Sunday, December 31, 2017

Golden Globes I

I've seen all of the Golden Globe nominated pictures except Call Me By Your Name and I, Tonya but will hazard a guess at winners in best pictures because neither of those directors was nominated. Best Picture Drama nominees are Call Me By Your Name, Dunkirk, The Post, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Last year's winner was Moonlight, a much loved and admired film about a gay man's journey of self-discovery. I get the sense that despite what reviewers describe as a sensitive and provocative narrative and outstanding performances by its two leads, Call Me By Your Name hits the same notes as Moonlight and so might be eliminated for that reason.
Dunkirk strikes me as the kind of big scale / big message / big risk picture that often receives awards for its daring. Director Christopher Nolan, who is greatly admired as an auteur, was nominated for best director. It's a large ensemble drama that experiments with point of view and time and though it featured several notable performances not one was nominated. Also it was released early in the year and may have been forgotten.
Steven Spielberg's The Post is an entertaining picture but in no way is as strong as his reputation and that of his cast would project. Meryl Streep, though quite good, did not have to stretch for this performance; it's well within her range. The same is true for Tom Hanks, who along with Streep has been nominated and whose Ben Bradlee is actually more of a supporting role to Streep's Katharine Graham. I feel their nominations were more by default than merit.
Guillermo Del Toro's The Shape of Water is a beautiful picture with many elements Del Toro's fans have come to expect -- bold visuals, sentiment and magic. That Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins, not exactly Hollywood A-listers but outstanding character actors nonetheless, have been nominated along with Del Toro suggests the Hollywood Foreign Press sees the movie as a thoroughgoing work with committed performances in front of and behind the camera.
In 2008, the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men was denied the Best Picture and Best Director wins though the Coen's did receive the award for best screenplay. Three Billboard's, though directed by nominee ballsy British director Martin McDonagh, feels like a Coen Brothers picture because of its sardonic tone and bloodletting and, yes, Frances McDormand, a Globe nominee. Like No Country, its dark coloring and ambiguous ending might be a bit too much for voters more willing to celebrate the liberation of the spirit of a earthbound mute custodial worker who saves her life by sacrificing it. I think The Shape of Water will win.

Golden Globes II

Golden Globe's Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy is an odd assortment of films, all but one of which (I, Tonya) I've seen, so I might amend this in a few weeks. None of the directors of the films in this category was nominated.
The Disaster Artist is being singled out for the phenomenal work of its lead actor and director James Franco. The film, itself, while quite funny in spots, feels more like an extended SNL sketch than a motion picture, however, and so might be docked for underdevelopment.
Jordon Peele's highly celebrated Get Out has a sketch comedy premise, being the brain child of a sketch comedian, but a serious message, several intensely violent passages and an overall feeling of dread. The wonderful young British actor Daniel Kaluuya has become both the face of the film and, for some, of black male oppression, which the film has as its core message. While Get Out is a more assured and finely crafted picture than The Disaster Artist, it might be penalized for being tonally ambiguous.
The Greatest Showman is a dazzling musical with a truncated story about P. T. Barnum's rise and near fall as an entertainment impressario. It succeeds with a winning score and several fine musical performances (including star Hugh Jackman's) but the narrative is paper thin and the film's emotion is carried almost completely by the singing.
Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is the most successful of the projects I've seen on this list. This story of a rebellious teenager and her disapproving mother is familiar but also remarkably fresh, made so by two terrific performances (Saorise Ronan and Laurie Metcalf). I suspect I, Tonya's mother / daughter pairing of Margot Robbie and Allison Janney, both of whom are nominated, might be Lady Bird's strongest competition in this category. Again, I might make a different call after seeing Tonya.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Greatest Showman


A-list movie and Broadway composers Pasek and Paul's score for The Greatest Showman, much like last year's celebrated La La Land, is the true star of this fairly conventional story about the rise and near fall of Phineas T. Barnum, of circus fame. The book that ties the dozen or so synth pop songs casts Barnum (a terrific Hugh Jackman) as a champion of society's outcasts (led by Zendaya as a black aerialist and Keala Settle as the bearded lady), at first more as a means to turn a buck but later to challenge high society conventions. Because of this, the show's strongest and most thrilling numbers are the anthemic ensemble pieces, most notably "Come Alive" and "This is Me," which will undoubtedly be adopted as anthems for LGBTQ or other marginalized communities. First-time director Michael Gracey's The Greatest Showman is a dazzling picture in the mold of contemporary Hollywood musicals that will find its largest audience with dreamy-eyed pre-teens from Columbia to Calcutta.

Downsizing

Alexander Payne’s cautionary tale Downsizing shares much with Payne’s better earlier films — Election, Sideways, About Schmidt — which are stories of aging men having varying degrees of success contending with “life” — which is to say “other people.” Downsizing initially makes human extinction the matter at hand but craftily turns the sci-fi narrative about human miniaturization something much more immediate and intimate. It is, perhaps, the film’s subtlety that will leave some viewers perplexed. My advice would be to follow Matt Damon’s Paul through all of his large and small crises of identity and conscience because it is there you’ll find Payne’s very human and relatable message. The wonderful Asian actress Hong Chau is a delightful surprise.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Shape of Water



Guillermo del Toro's films are always memorable, unique cinematic visions. Crimson Peak, Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy and Pacific Rim were all extravagant and beautiful, in their way, often filled with unsettling images and certainly not the rosiest of outlooks. Del Toro's take on Beauty and the Beast, The Shape of Water, uses a smaller, more intimate canvas than those films to tell the story of a mute custodial worker (Sally Hawkins) in the late '50s who falls for an amphibious ... man-creature (Doug Jones) that was captured in the Brazilian jungle and confined to a military installation to be studied for possible weaponization. She plots a daring rescue with the help of friends and, for a time, has an affair with the creature. This fantastic story is, of course, not actually a fairy tale romance at all but an indictment of our frightful incapacity to care for others. The ubiquitous Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg offer their usual fine support but, for me, the exquisite art direction and lovely, balletic scenes between Hawkins and Jones elevate the film from superior motion picture to art.

