The Flight Attendant - April 10-15, 2021 - **** We've all heard about inciting incidents and calls to action in books on dramatic writing. Our journey here is with a compelling main character, played by Katey Cuoco, and the incidents are hurled at her, and the revelations at us, so consistently that we form a tightrope in our heads: we proceed because we have to, and we have no idea what awaits around that next corner.
This series does just about the impossible: we believe every second of it yet it all seems to be a dream. Even when the characters, especially played by Cuoco and Zosia Mamet, veer toward sounding like high schoolers, well, have you seen adults in stressful situations? The framing always feels just right, the editing sometimes noticed, but it's a triumph in structure. Even more so, we' re inspired to read more books by Chris Bohjalian. Based on this series, he sure knows drama.
Godzilla vs. Kong - March 31, 2021 **1/2 At this point it's pretty amazing when one of these monster outings holds our attention. The character tropes are sounded out including the power-hungry corporate CEO, a few bumbling fools (three in this case) for comic relief, and all the clashes between the two characters in the title. If you think about it, it's the Japanese TV shows from the '70s (or whenever they were filmed) on Captain Cosmic writ large.
What is interesting is how the filmmakers shift empathy from one monster to another. They also skillfully employ sound, aware how noisy this movie and all its predecessors are. We can do worse. The great Mexican actor, Demian Bichir, however, rises above it all. He's worth seeing in anything and knows how to act in every second on screen. He'll be around for a long time.
Falcon and the Winter Soldier - March 30, 2021 ** Anthony Mackie may have cashed in, and he is capable of much more. The same goes for director Kari Skogland. They could both show their chops, especially without Sebastian Stan who weighs down every scene he's in, unintentionally, too, we think.
The scenes where characters stand around, hear about other heroes' powers, get informed of a mission, what the stakes are etc. are so by the numbers at this point, we keep hoping for the actors to break out of the formula. Given the financial backing of these mass commodities, that won't happen any time soon, if ever. The money keeps on a-talkin'.
WandaVision - March 29, 2021 *1/2 Boy is this material below Paul Bettany. He exudes such intelligence, looks so strained trying to appear as if he doesn't know what's happening next or three scenes down the road. The same goes for almost all the other actors. That's because they represent ideas, or, say, a ten year-old's idea of how adults should act in comic books come to life. That's the target audience right there.
Who cares about powers anyway? The characters toggle back and forth between being human and transferring across dimensions, time, and place, but for what? They strain, look like actors trying to show they feel pain, and then the filmmakers go for laughs that barely elicit a "Harumph" with a half-smile from half the audience. The sitcom journey through nostalgia is clever, but what do you do with it? That feels strained, too. You sense the pattern here, and that goes for every aspect of the storytelling which has no dramatic impact on the characters, which ties back to the fact that they do not behave anything like people we know. They're simply there to serve us, and lightly at that.
Operation Varsity Blues - March 20, 2021 ***1/2 With all the press last year and the cost of elite higher education, this documentary sure is timely. It's cut together and shaped so well, it's a wonder the filmmakers knew what to cut out. They also make a deliberate choice in casting actor Matthew Modine as the real life Rick Singer. It's an interesting one for telling the story. We remember how effective Errol Morris is at showing footage, closeups of taping devices in, say, The Thin Blue Line, and appealing to our imaginations while always sparking curiosity.
The real Rick Singer appears in his own promotional videos. We needed more of this. As the saying goes, sometimes you can't beat the real thing. We learn a ton, though, and many in power at Stanford and U.S.C. are implicated. It's also implied how they, and many in the institutional shadows, go about their jobs.
The Queen's Gambit - March 11, 2021 **** Yes one can fall behind what's popular and yes we can catch up. Everyone who's seen this series love it. This is the kind of series that must have been a hard sell, and co-creators Scott Frank, who writes and directs frequently, and Allan Scott, have created a masterpiece of writing and filmmaking. Their actors understand how to interact with each other and the camera. The filmmakers understand how to seamlessly blend music with editing, creating a hypnotic effect that doesn't detract from the drama.
There's never been anything quite like this series. Emotions run counterpoint to incidents, with character actions such as addiction to pills spliced with ventures of growing up. All set to piano music, an instrument used as a baseline and backdrop to one girl's journey, makes this a wonder. Scott Frank wrote screenplays (Dead Again, Get Shorty), before directing (The Lookout, seven episodes here). His ship has finally come in as we see his consummate skill set behind the camera. We sense now he'll fully blossom as a storyteller.
