd reason, "introducing" Daniel Craig. Also co-starring is Hillary Swank as an FBI agent, Dwight Yoakam as a prison warden and as Mr. Tatum's adorable young daughter, Farrah MacKenzie. 

       When Mr. Tatum is fired from his construction job at the Speedway, he enlists his brother Clyde (played by Mr. Driver) to rob the vault under the track. Watching them assemble their crew including their sister, Ms. Keough, Mr. Craig and his two brothers (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid) is half the fun and the actual heist and it's aftermath complete the picture. Mr. Driver and Mr. Craig are both standouts. Seth MacFarlane, playing a pompous British race car owner is a strange character that seems unnecessary but since all the characters are a bit "off" in their own way you just go with it.    
  
        The film has a quirky rhythm and humor that doesn't pretend to be anything more a sweet oddball comedy. Ultimately there is a method to its madness and getting there is quite a bit of fun.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Only Living Boy in New York

   Written by Allan Loeb and directed by Marc Webb, this new film has a New York Indie vibe that we've seen many times.  It is a domestic drama about an upper West Side family that stars Cynthia  Nixon and Pierce Brosnan as the parents of Thomas, a twenty something navigating his way in the world. Thomas is played by new comer, Callum Turner, a very engaging young actor.

    Thomas lives on the lower east side of Manhattan and one day meets his new neighbor, W.F. played by Jeff Bridges. The always dependable Mr. Bridges is in fine form as the mysterious neighbor who integrates himself into Thomas's life. He learns about Mimi, played by Kiersey Clemons, a young woman that Thomas would like as more than just a friend as well as everything else about Thomas.

               The film starts to become interesting once Thomas learns of his father's affair with Johanna, played by Kate Beckinsale. Any interest soon wanes, however, as the stereotypical characters go about their lovelorn business. A twist towards the end is too little too late but does justify everything that's come before.

                  Mr. Loeb script is obviously inspired by the Simon and Garfunkel song as well as Bob Dylan's "Visions of Johanna", both of which are included on the soundtrack. This is typical summer counterprogramming. An adult film in a sea of summer blockbusters and kids films. However, it's pseudo Woody Allen and easily forgettable.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Wind River

From acclaimed writer (and now director) Taylor Sheridan comes this new character driven crime drama.
Jeremy Renner stars as a tracker/hunter working for the US Wildlife Department who discovers a dead body on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Elizabeth Olsen co-stars as the FBI agent called to the case who is unprepared for the brutal weather of Wyoming.

 It's an absorbing drama as the two with the help of the tribal police chief (played by the always dependable, Graham Greene) try to solve the death of a teenage girl that echos the death of Mr. Renner's daughter three years earlier.

The story plays out on the reservation, that even in warmer months is covered in snow with freezing temperatures. Mr. Renner does his finest work since "The Hurt Locker", especially in quieter moments. Ms. Olsen plays the fish out of water role well and eventually finds her footing among the rest of the mostly male cast. The film also co-stars Gil Birmingham and in a small but important cameo, Jon Bernthal. It's an old fashioned murder mystery that lacks much action until a violent confrontation at the end. 

The cinematography of the vistas and mountains is gorgeous. Sweeping cameras convey the icy wind and cold that chill the audience as well as the characters. Wind River reservation is a hard life for the Indians who live there. Living conditions are harsh and it's in a remote part of Wyoming. The story brings this grim reality to the audience. It is a film inspired by real events that drives home its point.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Detroit

       I have sat stunned through Holocaust and slavery films and documentaries that have been emotionally draining and hard to watch and now comes the film experience of "Detroit".  Based on the true story of the Algiers Motel murders during the 1967 riots, this film is packed with scenes that will set your emotions on fire. It is gut wrenching and terribly difficult to sit through (many people left before the end, including my wife) but it is an important piece of history and a story that needs to be told. There is no doubt that the injustice of this film can and does still happen today in America.

      Director Kathryn Bigelow using archival footage and reenactments, stages the centerpiece of the film around the Algiers Motel and the horrific murders that took place there during the days of rioting, set off by a raid at an illegal after hours club. Racial tension in Amercia was already at an all time high in the '60's with riots in many cities. It didn't take much for a simple prank to turn into a bloodbath that Ms. Bigelow's cameras take you front and center into the fear and tension of black and white, civilians and police, and men and women on that fateful night.

      The acting is outstanding. The ensemble includes John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever and John Krasinski. The cast is so good, it feels like watching a documentary. Every moment feels real.  The violence and injustice is brutal. How Ms. Bigelow could keep her cast emotionally together during filming is a testament to her direction. 

      Writer Mark Boal did meticulous research to get the details right, as they were known. Obviously some liberties had to be taken to fill in gaps but this is as real as it gets and while a sucker punch to the gut, it's riveting and filmmaking at its finest.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Atomic Blonde

   Based on the graphic novel, "The Coldest City", this ultraviolent, action thriller stars Charlize Theron as MI6 agent, Lorraine Broughton. Ms. Theron proves once and for all, she can hold her own very well as a action hero, right up there with Jason Bourne or James Bond. Her fight sequences are stunning as well as the car chases, seductions and everything in between.