All the Money in the World

Ridley Scott’s fact-based morality tale about the spoiling effects of great riches is uneven and occasionally preachy but sustained by the performances of both Michelle Williams as Abigail Getty and Christopher Plummer as her father-in-law, monster mogul J. Paul Getty, who at the time of the story was the richest man in the world. The two square off after her son J. Paul III (a wan and effete Charlie Plummer) is kidnapped in Rome by Italian opportunists or anti-capitalists, depending on whose version of events you’re citing. The senior Getty — as sour a character as I’ve seen — is not interested in paying ransom though he claims to love his grandson. He enlists the assistance of fixer Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to negotiate a deal and neutralize the boy’s mother, who Getty considers too eager to spend his money. Little goes as planned, culminating in the boy’s transferral to even more brutal handlers and his eventual mutilation. The film’s dynamic pull is in Getty Senior’s chilly remove from these events and Mrs. Getty’s brittle panic as a mother who loves her children but is estranged from a family into which she married but has found unsuited for much else than accumulating wealth.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Godless





My final assessment of Godless is its effect is greater than its parts, which are uneven and too often rely on obvious tropes. I liked the questions it raised about kinship, survival, faith and madness — any one of which might have carried the series. But add to that gender roles, race, predatory capitalism and fake news and you have quite a stew.


Though I really liked the way the characters talked, the series did not serve its audience well by not translating the German and Paiute. It seemed lazy.

I was saddened more than ticked off by the side story of the Buffalo Soldiers. Their fateful encounter with Griffin and his marauders felt more like a device than anything. It was truly puzzling why the show's creators handled their story so peripherally. The “barely there” love story between the white deputy and the mulatto daughter of a Buffalo Soldier was clunky and peculiar. Why was she biracial when every other member of her family was dark-skinned. And why was the mixed white/Paiute boy so clearly full-blooded native? Setting aside these matters I do embrace Godless’ message of determination and sacrifice.

Dark



The coolness of Dark is not just in its Germanic dreariness but in the story’s deliberate time-bending trippiness that feels more sophisticated than much of what I’ve seen on American television and avoids being as manifestly geeked out as Dr. Who. At its core, Dark is the story of disintegrating kinships in a small town that is also home to a nuclear plant. Children are disappearing, just as they had 30 years prior, and sadness and madness have taken residence in the remaining spaces. This fairly miserable storyline is given greater spark by the mysterious cave just outside of town that yawns and growls and transports unwitting townspeople into the past and future and generally menaces and confounds. Like I say, cool stuff.

She’s Gotta Have It (series)

 Spike Lee has jacked up the empowerment edge for the Netflix version of his 1986 film She's Gotta Have It (his second full-length feature). DeWanda Wise is the eponymous "she", Nola Darling, an artist living la vida loca in Brooklyn, untethered and sexually liberated, juggling three amorous suitors (Anthony Ramos, Lyriq Bent and Cleo Anthony) and a host of Mc-jobs while trying to launch her career as a painter. While Lee's film was mostly about Nola's right to be as casual about intercourse as any man, the series appears to be carrying layers of pro-black and pro-woman messaging for these violent and uncertain times and a soundtrack of soul and R & B that will send many of the program's older viewers hunting for that '90s slow drag mix tape they listened to in college.

Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird and Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri are both rich character studies about unlikable people behaving badly for good reasons. Writer and director Gerwig, who starred so affectingly in 2015's Maggie's Plan, pours an abundance of wit and wisdom into her story of dyspeptic 17-year-old Catholic schoolgirl Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) who aches for more than her hypercritical mother (Laurie Metcalf) and kind but overwhelmed father (Tracy Letts) can give her. To assume that Lady Bird's unhappiness stems from parental dynamics, religious strictures or the "Midwesterly" sameness of Sacramento might be to overlook the more obvious answer -- Lady Bird is young, enormously self-involved, talented but under-motivated and cursed with bad judgment. In short, she's a teenager but rarely has the angst of those years been captured so vividly. To me, this is less about coming of age milestones (first crush, first sexual experience, getting the driver's license, prom) than it is about more nuanced experiences -- learning one's true value and that of other people.

British writer / director Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards is a bloody uncompromising tale of grief and recompense. The dynamic Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a local shopkeeper whose daughter was raped and murdered by unknown parties months before we meet her. Anger and frustration lead Mildred to rent the billboards of the title and post messages to local law enforcement (and the world) that she's not happy. Named on the billboard is the chief of police of Ebbing (played by Woody Harrelson) who tries to reason with Mildred while keeping tabs on a loose-cannon police officer (Sam Rockwell) who has a reputation for brutalizing townspeople, especially blacks. Aside from these three superb performances, the film's narrative intricacy (the law of unintended consequences is almost a character in the film) is what makes the story so compelling. Both films feature a fine performance by the young actor Lucas Hedges, whose role as Patrick in last year's Manchester by the Sea won him an Oscar nomination.