Coming 2 America - March 5, 2021 ** Thirty-three years after friends and I were pleasantly surprised by the consistency of Eddie Murphy's comedy directed by John Landis, this sequel trips over itself saluting the original. Then it trips over its own subplots, ultra-gallery of characters, and falls flat perpetuating ethnic stereotypes. The jokes, supposed to build on the original, are variations of the same joke. That's one reason Jerry Seinfeld in his stand-up routine doesn't reference his TV show's jokes; we've all heard them.
The best character, and characterization, comes from Wesley Snipes. He shows the physicality, comic timing, and voice utilization from his hits in the early '90s. Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall are good together, too. Shame the center of the movie, if there is one, is played by Jermaine Fowler. He and Leslie Jones are given almost nothing to do. Landis had a way of staging scenes, and the screenplay grew out of the characters' wishes, dreams, and hopes. This time the screenplay is so calculated, we cut away from one short scene after another, between all (and I mean all) of the characters, with many ideas referencing the first movie. You laugh ten times in ninety-nine minutes, with five coming in the first ten minutes. Then it's a slog, with no payoff at the end except for the hope, and bet, that there won't be a Coming 3 America.
Note: Siskel & Ebert always said you can tell a sequel is desperate when it shows flashbacks of the original. This one references the original and then shows a highlight reel of Akeem's romance in the original. Desperate times indeed.
Tom & Jerry - February 26, 2021 *1/2 As Chloe Grace Moretz turns twenty-four, she's racked up seventy-four credits according to the IMDB. She can inhabit almost any world, we think, with that open face and expressive voice and eyebrows. Too bad she and actors such as the veritable Michael Pena are in the ultra-ritzy world of New York and have not witticisms to impart. They act and look like they think like the target audience: ten-to-fourteen year-olds who want all material things in life. It's as if the one percent can have it all in a few cons. Maybe they can. That's not what you're supposed to be thinking about in a reboot of a classic cartoon.
The gallery of characters and the main event, a wedding, outshine the cat and mouse. Not a bad idea, since the two animals were never that interesting to begin with, but a better idea is to give characters at least half the audience can I identify with, understand their behavior, or want to follow longer than, say, about twenty seconds. Maybe the filmmakers know this. Hence the over-structured acts, which feels like work. Actually, work is more interesting than most of this entertainment.
Judas and the Black Messiah - February 13, 2021 ***1/2 This is the role that makes Daniel Kaluuya a bona fide star. His charisma when he addresses crowds and the camera is undeniable. This is also one of the most tightly-written feature films in some time. Shaka King, the director, knows how to photograph interiors in such a way that we get the emotional zones and stark realities surrounding these characters. We also get enough of the love story.
The casting is first rate. LaKeith Stanfield looks a lot older than a seventeen year-old William O'Neal, but he sure behaves as if he's that age. His meetings with F.B.I. agent Jesse Plemons convey and imply so much about the larger forces at work that we feel King could direct almost anything in the crime genre. So, there you have it: a solid snapshot in history with great performances, with the direction occasionally getting in the way with music. Luckily the imperfection doesn't get in the way of greatness.
The Little Things - January 29, 2021 *1/2 John Lee Hancock has been a reliable writer (A Perfect World, The Alamo, The Blind Side) and seems consumed with the trials of characters on their way to unforeseen (to them) conclusions. What he's done here is take the serial killer genre and given it a new twist: just because a chief suspect is done away with does not mean things change for everyone else.
That's okay. What's not okay are the steps one of the main characters, played by Oscar-winner Rami Malek, take alongside the veteran cop fighting his own demons. Malek behaves so stupidly for a detective, it's a wonder he's still alive halfway through the movie. Another culprit is the editing; scenes we've seen before such as The Interrogation Scene, The Stakeout Scene, and the scene where one cop goes to get coffee while the other, wouldn't you know it, falls into a trap. He falls into a quagmire your average high schooler would know to avoid.
But back to the editing. The cuts amidst these scenes are so choppy with the uneven dialogue, our frustration grows. Much is made that HBO is releasing this and other films in theaters simultaneously as on their streaming service. Movies like this will keep people out of the theaters. The ending also deserves a better preceding two hours. It's the rarest element in the film.
