Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Immigrant

James Gray's beautiful and mesmerizing film The Immigrant features two Oscar-caliber performances in a powerful story of one Eastern European woman's struggles after coming to America. Marion Cotillard is Ewa a Polish nurse and seamstress who arrives at Ellis Island with her sister Magda but through the connivance of a charming stranger, a superlative Joaquin Phoenix, she is quickly separated from her sister and swept up in the man's world of speakeasies and brothels. Both actors, personal favorites of mine, deliver stellar performance in roles that are not showy but brimming with intelligence and control. An early scene in which Phoenix's Bruno upbraids Ewa for resisting his advances is so wonderfully written (Gray and Ric Menello) and acted that it resonates throughout the film. In three or four minutes we understand Bruno's perfidy and Ewa's entrapment. It's frightening and heartbreaking and splendid. The film is shot mostly in sepia and muted grays, which makes Ewa's donning of the harlot's crimson lipstick all the more stunning and tragic. Gray, who has worked with Phoenix on a number of other films (The Yards, We Own the Night), has crafted an important tale of the desperation and hope that drive many to our shores or across our borders. Cotillard's Ewa is an emblem. She accepts what she must do to finally obtain American freedom that she and her sister traveled so far for. As she tells her aunt in one of the film's most riveting scenes, she has done sinful things but she had to survive. And in that realization and acceptance is the film's message. Some of the wretched refuse yearning to be free did -- and do -- unspeakable things to get here and stay here. The cast also includes Jeremy Renner as Bruno's cousin, Orlando the magician, who falls for Ewa which sets him on collision course with his cousin. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

22 Jump Street

It is to be presumed that the audience for Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's 22 Jump Street skews young even though the film's cleverness would resonate most with folks who remember those simmering buddy police television series from the '70s like Adam 12 and The Rookies. In those series, the female characters, while not totally ancillary, were decidedly second-tier. The True Romance was between these women's boyfriends and spouses and their partners in the squad car. 22 Jump Street, and its predecessor 21 Jump Street, parody the '80s series by pushing the entire genre over a cliff to hilarious effect. Jonah Hill (Schmidt, the smart, fat one) and Channing Tatum (Jenko, the dumb, pretty one) reprise their roles as improbable cops in some fictitious California city who go undercover in a high school in the 2012 film and a college in this one to stamp out the narcotic trade that's preying on the community's youths. Hill and Tatum have enormous chemistry and their juvenile co-dependency makes for some of the sharpest observations about relationships this highly observant film has to offer. Ice Cube plays their commanding office, Capt. Dickson, whose part consists almost entirely of blasting everyone within earshot with profanity and threats. Much like that other summer release Neighbors, 22 Jump Street overflows with sexual references and hints of homoeroticism that fans of this genre (I don't know the name but it's leading perpetrators are Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen and their crew) have come to expect, if not demand. Highly recommended but not for youngsters.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Dean DeBlois's sequel to the popular How to Train Your Dragon (2010)  is a high-flying and high-minded animated adventure that picks up the story of Hiccup, the intrepid young Viking dragon-tamer voiced by Jay Beruchel, and assorted Nordic folks of his island village Berk after they've made peace with the once-feared but now petted beasties of the title.I quite liked the mix of whimsy and dread in the first film, and was thrilled to see the sequel (a third is planned for 2016) expands this magical world beyond the delightfully intricate backdrop of the village to explore new astoundingly beautiful territories. (The aerial scene that opens this thoroughly entertaining film is breathtaking. Do see it in 3D.) When the film opens, Hiccup, an aeronautical genius and son of the village chief, Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler), is on a mission with his loyal dragon companion Toothless, a rare Night Fury, to make all of the dragons friends of man (and vice versa) but on one of his excursions he is confronted by a crew of wranglers in the employ of one of the ruthless villain Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who means to rule the world with a dragon army. When told of Drago's plot, Stoick decides to protect his own and put Berk under lockdown, but  Hiccup and girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) slip out to try to change Drago's mind. While they are out Astrid is captured by the wranglers and Hiccup is intercepted by a kindred spirit and therein lies the heart of this surprising and touching film. Highly recommended though it contains frightening scenes of destruction and the death of major character and so might be too much for the little ones.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