       The film also features James McAvoy, John Goodman, Eddie Marsan and Toby Jones. Mr. McAvoy plays a gonzo British agent that Ms. Theron must contact in Berlin to help her retrieve a list of agents stolen by the Soviets. Mr. Goodman and Mr. Jones are high level spies debriefing Ms. Theron after her mission, which takes place in flashbacks. Mr. Marsan plays a German agent that holds the key to the missing list. The film takes place on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and it's all cloak and dagger silliness with double and triple crosses everywhere. 

      With an '80 time frame, and taking place in Berlin, it's only natural that the film have a killer '80's Euro pop soundtrack. The songs provide a great backdrop to the action and even add a humorous touch to a film devoid of it. Living up to it's original name, it's a cold hard script filmed in icy blue hues, dark and bloody.

        Director David Leitch has a great eye for the action sequences but the pacing suffers during any kind of lull in the action. It's not a great film by any means but for fans of Ms. Theron and the genre, you won't be disappointed. Make no mistake, this is a star vehicle and Ms. Theron drives like a pro.

Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets

      Based on a French graphic novel, this is the latest film written and directed by Luc Besson, the visionary behind "The Fifth Element".  Continuing along the lines of that visual cult classic, Mr. Besson ups the ante with incredible CGI and visual effects.

      Unfortunately, the script and the acting don't hold up quite as well as the visuals. The plot is unoriginal and the dialog is horrendous. The only thing worse is the acting. I can't imagine why Mr. Besson would think that dark, brooding, actor Dane DeHaan would make a wisecracking, action hero or where he found his cardboard leading lady,  Cara Delevingne. Not only are both actors terribly miscast but they have no chemistry between them either. Further head scratching casting include Ethan Hawke as  some sort of Sci-fi pimp and musician Herbie Hancock as a Defense Minister. Clive Owen also co-stars, probably just for the paycheck and in a very unusual role, singer Rihanna also co-stars as a shape shifting alien named Bubble.

         The cast is all wrong, the story is ridiculous, but man, what great visuals. Unfortunately that's not enough to save this mess. Where's Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich when you need them?

Sunday, July 23, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

            This is strictly for fans of the new prequels to the original 1968 "Planet of the Apes". "War" follows the logical progression of "Rise" and "Dawn" as the apes continue to evolve and be a threat to the surviving humans, who are slowing falling victim to the Simian Flu (becoming mute and losing intelligence). Caesar, the ape leader, has become a tragic Shakespearean character trying to lead his tribe to a promised land of shelter and safety.

           Andy Serkis does the "motion capture" acting as Caesar and it's truly amazing work. The facial expressions and fluidity of motion are just fantastic. Woody Harrelson, is the "Colonel", a crazed military leader obsessed with wiping out the ape population.  Steve Zahn also co-stars as "Bad Ape" who serves as comic relief in an otherwise dour and depressing film. Amiah Miller is the mute human child, who comes to be known as Nova (a link to the original film).

        Aside from the few big action sequences, the film does little to entertain (if you call watching apes get slaughtered, entertainment) and just serves to set up a natural progression that explains how the world of the original film came to exist. Besides the wonderful work of Mr. Serkis, there is to appreciate here. Luckily, the ending doesn't necessarily mean another sequel. 

Dunkirk


   Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, this brilliant new war drama tells the story of Dunkirk from three interlocking perspectives. It's Mr. Nolan's unique vision and remarkable direction that depicts a fresh and original take on this true story of World War II.

     In 1940, British and other allied troops were driven back to the beaches of Dunkirk by German forces. 400,000 troops were stranded waiting for ships that couldn't reach the beach through the shallow water. Strafed and bombed by the German aircraft, the British were easy targets while waiting for help. Mr Nolan divides the picture into three sections, from the land, sea, and air.  The time frame of the film also shifts with the different views and eventually we are watching the same action from all three perspectives.  

     It's an original way to tell the story of the massive evacuation. Mr. Nolan also make a deliberate choice to have little dialog focusing instead on the intensity and immediacy of what is happening to these soldiers.  Each perspective is seen through the eyes of particular characters. Tom Hardy is a British pilot already in the air hunting the German planes. Mark Rylance is a civilian sailor enlisted by the Navy to use his boat and many like him to sail across the Channel to help rescue the stranded soldiers. and Fionn Whitehead is the British soldier (with the most screen time) on the beach doing his best to survive and get home. Another deliberate decision by Mr. Nolan to use an unknown actor to represent "everyman", that forces the audience to focus on the character and the action around him, rather than the actor himself.
There are other recognizable actors in the film, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh,and Harry Styles (in his acting debut) but the real star is the film itself.  

                 With the help of a fantastic score that piles on the intensity, the suspense never lets up from the opening moments throughout the entire film. The running time is efficiently just under two hours with no wasted moments. Shot in 70mm, the cinematography is brilliant and the film deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible as Nr. Nolan's camera takes in everything, from every angle. Authentic boats and ships (many original ones) help recreate the story. Hundreds of extras and stunt people keep the film grounded in reality. The film is a lock for a Best Picture and Best Director nominations  and probably many more.  It reinforces the brilliance of Christopher Nolan as one of our greatest contemporary filmmakers. Don't miss it.