The Mandalorian Season Two - January 10-20, 2021 **1/2 With all its repetitive performances and all, and we mean all, the shots of Baby Yoda, it's amazing several of these episodes actually work. The writers also borrow from other movies, particularly Mad Max, and revolve around the character archetype of the man with no name. As we've seen many of these tropes before, this series is a triumph in Production Design, cinematography, and dialogue. We keep watching, and almost forgive ourselves if the endings weren't so unfulfilling. That's actually what keeps us watching.
Soul - December 31, 2020 ** Pixar has built its own brand, which lends itself to formula, which here kicks in at about the ten-minute mark. We have a funny opening scene with character and world introductions, and then comes the call to the special world, to borrow a phrase from Christopher Vogler. This special world is quite some world, equipped with a quasi-villain who's pretty much an annoyed accountant. The movie devotes too much attention to him, and then gets bogged down in a buddy comedy.
We want more jazz, more time with the main character, and less preachiness at the end. For all the money spent, Pixar could indulge in its original idea and build momentum out of dramatic need. We could also stand to hear a jazz tune, growing out of and around these characters, start to finish. That would be a great start for their next movie.
Mulan - December 31, 2020 *** It's probably a good thing the animated Mulan came out twenty-two years ago, and even better that it wasn't the best-reviewed of Disney's animated features. This time New Zealander Niki Caro structures the story around Mulan's role in a battle. If the imagery and symbolism are a little heavy-handed, this one is at least sincere after an awkward start.
Caro and the actors understand how to relate to the camera and let the audience in just enough. Caro also understands how to bounce characters off one another surrounding the action, which is cut together better than most in this age of CGI. One emerges from these efforts with potential in mind. We could see Mulan and her family and soldiers in another adventure. We really could.
Wonder Woman 1984 - December 25, 2020 ** This is a movie we are almost automatically cheering for. It's time for a female-led superhero movie with a grownup set against global conflicts and with a solid actor as the love interest (Chris Pine). Too bad the two leads are given so little to do, say, or act upon. After a stellar opening with Wonder Woman (Gail Gadot) competing in a game reminiscent of Olympics crossed with Quidditch, the movie tries to build stories about the villain, played with gusto by Pedro Pascal as if he's trying to distract us from the dialogue that sounds written by a middle schooler, a quasi-foe (Kristen Wiig), and our hero's long-lost love.
All three trajectories work when on screen, then we forget about them as soon as they leave it. If these preordained trajectories don't really work or go anywhere admirable, what about the action? A set-piece on an Egyptian highway shows how confused the movie is about our hero's superpowers. The editing and jump-cutting we've seen many times before, and done better. We sense how this film needs a James Cameron, who reinvented the highway chase in the '90s, barking orders and sketching storyboards behind the camera. But then, we cared about who was in those chases. This time, while Gadot's face graces the screen about fifty percent of the time, we don't remember much. Many might be tempted to re-watch the first Wonder Woman, or move on to something else.
The TV show starring Lynda Carter ran only four years, from 1975 - 1979. The creators seemed to understand that Wonder Woman herself was not that interesting, and inserted her into diabolical plots that emphasized espionage amidst World War II. That's already more interesting than the plot, and many scenes, in this movie.
Mank - December 6, 2020 *** David Fincher's films look so good and are so watchable from one image to the next, sometimes it feels like the story is trying to keep up and match the visual virtuosity. This time the dialogue, Shakespearean in its interplay and tone, does. The structure and dramatic impact, however, is only intriguing. We're not intended to learn about Herman Mankiewicz as much as walk with him. This makes for a colorful, appealing journey that's gorgeous to look at.
Gary Oldman disappears into character, as if we're watching a barely-masked bottle of alcohol walk around and barely rise to conversation when others are in the room. That's how physical his and all the performances are. What Fincher and company do successfully depict are the pillars of power, with Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer and especially Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst. They know how to stand firm amidst Mank's tirades. After two-plus hours, when it concludes, there's not much feeling of anything, but we remember the lighting, shadows, and images.
Ted Lasso - November 25, 2020 ***1/2 We have the role Jason Sudeikis was born to play. He knows how to play uptight, professional, and benign with the kind of innocence other characters play off of in one scene after another. The real find for us Yanks is Hannah Waddingham. She is such a force while giving off an air of generosity and versatility, we hope she's on our screens for a long time.
The supporting characters, especially played by Juno Temple, round out a cast of individuals, not just wallpaper dolls there to support their coach. The local pub could is a character by itself, with enough witticisms to punctuate scenes and make this more than a sports story. This is the kind of bridge between England and the U.S. we've been waiting for, and await the next season with constant smiles.
Borat: Subsequent MovieFilm - October 23, 2020 *** If it weren't for the scenes that drag, you know, where the movie tries to construct private moments between the main character Borat and his daughter, this movie would rate higher. Outside of these scenes, we laugh twenty times and guffaw uproariously three times. The sheer brevity of Sacha Baron Cohen and cohorts draws our admiration. Halfway through we seem him go out on a few limbs, and then comes a sucker-punch with Rudy Giuliani.
The fact that his film is so timely has not been seen since Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog opened nationwide on January 2, 1998, twenty days before the Monica Lewinsky scandal first broke. Cohen and colleagues know what they have, what they've done, and hit American extremism up for what it is. He also shows us more characters than in the first Borat. You laugh a lot, and waiting several years to see this character reemerge feels about right.
Bill & Ted Face the Music - August 28, 2020 ** Boy the opening of this movie works. We want the opening scene to keep going, just like we wouldn't mind Bill and Ted to keep trundling along in their own universes. We actually want them to slow down and think they'd be wittier just rehearsing in their garage.
The opening is cut short, though, and the two heroes given a mission, and we're given so many characters that are meant to be funny that their daughters end up the most interesting with the exception of Holland Taylor as the empress/queen or whatever she is. These actresses do everything they can against the special effects and single-note jokes that grow so old in the latter half of the movie, we feel certain about one thing: there will not be a fourth Bill & Ted movie worth watching.
My Spy - July 17, 2020 ** Here the stellar cast, under the direction of a veteran comedy director, Peter Segal (Naked Gun 33 1/3), almost rise above the double-edged sword of wanting us to feel for the characters while winking at the audience at odd times so we think they're only kidding. The overall story moves along, borrowing heavily from many-a-Clint Eastwood vehicle. It's Shrek with a cop in the title role. Chloe Coleman, who plays a nine year-old, is a natural, as is the rest of the supporting cast. Dave Bautista assumes the Arnold Schwarzenegger role, just like Kindergarten Cop.
You laugh maybe ten times during this film, but they're generous laughs. The editing saves it. Each scene establishes itself, does its duty, and cuts away. Not bad, but let's hope they don't finance a My Spy 2. They've covered this ground enough.
The Old Guard - July 11,2020 ** This movie begins promisingly, and reveals the main characters well. Too bad the actors all too often are left staring off into the distance uttering lines that were written with the theme so prominent, you wonder if they were bored memorizing them in the first place. In the last half, the first-rate international cast storms a towering office building in downtown London with cops and civilians nowhere in sight, behave so stupidly and forgive each other so readily, we wonder who wasn't confused in the initial script-readings.
Leading up to the third act, Gina Prince-Bythewood, the director, gives us location cards that are groundless. These are places, maybe ideas, and serve no purpose. The fight scenes are well choreographed, but the characters are shortchanged and boring in between. Even the star, Charlize Theron, does what she's told and is the solid center, but then the screenplay by Greg Rucka, who co-created the graphic novels on which this is based, shifts haphazardly between the structure of a focal character, and switches focal characters inside this narrative, and an ensemble piece. This movie is confused on many levels except for one: the ending sets up for a sequel. It's the best scene.
Hamilton - July 3, 2020 **** This play runs just over two-and-a-half hours and builds suspense, disseminates much historical information, and reveals a portrait of a man. It also explores relationships at Alexander Hamilton's home between he and his wife, he and his sister-in-law, he and his son, and balances this with his professional ascent under the mentorship of George Washington while he trades arguments with Thomas Jefferson. Then there's Aaron Burr, and the backup dancers who nicely interlude with all the singing and round out the production numbers. Needless to say, the organization of this story is a wonder to behold.
Of all the singing, the voice that is probably most spellbinding is that of Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica, the sister-in-law. She leaves us breathless. Of all the acting, watch Daveed Diggs as Jefferson and Okieriete Onaodowan as James Madison, the latter being probably the performer who moves the least on stage. These three supporting performers know how to stay in character and draw attention to themselves when needed; they share the stage. It also helps not knowing much going in, so I was all the more astounded to discover how much Lin-Manuel Miranda is involved. At forty, he has accomplished so much with this and his predecessor In the Heights, we hope he is around for a long time. He is one of our most valuable creators today. Rolling Stone magazine titled their review with this play that it is exactly what this country needs now, and that is on multiple levels.
The Vast of Night - June 11, 2020 *** It is indeed best not to read or hear about reviews before seeing a much-heralded film. This movie starts interestingly, lulls into self-indulgence, a trait which appears sporadically in monologues, and then has an expert finish. It takes a while to get going, and with the editing, the filmmakers clearly know what they're doing. That's okay, because they insist we are with them.
That said, I found the transitions between older TV and immersion in the 1950s reality a distraction. Our emotional involvement is stunted. Then we have the strong conclusion and a few choices in the third act that are so subtle and convincing, we sense these are actors and filmmakers to watch. Something tells me they need a broader canvas to match all they want to say.
The Outsider - June 2020 **** Yes, it's streaming, not in theaters, and yes, it's the best series so far this year. Richard Price is a writer who burst onto the novel scene with The Wanderers and other works in the '70s. I first noticed him with the dialogue in The Color of Money (1986). His next cinematic ventures were Martin Scorsese's Life Lessons portion of New York Stories and Sea of Love (1989). He is as fascinated by procedurals as he is characters guiding and experiencing them.
In this, he and Jason Bateman, who stars in and directs the first two episodes, get a lot of help from Ben Mendelsohn. This solemn Aussie actor uses everything minimally; even his hair isn't very memorable and at times could be a character by itself as if impersonating a cloud over one tragedy after another unfolds. Price and Bateman are right to focus on the police procedural with the Stephen King element appearing gradually more often every episode. They leave a lot to the imagination. The filmmakers and we the audience are also greatly helped by Danny Bensi and Saunder Juriaans's atmospheric and perfectly complementary music. Those are some of the reasons we're all sucked in.
1917 - April 18, 2020 **** I list this as in the "In Theaters" section because few films, especially these days, demand to be seen on the big screen. This is the leader of the current pack. Sam Mendes's film envelopes us start to finish with its long, sustained takes. throughout the movie, the filmmakers balance quiet with noise, sound with imagery, and there are moments we notice the camera, becoming active viewers which Martin Scorsese sprang on us with Mean Streets in 1973, and times we're so galvanized by what's on the screen that we don't notice point-of-view at all.
This movie, a huge artistic voyage for Mendes after the disappointing James Bong film Spectre four years prior, perhaps shows he was building a cinematic arsenal. He also chose actors who were familiar to us in supporting roles with big stars briefly appearing. Then think about the framing techniques. So much goes unstated, we are so with this film, and yet have time to reflect, its wonder sneaks up on us.
This film won the Golden Globe and lost the Best Picture to Parasite at the Oscars. Both films are so different (Birdman and Boyhood competing in 2014 come to mind, where either could've won), the only reason I can think of that this one lost is because Parasite resonated more directly with people's situations today. But 1917's cinematic accomplishment should stand the test of time, probably for the next century.
Onward - April 2, 2020 ** I believe this was intended to me Disney-Pixar's big spring hit, the one that comes out of nowhere, is dropped in the middle of that post-Oscars lull and just in time for spring break and before the summer rush. The timing of this is fine; too bad the message is so trite and the characters not developed enough so that when they make what are meant to be wisecracks, we forget them moments if not seconds later. The themes are also familiar, as are some scenes that are either homages or ripoffs, we can't tell which, to other movies.
This is enjoyable, but we'll forget it in a year. Disney also comes within a hair's breath of ethnic stereotypes, so what's the new ground here? The answer is it's halfway to new ground, just like the characters. The animation is so well lit and nice to look at, we wish the trolls didn't inhabit such a 1950s neighborhood. That and they have not much original to say. Time for Pixar to revisit building characters and unique people.
Ford vs. Ferrari - February 14, 2020 **1/2 Matt Damon is clearly interested in old planes, cars, and male journeys through the 1940s and '50s. His acting, however, appears to be focusing on one laconic, increasingly less demonstrative style. Christian Bale is clearly the best feature film actor working today. No other actor can immerse himself in character and take the audience with him wherever he goes.
James Mangold knows how to structure a story, and this movie technically done very well. It just needs to be more: when a main character makes a pivotal choice late in Act Three and there's not much of a change in him, or the story, we sense an opportunity missed. The filmmakers would probably argue it's a reflection of the time and male persona. Fine. But for a viewing experience, it doesn't mean much, and then a character dies, and the movie moves on. One character cries, has a terse, meaningful exchange with a kid, and then it ends. The scene is like the movie: we sense more, but don't see or feel it.
Waves - February 1, 2020 ***1/2 No matter the forces bearing down on these characters, no matter how different the tones are for both halves of the movie, we are simply with Tyler and his younger sister Emily. They also come from a big house, have two parents, and have friends. Tyler is motivated and, we think, and doing well at school. He loves his girlfriend, and she loves him back, and then things happen. There are some harrowing sequences that are pure cinema. The music, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is so embedded in the filmmaking and storytelling, it might be the best use of an original score of any film released last year.
With Emily, we get a more dialed down story we don't see coming. She goes about life differently, has different ambitions, and some times those entail withdrawing into herself, until along comes a nice guy who asks her out. This leads to different life journeys, and she opens and closes the film. The father, played by Sterling K. Brown in a domineering yet complete performance, should be up for an Oscar and isn't.
It helps going into this film not knowing much. Trey Edward Shults, whose last feature was It Comes at Night, opens up to us as a filmmaker. This is more of a sprawled canvas than it seems, as that rectangle up on the wall is filled with images and music like no other recent work. He's a filmmaker to watch.
Uncut Gems - December 28, 2019 **** Now here is an original film that knows itself and stands on its own start to finish. The Safdie Brothers, who seem to know New York City streets inside and out, crafted a good movie with Good Time (2017) Two years later they get Adam Sandler's career-best performance as Howard Ratner. This is not so much because of how Sandler inhabits his character, though he does completely, but knows his character's essences in every scene. He knows how to play off other actors in and outside the frame. We also sense the music, a big part of this film, is used with a watchful, sometimes hovering, camera, as a part of welcoming, surrounding, and helping us navigate the world of buying and selling valuable stones in such a claustrophobic environment.
One of the gallery of supporting players is Eric Bogosian. It's been a long time since he burst onto our screens in Talk Radio (1988). He has such a presence about him, even when he's quiet and calculating, that he should have had a much bigger career in movies. the other heralded presence is former NBA star Kevin Garnett, who does astonishingly well because he not just showing up, but given a character arc that is at odds with that of Ratner.
It's one of those movies where every actor seems on board and immersed in the story. The filmmakers also understand that though they've made an intense movie, with veteran cinematographer Darius Khonji (Seven, Panic Room) there are quiet scenes, and they intercut closeups, medium, and master shots. We're aware that everything works, and then think about the opening and closing shots of the film, why and how they're used.
This is one of the best films of the year. I know the Best Actor category may be stacked, but Sandler as Ratner is one of the leaders.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, December 25, 2019 ** After re-launching the franchise four years ago, J.J. Abrams returns to the director's chair and plunges us into a slow-motion battle in the opening scene. It's a bizarre choice, never used again, I think. We get big action set pieces, and the special effects continue to amaze, though I'm not sure how the characters, past the planning and battle scenes, inhabit this universe. Think back to Episodes V and VI (The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi): we believed those planets existed with their distinct environments, and the characters believed and inhabited them readily before and after action scenes. We went with them.
As for the filmmaking, there are more closeups of Rey's (Daisy Ridley) face in this movie than the previous three combined. That's okay, I guess, but though she's the focal character from the title, I'm not sure what this movie is about. I guess it's the "All band together" lines, but characters say it and then are upstaged by special effects. At the end of the film, we have been entertained for more than two hours; no small accomplishment. But I'm not sure how many, if any, will walk around quoting this installment.
Parasite - December 5, 2019 **** When the directors take their time and allow characters merely to exist, even stand still, in a thriller, the emotional and thematic payoffs achieve greater release. Bong Joon Hos' film, one of his best, touches on so many themes, many of them not through dialogue, that the cumulative effect transcends cinema as an art. Families are treated as characters, and the plot grows out of them and a larger society. How much are we willing to sacrifice in order to get ahead, even if solely in terms of money? Are we really happier working for a future, or should we strive to be content no matter where we are?
This is the kind of film where all storytelling elements sneak up on you. For the plot, we sense things are about to happen before they do, but we're kept on edge. And yet, it's not so tidy. I don't know what the filmmakers intend by the last line and shot. It is, however, the most culturally specific, and therefore universal, of all South Korean films in the last several years, and one of the best of this one.
