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.

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.