The Post

Steven Spielberg’s The Post has its moments of intrigue (delivered primarily by Meryl Streep as Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham) but is, in the end, a pretty prosaic treatment of the 1971 Pentagon Papers case and the birth of the animus between The Post and the Nixon administration. The Post and the New York Times were co-defendants pitted against the Defense Department, which claimed the papers exposed the nation to enemy threat by reporting on U.S. military operations in Vietnam, operations that were mischaracterized and misrepresented by senior officials. Tom Hanks delivers a solidly controlled performance as Post editor Ben Bradlee, who along with Graham would usher the formerly cuddly paper into an era of aggressive watchdogging that culminated with the Watergate investigation. What makes the film really compelling — beyond these heavy matters — is watching the evolution of Graham from society doyenne into a principled newspaper woman who dared to believe in a free and unencumbered press.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok



Thor: Ragnarok will (re)introduce fanboy-metal heads to Led Zeppelin's screeching opus Immigrant Song (1970) in a new but not necessarily unrelated context. Kiwi director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) takes the sword 'n' sandal aesthetic that's always been part of Thor's Marvel mythology (and Zeppelin's more fantastical compositions) and blended it with time and space travel, netherworld apocalypse and sibling rivalry -- all to a headbanger score and a laugh track.... (More on that in a minute) In this film, Chris Hemsworth's Thor is reunited with two of his favorite sparring partners -- Tom Hiddleston's Loki (Thor's adopted brother and eternal foil) and Mark Ruffalo's Hulk on a planet that stages gladiatorial contests between prisoners. The meetings, like much of this film, are played for laughs -- and the broader the better. Jeff Goldblum, a veteran actor with Swiss watch comedic timing, is a scream as the Grandmaster of the games. The villain(ess) for this edition is a scene-chewing Cate Blanchett as Hela, sister to Thor and Loki and goddess of death, a title she takes most seriously. The siblings reunion is brought about by the passing of Asgardian king Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who had imprisoned Hela for showing too much gusto in her work. Now she's back and ready to claim what's hers, i.e., all life in all realms of existence. Joining Thor, Loki and Hulk is a besotted Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), who adds a fresh level of spice to the heroic concoction. Much has been written about the comic tone of this film, and it's undeniable, but I think film promoters and early reviewers may have primed the pump a bit much. Most of the laughs are honestly earned, a good many are forced and there are a few that, to me, were too shticky for the proceedings. Still, audience members at the screening I attended were laughing from credits to credits. Fans will love Thor: Ragnarok and it will make everyone involved with it even richer than they already are.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

American Made


Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) is a master of finding the humor in even the most dire situations. When he teamed with the eternally affable Tom Cruise for the sci-fi "Groundhog Day" feature Edge of Tomorrow, the result was a major scre. Liman's American Made adds to that mix the nearly unbelievable story from the '70s and '80s of hot shot commercial pilot Barry Seal, who is hired away from TWA by the CIA (Domhnall Gleeson) to conduct secret airborne surveillance o...f rebels south of the border. He is later coerced by the Colombian Medellin drug cartel to smuggle cocaine into the U.S., and then blackmailed by the CIA to transport rebel fighters to the U.S. for training and then, later, to smuggle arms to Contras in Nicaragua. The backdrop, of course, is the American-backed, Latin America-based "anti-communist" crusade of the Reagan era that evolved into the Iran-Contra conspiracy. By that time, Seal had already amassed millions of dollars in cash, while building a family with his lovely and fertile wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) in a small Arkansas town known for nothing before the Seals moved in, bringing a smuggling operation and mountains of money with them. It's a tale well told and Cruise is as breezy and winning as ever.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Marshall



In "Marshall," television director Reginald Hudlin (known to many black-film audiences as the director of House Party and Boomerang) delivers an entertaining though at times frustrating bio pic on the Civil Rights lawyer and later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a film that will be a welcome palliative in these "take-a-knee" times. South Carolina's own Chadwick Boseman plays Marshall with a bluster not often seen in portrayals of African American historical figures. ...It's a refreshing take but in some scenes gives the great man a brutishness that belies the delicate work he was engaged in as the NAACP's only attorney in the 1940s. I suspect that for some, Marshall, the man, will come across as pretty unlikable. In his dealings with Jewish attorney Sam Friedman (a terrific Josh Gad), Marshall is portrayed bullying the diffident Friedman into being co-counsel for a black man in Bridgeport, Connecticut, (another great performance by Sterling K. Brown), accused of raping his white employer (Kate Hudson) and tossing her into a reservoir. Marshall and the NAACP (represented by Roger Guenveur Smith as Walter White) needs to win the case to demonstrate to donors the organization is still vital. Though the film is about the trial, of which I was not familiar, it is mostly about the dynamic between Marshall and Friedman, who would go on to become an important civil rights attorney in his own right. True to Hollywood tropes, racist whites are portrayed as menacing specters that emerge out of the mist to terrorize. This characterization, of course, plays well for motion pictures but ignores the true perniciousness of systemic racism and turns it into simple villainy.