The Irishman - November 22, 2019 **** Martin Scorsese's film's greatness sneaks up on you. It was wise to wait so long after the long-term impacts of Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) for this film, based on Charles Brandt's book, to dawn our screens and consciences. At three hours and thirty minutes, it is that rare gem of an epic where you truly don't notice its length. Even in one drawn out sequence, where dramatic actions and arcs are obvious, we appreciate every shot and the time it takes.
Robbie Robertson's music adds to the epic feel, and the director revisits the score time and again so we feel the breadth and scope of this movie. Scorsese and his writer, Steven Zaillian, and cinematographer, Rodriego Prieto, balance pastorales with intimate scenes between these larger-than-life characters. All three leading men are in top form and give distinct performances with their characters representing different angles to the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). Watch how restrained Joe Pesci is though you can't take your eyes off his in every closeup. Al Pacino pounds the floors and podium as a Jimmy Hoffa who was an unstoppable force who influenced many. De Niro shows a reticent man slowly awakening to himself and the world he appears to have inhabited since young adulthood. All three, and many supporting characters, engage in a dance of power plays revolving around dominance, threats, and conversations navigating the worlds of labor unions and the mafia. At the end of the screening, though, this film stands on its own, and will endure.
It will be interesting to see where critics and scholars place this film in Scorsese's canon. The Irishman is wholly original, distinctive on every level, so epic, so personal, and straightly told. The framing devices of a man reflecting on his life never feel contrived. Many fates are highlighted when we first meet characters, but not Frank's. The last shot underscores that perhaps the most humane of us all endure, and live on, no matter how much sin we commit. Like Henry Hill and Sam "Ace" Rothstein, we have simply been with this man who commits unspeakable acts. We understand and join him in many phases of life. We are not asked to like him, but we subtly identify with him. This is one of the best films of the year.
Note:The efforts and effects to make Robert De Niro younger were noticeable at first, and then were so incorporated into the shots and story that their prominence faded.
The Godfather Part II (1974) **** - November 10, 2019 Note: Some theater chains are showing this on the big screen. It is well worth the investment.
Francis Ford Coppola's sequel to his classic, the first sequel to win Best Picture, takes such a departure from the original in terms of structure, it's amazing it works so well. Nothing feels like a misstep, even if the Hearings of federal politicians enter the story with no lead-up. They are the only oblique entrance in the story.
In terms of conclusions, though, this one seems unmatched. Including the original, we have spent over five hours with Michael Corleone (Al Pacino, in an astounding, complete performance), and we know a fair amount about, and still wonder, what he's thinking in the last shot. The parallel story of his father, Vito, starts the film, and the transitions from Sicily to New York are handled so seamlessly, it's amazing we don't feel slighted when we cut away to Michael fifty-seven years later.
All the supporting performances feel just right. Some characters, especially a young Bruno Kirby, are only in a few scenes, but convey the larger culture of the time. The cinematography by Gordon Willis matches his work in the original. The layers of this story, touching on politics, family, business and, finally, a man's path through life, with and outside the family, seem daunting tough for any filmmaker to duplicate. Seen on the big screen forty-five years after its release, I cannot think of a better sequel, or movie, that stands on its own, and the test of time.
Anthropocene: The Human Epoch - September 23, 2019 *** Edward Burtynsky's Manufactured Landscapes, seen twelve years ago, has images that still haunt. I defy anyone who's seen it to forget it. This film, which he co-directs with Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier, feels less fluid. It is framed with glorious shots of hardened volcanic rock, and makes its case for human impact on our planet's ecosystems. Some images stay with us, and the interviews are effective.
You can feel the "But" coming with everything said above. A sequence on a Swiss tunnel drags while making its point: should we celebrate such progress not knowing, or perhaps caring, about its cost? The implication feels right while not belonging one hundred percent.
This movie matters, though the lack of urging its audience members to take action, or offering any avenues, feels odd. Then again, not all documentaries have to be similar. It's just that Food Inc. ended on such inspirational and provocative notes, we left the theater ready to act. This time we leave merely having observed. **Note: This film will stream on Kanopy starting in January. View the trailer on Burtynsky's site here.
Toy Story 4 - August 30, 2019 ***1/2 To make a solid fourth movie in a franchise over twenty-four years is a testament to how strong the characters are, and how well the filmmakers hold our interest over a feature-length film. The screenwriters and director know how to populate the story with familiar characters, which is centered, but not too heavily, on Woody and Buzz Lightyear. We also meet new ones, which we expect. The best of the new characters is a throwback, a seductive heroine with henchmen, along with Duke Caboom, voiced effectively by Keanu Reeves. All of their scenes work, while the humans take a backseat.