In the 44 years since that bestseller turned movie Love Story made diseased young love a popular culture commodity, writers and filmmakers have dispensed with dramatic buildup and have been introducing audiences to characters and their maladies almost immediately. Once TB (or consumption) was reserved for the Third Act, sweeping in to usher one character or other into the wings. But no longer. That writers and directors no long wait has made leukemia or lymphoma or senility or HIV a character in the given story, the villain at whom we boo and hiss. Josh Boone's film adaptation of John Green's teen tale of love in the age of cancer stars Shailene Woodley (The Descendants, The Spectacular Now) and Ansel Elgort (Divergent) as young people living with cancer who meet in support group and fall in love despite Hazel's failing lungs and world-weariness. Elgort's Gus is a ray of single-amputee sunshine whose outlook is blisteringly optimistic. Hazel is soon walking toward the light. The story's centerpiece is a trip that takes Hazel, Gus and Hazel's mom (a luminous Laura Dern) to visit Hazel's favorite novelist (Willem Dafoe), a recluse living in Amsterdam, so that she and Gus, who one suspects loves the man's enigmatic book because Gus loves the girl, might experience some closure. Woodley, a fine young actress who is becoming an old pro at playing distressed teens, carries this solid picture, which is hobbled just a bit by Elgort's odd two-dimensionality. It's not so much that he's bad, because he's quite good. It's more the case that he's danseur noble to Woodley's prima ballerina, which is an interesting dynamic to watch particularly during the Third Act. Because Woodley is so good, Elgort's Gus seems under-modulated or fuzzy. Still, it's a solid picture, for those who like their teen angst served raw. Recommended but it's a real weepy woo-woo.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

Doug Liman's contribution to the original Bourne Trilogy, The Bourne Identity, was the only one of the three that kept a sense of humor amidst the explosions, flying fists and vehicle chases. Liman's latest film, Edge of Tomorrow, displays his penchant for spicing his war with wit. Tom Cruise stars as Major Cage, an Army public information officer who has been managing promotions for the global campaign against alien hordes of whirling biomechanical demons that have taken over Europe. Emily Blunt plays Sgt. Vrataski, the poster girl for the resistance. She is also called the Angel of Verdun because she led a seemingly successful battle against the alien invaders in France. When Cage refuses to suit up and actually join the fight he has been spinning, he is busted down to a private and impressed into the ranks of a unit that will be taking a beachhead the next morning. Unwilling and untrained, Cage is soon killed, along with everyone else, after landing. He is drenched in the blood of the time-shifting aliens and finds himself living the day of the attack over and over once he is killed. During one of the early iterations of this horror, he encounters Vrataski who becomes his cohort and teacher because she had met a similar fate earlier but had since lost the ability to "reset" the day. Her coaching of Cage through his agonizing training are some of the film's funniest moments. The ever-dependable Bill Paxton (Aliens, Big Love) and Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges) deliver finely accented performances as a no-nonsense master sergeant and the general officer in charge of the doomed invasion. Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


The enchantment in Amma Asante's Belle is in the title character's face. Asante trains her camera on Gugu Mbatha-Raw's eyes, which signal brilliantly flattery and fear, intimidation and indignation, rage and romance -- the range of emotions she goes through as the illegitimate, biracial daughter of a British naval officer in 18th century England who is left in the care of the officer's aristocratic uncle and aunt. The child, Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, but called Dido (not Belle, as the title would suggest), is reared in splendor but relegated to a station lower than the other residents of the estate where she lives -- her loving cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), her spinster aunt Mary (Penelope Alice Wilton) and the Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson). Screenwriter Misan Sagay has crafted parallel story lines based on the true story of Lady Lindsay. One involves the intrigues surrounding Lady Elizabeth's debut in London society as the impoverished though cultured and cherished niece of the Mansfields. The other concerns a case that Lord Mansfield will be ruling on as Lord Chief Justice that involves the suspicious drowning of slaves by a ship's captain. The young and fiery son of a local minister comes to clerk for Mansfield and falls captive to Dido's beauty and she to his passionate resolution to end slavery. The young squire, Daviner, is played by Sam Reid, whom I recently saw in another fine British film, The Railway Man. The chemistry between Dido and the ardent Davinier is undeniable and their courtship is handled with grace. It's a splendid film, sensitively pitched, and uses human servitude to explore questions of identity, honor and justice, writ large and small. Highly recommended.

Queen & Slim

In the soon to be iconic photograph from Melina Matsoukas's distressing Queen & Slim, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith...