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.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Spiderman: Homecoming


     Yet another reboot that strives to return the iconic character  to his "friendly neighborhood" Spiderman years and make us forget everything that has come before it. Peter Parker, aka Spiderman is once again a teenager in Queens but attempting to mix him into the continuity of the current Marvel universe still plays fast and loose with his actual origins.  

      This is an attempt at a lighter, more fun Spiderman film and for the average fan, it's certainly enjoyable enough. However, a true Spiderman fan (like myself) will miss the gravitas and "dark cloud" that always seems to follow our hero. It's part of his makeup to be a loner and every victory comes with a price. Now, he has a comic "sidekick", more people than I could count know his secret identity, Aunt May is a hot younger woman (played by Marisa Tomei), he no longer lives in a house but rather an apartment, Mary Jane (MJ) is now a odd girl named Michelle and Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, nearly steals the film every time he is on screen. 

                   Tom Holland stars as Spiderman and he is a very engaging young actor. He captures the goofiness and awkwardness of Peter Parker's teenage years beautifully. Michael Keaton is the major villain, The Vulture, with a major upgrade from the comics. He seems to be the only actor taking his role seriously (but still having fun). Bokeem Woodbine and Logan Marshall-Green both play versions of another iconic Spidey villain, "The Shocker" sans the costume. Jon Favreau is once again, Happy Hogan (from the Iron Man films) with an even bigger role here. Chris Evans, as Captain America has two quick cameos and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts has the quickest cameo in history. The film also goes to great lengths to cast multi-racial actors in supporting roles in an obvious effort to reach a wider audience. I applaud this effort and the actors that play the parts but again, it messes with the original characters.

                    I did enjoy the sly nods to original Spiderman moments (many "easter eggs" here) and the three central action sequences are all well done and exciting. Overall though, I felt like I was watching a PG version of an alternate universe where Spiderman meets "Archie". There are over 50 years of Spiderman stories to tell, yet screenwriters still can't get seem to get it right. I'm sure that today's target audience will still make millions for "Homecoming".  While we are promised that "Spiderman will return", the trailers for "The Inhumans" and "Black Panther" filled me with much more anticipation and excitement. And by the way, the famous "after credit" scenes Marvel always adds, this time out, insults the audience and is not worth waiting for.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Lost in Paris

              This new independent film is a charmer from the husband and wife team of Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon. Together they have written, directed and star in the film which is a quirky romantic comedy.  

               Fiona, a Canadian librarian, gets a letter from Paris, asking for help from her Aunt Martha. She arrives in Paris and immediately things go wrong.  She finds herself unexpectedly involved with a homeless man played by Mr. Abel. Together they set out to find Fiona's missing Aunt Martha. Both stars are adept at physical comedy and give you many reasons to laugh throughout the film. There are also tender moments that come when you least expect it.

               The great French comedic actor, Pierre Richard has a wonderful cameo with Aunt Martha, played by Emmanuelle Riva. The film also plays tribute to the film, "Amelie" as many singular events, eventually thread together to the overall story. The setting is one particular area of Paris but it still represents the beauty of the city.

                 The film is in English and French (with subtitles) and while I expected it to be funnier, it was still charming, humorous and enjoyable.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Baby Driver

           Sometimes, you just want an escapist, fun time at the movies.  "Baby Driver" fits the bill perfectly. Stylish, exciting, with an original concept wrapped around a common movie plot, the film fires on all cylinders.

             The film stars Ansel Elgort as "Baby". He may be a fresh face as the star but he will easily be remembered after this debut. As a getaway driver for a gang of thieves, Mr. Elgort will appeal to everyone with a winning personality and plenty of style.  The gang leader is played by Kevin Spacey, obviously having a good time as the mastermind behind a string of robberies. The rest of the "bad guys" are played by Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, Eiza Gonzalez, Lanny Joon and Flea. Baby's love interest is played by Lily James and his mother (in flashbacks) is played by Sky Ferreira.

               Written and directed by Edgar Wright, the high concept of the film is twofold. All the car stunts are done old school with no CGI and the killer soundtrack is woven directly into the story, so much so that it perfectly choreographs the action. Baby has a permanent form of Tinnitus and uses music to drown out the constant ringing in his ears so everything he hears becomes the soundtrack for the audience. It's original and very clever. Juxtaposed to the great soundtrack are scenes of absolute silence whenever Baby communicates with his deaf, foster father (played by CJ Jones). 

                 This is a film that works so well audibly and visually  that is should be seen in a theater. It's a terrific summer "popcorn" movie.

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.  

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.