Brawl in Cell Block 99

That S. Craig Zahler's Brawl in Cell Block 99 ended up in a cineplex with little fanfare belies its grindhouse sensibilities -- there is nothing subtle or understated about the film. This story of a decent bad man who takes a wrong turn while trying to do better by his wife is as artful as a crowbar but its bluntness is what makes it so entertaining. Vince Vaughn plays Bradley Thomas, a stoic bruiser-bagman who winds up on the wrong side of a botched drug deal and is sentence...d to prison. His humorless partner in the deal (Dion Mucciacito) wants restitution and kidnaps Bradley's pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter) to get him to do a favor behind the wall. It's a given the favor is wetwork but Bradley will do what he must -- facedown the sadistic warden (Don Johnson), snap bones, pummel and mutilate. Vaughn as the Bradley beast is fun to watch but the brawling might be excruciating for some.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Brad's Status


Mike White writes keenly observed film stories about people struggling with those small but indelible moments in life when they feel emotionally exposed (Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl, Year of the Dog). White's latest, Brad's Status, which he also directed, stars Ben Stiller as Brad, the neurotic father of a high school senior (Austin Abrams) on a college visit weekend to Cambridge so son can interview at Harvard and Tufts, Dad's alma mater. Brad's neurosis, which is deeply ...rooted in an entitlement that he's blind to, leads him to question the rightness of nearly every person, thing or event in his life. His insufferableness, which is mostly interior throughout the film, does boil over on occasion, leading to some wonderfully uncomfortable exchanges. Brad is by most measures a successful man, living in Sacramento with his dutiful wife (Jenna Fischer) and his son, a talented musician whose emotional makeup bears little resemblance to his flinty and judgmental father. Brief encounters with Brad's estranged posse of college buddies (all of whom are wealthy and living the life) leads Brad to some realizations but not those the audience might hope. Stiller's performance as this insecure and selfish man is one of the best I've seen this year.

Blade Runner 2049

Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) is an undisputed visionary whose best pictures feature stunning camerawork and breathtaking tableaux in service of complex narratives that never lose sight of the human element. Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 is a near-epic sequel to Ridley Scott's masterpiece from 1982 that is as thoroughgoing an exposition on humanness as I've seen in a while. It stars Ryan Gosling as an LAPD detective in 2049 who, like Harrison Ford's character 30 years earlier, is commissioned to track down replicants (artificial humans) originally created to slave for real humans but now deemed defective and when found are to be destroyed. Gosling's "K" is himself a replicant, an obedient model, who answers to a severe police lieutenant he calls "Madam" (Robin Wright) and lives alone in a teeming and desolate post-apocalyptic La La Land with a holographic companion named Joi (Ana de Armas). While "deactivating" a rogue replicant (Dave Bautista) on a remote farm, K discovers bones buried beneath a tree and this discovery opens the door to a trail that leads to replicant manufacturer Wallace (Jared Leto), his deadly enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) and eventually Ford's Deckard. Villeneuve uses 35 years of cinematic advancement to expand Scott's original vision and explore with greater effectiveness, IMO, central questions about truth and authenticity, human connectivity and memory. Blade Runner 2049 is both visually and intellectually arresting but it might be too long and deliberately paced for some tastes. Highly Recommended.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Mother!


The degree to which viewers will be horrified by Darren Aronofsky's boffo, bloody cringefest fable, Mother!, will correspond directly to how much the viewer fears uncertainty and losing control -- which is to say a pretty good number of us. Few will be able to resist sympathizing with the befuddled and manic "Mother" of the title (Jennifer Lawrence), though her pregnancy isn't introduced until the second act. Before that, she's just manic and frustrated because her poet husband (Javier Bardem) is blocked -- both on paper and, apparently, in bed. One afternoon, a mysterious man (Ed Harris) and his fantastically inappropriate wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) show up at the couple's spacious Victorian-era country home that she's restoring herself, bringing with them all manner of horrors. Again, depending on your level of OCD, you will either find Man and Woman (as they're called in Aronofsky's screenplay) a nightmare or just weird. But shortly after them come their feuding sons (real-life brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) whose bloody battle ends the first act. The film's second half is what some critics are extolling as visionary filmmaking and, to me, it is indeed extraordinary. The mother's descent into hell (actual or psychological) is chaotic and unnerving and mesmerizing and provokes all manner of conjecture about the meaning of her miserable trip. For one, I think Mother! is another of Aronofsky's musings on love and obsession and how easily they are mistaken for each other. But interpretations will surely vary from person to person. Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

It


The Stephen King I've enjoyed most showcases the horrors we do to one another rather than the horrors of the undead -- though those are duly represented. In Andy Muschietti's It, a rag-tag band of pre-pubescent outcasts must contend with their hellish homelives while running from Bill Skarsgard's toothy and voracious sewer rat clown, Pennywise. As the manifestation of many a moppet's nightmares, Pennywise is a fine fiend who finds the group of youngsters, led by the fairly intrepid but mopey Bill (Jaden Lieberher) and the mouthy and vulgar Richie (Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard), in the last reel, formidable foes -- made so by the coldness, abuse, neglect and manipulation they've suffered at the hands of their parents and schoolhouse bullies. And that's really what this delightfully twisted scarefest is about -- facing your fears and kicking their asses. It's not child's play. Recommended.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Wind River


Taylor Sheridan wrote the gristly screenplay for last year's Hell or High Water, an outstanding Texas cops and robbers flick that was terrifically scripted and scorchingly intense. He also wrote the equally masterful Sicario (2015). Sheridan wrote and directed the bitter but brilliant Wind River, a worrying mystery set in the snow of the eponymous Wyoming reservation. The reliable Jeremy Renner stars as a federal wildlife hunter who is recruited by a young and overwhelmed FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) to track down a suspect in the sexual assault of a young woman found dead in the snow. The wintry landscape is both beautiful and unforgiving, and the native people on the reservation are depicted as decimated in number and spirit. Wind River is an engrossing and troubling study of arrested lives and suspended hopes. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Detroit

Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit is an important film that dares you not to like it. Although I appreciate Bigelow's craftswomanship, the film plays with form more than her most celebrated works -- The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty -- and I found that disconcerting. The opening sequence that features artistic renderings of the Great Migration and the subsequent deterioration of Detroit sets a different tone from the newsreel excerpts that document the urban uprisings and the murky set piece that depicts the Detroit police in 1967 shutting down an unlicensed night spot and parading patrons out of the front door and into police vans in front of agitated bystanders. Each is individually interesting but together seem disjointed. These are followed by the shooting of an unarmed looter by the film's villain, the satanic Officer Krauss (a remarkable Will Poulter)and the fateful confrontation between Krauss and his murderous cohorts and the patrons of a downtown motel. Three young black men were killed during the encounter; two were shot in the back. The officers were tried but not convicted. To alleviate the pressure built up by lengthy passages of violence and chaos with musical scenes feels forced, uneven and distracting and detracts from the power of a fairly uncompromising film. Bigelow pulls fine performances from the young actors John Boyega, Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore and veteran Anthony Mackie. Recommended but unspeakably grim.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Dunkirk

Director Christopher Nolan's penchant for the unorthodox ensures that his films will be challenging, if not always totally satisfying viewing. In Dunkirk, Nolan, who is best known for the Batman trilogy that starred Christian Bale, explores the fluidity of time and perspective in his telling of the valor that went into the Dunkirk beach evacuation during World War II. To me, the genius of this surprisingly compelling battle tale is the crafty way Nolan telescopes time and ratchets up the intensity while blending and overlapping viewpoints and locales. Some might argue that the möbius narrative is too clever and a bit distracting. I loved the approach and found each of the primary performances -- especially the young, gritty soldier played by Fionn Whitehead, with whom we spend most of the film -- perfectly pitched, intense without being grating, and sympathetic without being cloying.  Highly recommended.

The Big Sick

Judd Apatow's motion picture production company specializes in high calorie, goodhearted comic fare that's heavy on the cringe (see for example Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and Trainwreck).  The Big Sick -- a wonderfully tender and outrageous film -- is not as preoccupied with sex and excretions as one's typical Apatow feature and has a pretty serious Second Act, when one of the two romantic leads becomes gravely ill. Written by the film's star Pakistani comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon, the film, based on the writers' own courtship, blends the angst of classic "mismatched" lovers with Apatow's signature masculine arrested emotional development and familial dysfunction to explore human connections and love in all of its manifestations. Nanjiani and co-star Zoe Kazan make a sweetly neurotic couple but Holly Hunter as Emily's mother is remarkable and sure to get a supporting actress nomination come awards season. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Sleight

J.D. Dillard’s Sleight shares more than a passing similarity to 2015’s Dope but veers away from the story of a rising mind using the drug trade to even out his chances of success into the land of science fiction and beyond. Both films star winning, fresh faces: Shameik Moore (Malcolm in Dope) and Jacob Latimore as Bo, a street magician whose secret owes as much to STEM education as it does to his own ingenuity and mother wit. When we meet Bo, he and his sister (Storm Reid) have recently been orphaned by the death of their mother. Bo has taken over his sister’s care. He does mindbending, David Blaine-type illusions during the day and sells Molly to annoying hipsters at night. He’s also taken up with a ruthless though sartorially challenged kingpin named Angelo (a convincingly menacing Dule Hill). Bo gets a hand from a kind neighbor named Georgi (Sasheer Zamata) and finds an eager companion in a battered young waitress named Holly (Seychelle Gabriel). As he tells Georgi, he’s dealing drugs to save up enough money to get his sister out of the neighborhoood and into a better school. His plans go sideways when his involvement with Angelo takes a brutal turn and desperation leads him to make a few (more) bad decisions. Dillard has a real star in young Mr. Latimore, and his performance as Bo holds what is at its core a sincere but pretty ridiculous story together.

The Dinner

Congressman Stan Lohman (Richard Gere) and his boorish, seemingly bipolar brother, Paul (Steve Coogan), are having a five-course meal in an impossibly posh restaurant with their wives (Rebecca Hall and Laura Linney, respectively) to talk about a pressing matter just hours before a piece of legislation the congressman is promoting comes up for a vote. Stan Lohman is also running for governor and needs the legislative win and the resolution of an incident involving the couples’ sons if he’s to move forward. Though the food being served in Oren Moverman’s dyspeptic filmThe Dinner looks divine, the bilious bickering between the brothers and the horrific doings of their sons make for especially difficult viewing. The film has layers of sickness and dysfunction and a startlingly abrupt ending.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Young British actor Tom Holland (The City of Z) has such a sure command of the role of Peter Parker / Spider-Man that Marvel fans will undoubtedly feel safe with him. Set in that precarious world of high school rivalries and crushes, Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming merges the drama of those uncertainties with larger threats and shows the young hero – whose drive might outstrip his nascent abilities – struggling with doing the right thing for the right reason in the wrong way (perhaps). Holland is joined by high wattage co-stars Michael Keaton as the villainous Vulture, Robert Downey Jr. as Parker’s “mentor” Tony Stark / Iron Man, Marisa Tomei as Aunt May and a host of colorful younger actors that keep this clever and kinetic story about alien-arms dealers grounded in what’s important – Academic Decathlon and School Dances.

Baby Driver

British director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) commits boatloads of exuberance, wit and musical savvy to the ridiculously entertaining Baby Driver, a film fueled by the adrenalin of its oh-so-winning cast, led by the brilliantly nimble (and preternaturally adorable) Ansel Elgort (The Fault in our Stars) and featuring Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm and Kevin Spacey. Elgort stars as the oddly monikered Baby of the title, who is the iPod-addicted getaway driver for a crew run by Spacey’s Doc. Baby is working off a debt with hopes of going straight after one last job – then he meets diner waitress Debora (a wonderful Lily James) and things get, as they say, complicated. Wright’s direction matches the precision and daring of Baby’s driving, which is breathless and thrilling. But on top of some award-worthy camera work and editing is a seamless musical storyline the likes of which I’ve not heard used in such a way in a film. If you love a good cops and robbers story and sharp, creative moviemaking, you’ll no doubt find Baby Driver quite a ride. And you’ll want the soundtrack, without question.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Wonder Woman

Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman is a bombastic estrogen rush of an origins pic that, frustratingly, must have its demi-goddess heroine (Gal Gadot) succumb to the charms of a man. Sure, the man is uber-stud Chris Pine, but still. Must feminine empowerment in film always come with deflowering? Was there fear that coming from an island of women that she was not into men and had to prove otherwise? The picture scores a few points for its ragtag, multi-culti band of World War I henchmen -- an Arab, a Scotsman and an American Indian -- but loses a couple for a pretty startling -- and perhaps Freudian -- WW skewering of the movie's high-wattage but unarmed baddie played by Danny Huston. The last big battle of the gods is an electrifying display of the power of love -- a message that's reiterated in the film's epilogue and treacly voiceover.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Alien: Covenant

The Aliens franchise always drew me with its nightmarish incubation premise and social contexts about godless industrialists, the impotency of the military option in battling a cagey and ghostly enemy and its array of supremely ballsy women. Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant is more of the same but with amped up space tech and more onscreen eviscerations. Michael Fassbender stars as Walter, the synthetic crew member in a colonization expedition that goes bad after a cosmic disruption wrecks part of the ship, kills the ship's captain and tosses other crew members out of their hypersleep and into an ill-advised but essentialy plausible detour to a habitable but craggy planet fans first visited in director Ridley Scott's Prometheus (2012). There's blood in them hills.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Easter movies




Only one of these five favorite Easter movies features Jesus as the central on-screen characters. Maybe I find the more compelling Easter stories show how the message of the carpenter from Nazareth affected others. Jeffrey Hunter was a Hollywood handsome Jesus in King of Kings in 1961, one of the more entertaining portrayals on film, IMO. The same year Anthony Quinn, not Hollywood handsome, starred as the criminal who was released by Pilate in exchange for Jesus. Although nobody knows what happened to the man after he was released, in Hollywood Barrabas, himself, would end up on the cross.
In 1959, Charlton Heston was still riding the wave for starring as Moses in The Ten Commandments three years before when he was cast as Judah Ben-Hur, in the film that included, according to some, a veiled gay subtext in the relationship between Ben-Hur and his boyhood friend, Messala, played by Stephen Boyd.
In 1953, Richard Burton played the ambitious Roman tribune who was ordered to oversee the Crucifixion and was haunted either by guilt or Jesus until his martyrdom, with Jean Simmons, in the last reel. I'm still not sure why she gets into heaven for just loving her man but ...
And one year after The Robe, Victor Mature reprised his role as the tribune's Christian slave in Demetrius and the Gladiators, in which Demetrius, who has inherited the robe from his martyred master, becomes a champion in the arena but falls away from the faith before realizing his error and returning to the fold as a choir of angels sings.

The Last Supper




Many Christians observe the Thursday before Easter as the day of the Last Supper -- quite likely one of the most painted (and parodied) events in Christian Scriptures. Here are a few of my favorites -- the traditional with an especially wan St. John leaning into Jesus' lap, a contemporary homies rendition, Anthony Falbo's cubist dream, the cast of Battlestar Galactica in an homage, and a most righteous gathering of brothers.

The Crucifixion






I believe for many in the Christian tradition, The Crucifixion is the central emblem of sacrifice and forgiveness (or expiation as I learned in Catholic school). Others might view it as simply evidence of human sinfulness or corruption. And others have used it to condemn Jews. (Using the Crucifixion to persecute others is ironic and tragic.) I'd only recently discovered George Bellows' striking painting but it has become one of my favorites. It contains the abjection of that sad day but other intangible qualities as well. I'm especially drawn to the purple figure at the foot of the cross. Such loss and despair. Peace

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Life

Daniel Espinosa’s Life has enough claustrophobic tension and alien weirdness to make it a diverting but not groundbreaking entry in that sci-if sub genre of film that warns of reckless poking and probing of things best left alone. They differ from those films that depict alien intervention in our destructive nuclear build up (The Day The Earth Stood Still) or nuclear experimentation (Godzilla). Life’s message seems to be that curiosity – in this case wondering about life on Mars – can kill a bunch of cats, especially if they are trapped in a $200 billion tin can orbiting the Earth. The cast playing the international space station crew includes Ryan Reynolds doing his glib alpha dog thing as project engineer, Jake Gyllenhaal doing his pensive beta male thing as the medical officer and Rebecca Ferguson as a lovely crew member with no discernible duties. Things go bad for the crew after they retrieve a Mars probe carrying soil samples and the project’s biologist (Ayrion Bakare) jumpstarts some dormant cells that develop an unhealthy attachment to the crew. The story might not be original but the alien is a pretty cool creation. The ending might be a bit too cynical for some however.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Logan

James Mangold has a crafted a surprisingly introspective film in Logan, as the X-men universe closes the book on The Wolverine – for now. Hugh Jackman returns as an aged and battered version of the endearing, metal-clawed badass Logan, who is now holed up in an abandoned oil field in Mexico with an occasionally demented Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and the peevish albino mentalist Caliban (Stephen Merchant). It’s 2029, and mutants are all but wiped out, their powers essentially neutralized by biological weaponry. Logan’s own regenerative abilities are just about gone although he is still metallically enhanced. These events have brought Logan to point where he’s saving to buy a boat, so that he might load up his shipmates, and set off for the distant horizon, leaving humanity to its own devices. The plan is interrupted by the appearance of a 10-year-old girl (Dafne Keen) whose dour demeanor and retractable claws suggest she and Logan have something in common. She is being chased by the miserable Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant) whose potions are responsible for the mutant extermination and whose experiments South of the Border have created an army of “gifted” children who he hoped to turn into fighters. Mangold doesn’t hold anything back in this swan song for the beloved Wolverine as he and the nimble moppet slash, disembowel and decapitate like there’s no tomorrow. And, in the end, that’s the film’s real poser: How does one measure the value of a life when it’s been spent taking the lives of others. Does one such as the Wolverine deserve to sail off into the sunset?

A Cure for Wellness

Gore Verbinksi, the visionary behind the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, is the mind and eye behind A Cure for Wellness, a convoluted tale of madness and quackery that he wrote and directed, set in a mountaintop aqua-therapy sanitorium in the Swiss Alps. The film stars Dane Dehaan as Lockhart, an ambitious and unscrupulous New York investment officer who is dispatched by his board to retrieve one of their own (Harry Groener) from the Alpine retreat, from whence the absent member has dispatched a puzzling note saying he won’t be coming down from the mountain. Once in Switzerland, Lockhart meets the sanitorium’s medical director, a winningly oily Jason Isaacs of The OA (who does creepy better?) and his young ward Hannah (Mia Goth), a pouty and unconventional barefoot beauty who wanders the grounds aimlessly. Of course, little is as it seems, and after an auto accident (the lately ubiquitous deer vs. car crash), Lockhart finds himself confined and doesn’t like that one bit, as he is eager to get back to New York. His encounters with the oddly cheery patients and the facility’s Stepford staff lead him to believe there’s something up with “the treatment.” There is indeed, but one must sit through two hours of not entirely satisfying build-up to get to the big – baffling – reveal. Still and all, if you like beautiful scenery – Verbinski has poured breathtaking vistas into this watery movie – and a story with a couple of unanticipated shocks this film might be your cup of tea.

John Wick: Chapter 2




Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 2, as the title suggests, picks up the story where its predecessor left us – with the bruised and bloodied but seemingly indestructible Wick (Keanu Reeves in a role that demands very little acting but a lot of close-contact sparring) intent on reclaiming his purloined Mustang from a Russian mobster whose son nicked it in the first movie (and killed Wick’s dog) and was eviscerated by Wick for his trouble. The opening sequence sets the muscle-and-mayhem bar pretty high as Wick pulverizes automotive and human bodies that are in his way. By the end of the opening 10 minutes of Chapter 2, the body count is already approaching 50 with bullets flying through flesh and crania and blood covering walls, floors and furniture. It’s a riot. But there’s no rest for the weary because even after deciding to retire from the assassin’s trade, a visit from an effete Italian mobster (Riccardo Scarmarcio) pulls Wick back in. The sequence that follows Wick as he gets outfitted by assorted specialists in the Italian weapons and sartorial underground is great fun, played tongue-in-cheek, but not as amusing as the gunfight in the Roman catacombs or the fight on a New York subway between Wick and fellow killer Cassian (Common) or the one in a mirrored exhibit in an art museum. Yes, it’s all deafening and numbingly violent but so outlandish that you can’t help but go with it. It’s Grand Guignol theater but at least they don’t kill the dog this time.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Elle

Dutch director Paul Verhoeven is likely best known to American audiences for the bloody sci-fi adventures Robocop and Starship Troopers and the psycho-thriller Basic Instinct. Others might appreciate more his pre-Hollywood period, when he directed uncompromisingly graphic films set in various historical periods that featured people scarred by choice and circumstances guided day-to-day by their little understood appetites. The French language Elle, which features a remarkable performance by Isabelle Huppert, is a welcome return to that time for fans of Verhoeven’s “foreign” films.  Huppert plays Michele, a middle-aged businesswoman who is raped in her home at the beginning of the film and tries to identify her masked assailant, presumably to get revenge. We discover over the course of the movie that she suffered an unspeakable trauma as a young girl and lives amongst those ruins with her manchild son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), her disaster of a cougar mother (Judith Magre) and her professionally stifled ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling). Huppert, who has been nominated for her role as Michele, is in nearly every frame of the picture, including several startling scenes of brutal sexual assaults. These depictions are not for the squeamish and the film’s overall tone might be too dark for many viewers but the story, based on the novel by Phillipe Djian, is provocative and perceptive. Highly recommended.

The Founder

John Lee Hancock’s biographical melodrama The Founder is the story of Ray Kroc, the man who built the McDonald’s empire with tenacity and grit and then strong-armed ownership of the company from the two brothers who began it in San Bernardino. When we meet Kroc (a never-better Michael Keaton), it’s the 1950s and he’s schlepping milkshake mixers from pillar-to-post trying to get fast food restaurants to take interest. No dice until his office receives an order for eight from a small burger joint in the middle of nowhere in California. The two brothers, Mac and Dick (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman, respectively), have created a “speedy” system that can turn burger orders around in seconds and an iconic symbol of their enterprise – golden arches. Kroc, a silver-tongued devil, convinces the brothers he can take their model and reproduce it across the country. The three enter into a contract and almost immediately Kroc begins to chafe under the deal; he’s weary of the brother’s “take it slow” mentality and he finds effective ways to work around them, expanding the company in the Midwest. His myopia and egotism lead to trouble with his wife (the reliable Laura Dern) and with the brothers, who worry they’re losing control of their business. A showdown is inevitable. All of the performers and the period details are terrific. The take-away? Being a slimeball can indeed pay off. 

Split

M. Night Shyamalan’s films are so hit and miss that it’s actually entertaining to bet on how and when any given picture will fall apart. His latest, Split, is more successful than most, mainly because it features James McAvoy in the gimmicky role of Kevin, a man with 23 separate personalities who kidnaps three teen-aged school girls to sacrifice to “the beast within.” We get a glimpse at only half-a-dozen of them. Why then 23? More is more? The gutsiest of the kidnapped girls, Casey – played by Anya Taylor-Joy of last year’s best horror flick, The Witch – proves to be a formidable adversary for the lot of them and for the most disturbing of reasons. (I believe this is the film’s anticipated twist.) Though the movie has some creep to it, especially Casey’s backstory, it’s the relationship between the crowded Kevin and his shrink, an earnest but miscast Betty Buckley, that is the real mystery

Patriots Day

Peter Berg directs fiercely masculine, patriotic films that are grounded in Hollywood liberalism, that is, they are not jingoistic celebrations of American exceptionalism. Rather, they depict the exceptionalism of Americans and the compassion we exhibit in a crisis. While Berg’s work is often artful, after a fashion, to my eye, it is mainly methodical and structurally pristine. In other words, Berg’s stories are always told clearly and economically. Patriots Day, his retelling of the manhunt that followed the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, is taut and completely engaging and features winning performances by Mark Wahlberg, J. K Simmons and Kevin Bacon as city and federal law enforcement officers chasing bombing suspects, the Tsarnaev brothers (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze). The film seamlessly weaves together the stories of the first responders, the victims of the attack and those whose lives were affected – or ended – by the brothers as the radicalized terrorists attempted to leave Boston for New York City. It’s a fine picture. Recommended.

Jackie

Pablo Larrain’s elegant motion picture Jackie is an intimate recounting of the week after the assassination of President Kennedy told from the perspective of the first lady. It is a sympathetic film about a woman many pitied and some disliked but many – over time – came to admire, if not love. In the style of the great masters of cinematic character studies like Cassavetes, the camera is never far from its subject as she almost sleepwalks through hell from Dallas to Washington to Hyannis Port, weeps and rages and attempts to drown her despair in pills and alcohol. Larrain explores how the president’s death transformed this woman who, as we come to discover, was barely holding it together as first lady – unnerved by threats to her husband and the country, doubting God, his purpose and hers – when she becomes the most public of widows. Natalie Portman is riveting as Jackie Kennedy and gives the best, most fully sustained performance I’ve seen over the past year. A long sequence in the middle of the film follows the mourning Jackie as she wanders from room to room in the White House, draping pearls around her neck, pulling on gowns, a burning cigarette always within reach, and the soundtrack of the broadway musical Camelot, one of JFK’s favorite recordings, playing in the background. It’s mesmerizing and heartbreaking.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Fences

Short Cuts: Denzel Washington has taken the searing lyricism of August Wilson's Fences and put it on screen with the play's length edited a bit but with no harm rendered to its classic beauty. Washington and co-star Viola Davis reprise their Tony-winning performances as a middle-aged black couple in 1950s Pittsburgh who find their worlds being changed by forces they are not fully prepared to face. In this regard, the eponymous fence symbolizes safety from threats both societal and spiritual; it's a brilliant metaphor. Yes, as with many other 20th century African American literary works, Fences examines "deferred dreams" but without a hint of sentimentality or artifice. It's a powerful film.

Lion

Short Cuts: Garth Davis delivers tears of sadness and joy in Lion, a weepy true story of a 5-year-old Indian lad who gets lost 1,000 miles from home, enters the world of India's lost children and is adopted by an Australia couple, saving him from certain deprivation and exploitation. The rest of the film is 25 years on, as the boy wonders about his home, his mother and siblings. Dev Patel plays Saroo as an adult but the marvelous child actor Sunny Pawar is the heart of this moving tale,  which delivers breathtaking vistas and squalor but too much cinematic shorthand to draw us deeply into what must be an amazing story.

La La Land

Short Cuts: Damien Chazelle's La La Land, like his earlier triumph Whiplash, is an exuberant film that explores the territory between love and passion, with the world of music as the backdrop. In La La Land, a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and an underemployed actress (Emma Stone) are finding little more than frustration and disappointment in Los Angeles, where being good or good enough doesn't pay the rent. What does pay the bills (playing Christmas tunes in a restaurant and serving up lattes on a movie studio lot) is soul-deadening, but the two find both inspiration and misdirection in each other. Chazelle raises (often literally) the quality of this boy-meets-girl tale with splendid (and frequently quite hummable) tunes and dance numbers that aren't as dazzling as Astaire and Rogers but are enchanting, nonetheless. La La Land is a beautiful and affirming picture. Highly Recommended.

John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum

Interestingly, even though Chad Stahelski's John Wick: Chapter 3 —Parabellum delivers deliciously brutal set pieces where our hero (K...