The other main facet to the story, in sticking with the theme of the predecessors, are all the obstacles and missions the toys take on. These set-pieces also work. We laugh and are amused constantly, and when the music swells at the end, we smile big. In fact, we look forward to a next installment. That really does say something about a franchise.
Angry Birds 2 - August 27, 2019 *** Rare is the sequel better than the original. In this case the jokes are accelerated and don't depend on meeting and spending time with paper-thin characters. The filmmakers wisely focus on the plot, knowing the characters are given their personalities instantly, indeed almost on sight. Emotion laid bare, we get the story in the context of the same island setting. The characters and gags are largely reaction shots.
The jokes are slung at us like fastballs. Some don't stick, and you may forget why you laughed ten times in the movie while surrounding five-to-thirteen year-olds laughed a good thirty. Of all the actors, Jason Sudeikis proves that with the right script, as with Booksmart, his comic timing can flourish. Rachel Bloom shines as Silver, the sanest character of them all. At the end of the day, there's worse in theaters than this sequel, and we admire the gumption to improve on the original which we are glad is all but forgotten.
Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood - July 26, 2019 **** Quentin Tarantino should give lectures on how to pace a film and tease the audience. I mean "tease" in the best possible way. He plants so many ideas, events, and utterances while keeping us off-guard with what seems like mere composition and eye-trace, his films are nothing short of amazing to watch.
He's also teamed up two of Hollywood's best male star-actors. Brad Pitt has always seemed to be a character actor in a star's body. He's been that way for over twenty-seven years now, all the way back to A River Runs Through It (1992) and Thelma & Louise the year before that. Leonardo DiCaprio has starred almost as long, and yet he's never given a bad performance. I defy any viewer to take their eyes off either one of them when on the screen either.
But back to writer-director Tarantino. He knows his strengths, and reputation, and never strives to over-impress. It feels effortless. Think back to the scenes of just driving around L.A. Are they even scenes? Why are we still with him before and after this kind of storytelling? It is the mark of a master.
Spider-Man: Far from Home - July 17, 2019 *** Jon Watts's movie uses the locations for its structure and gets away with it because of how the filmmakers use the locations. They know how to load the screen with action just to the point of overload. The actors seem to know this as the high school banter is basic. Boy does this film make high school teachers look like clueless doofuses.
Jake Gyllenhaal grounds the movie. He is the best actor at suggesting so much power inside him (see Nightcrawler) that even if he doesn't deploy it, we sense an explosion could come at any second. He's in stark contrast to Tom Holland who continues to be the best actor in Spider-Man to date. This is also the best acting Jon Favreau has done: he gives himself to everyone else around him. Zendaya does what she can in an understated role, but hey, how many people go to Spider-Man to see MJ?
Booksmart - June 19, 2019 **** This movie creeps to excellence. For all the rapid back-and-forth dialogue, reactions, inflections, pauses, gasps, and overall expressions, that verb probably doesn't come to mind. Gradually, however, we realize that this movie stands on its own and pieces together values and behavior which culminate in insights for all of its hour and forty-two minutes.
Kaitlyn Dever we've seen and draws us in, especially with closeups. Beanie Feldstein, on the other hand, is the real discovery. So's the direction by Olivia Wilde. She knows how to piece together a story, stage scenes that can be so obvious and awkward, and let her cinematographer Jason McCormick maneuver so we are part of the action. Then there are the comic traditions handled and timed so well, we leave this theater joyous, fulfilled, and this is after we laughed forty times.
The Secret Life of Pets 2 - June 16, 2019 ** The structure is the problem. All the voices, particularly by Harrison Ford, are delivered convincingly. No real star carries it, and no character does either. We are with Max most of the way. He is not that interesting, and doesn't do much for those around him. We guess Act Two is all about him developing courage for Act Three. Act One introduces us to many who are dropped.
So, as you probably guessed, there's not much journey here, and a wise-cracking Louis C.K., for all his foibles off the screen, is much missed. Not even much is made of New York. You see this kind of movie, walk out, and think of something else. No harm done, not much ventured, and little remembered. Maybe we don't need to be provoked all the time, but we need to be intrigued past what's up there on the screen.
The Avengers: Endgame - June 8, 2019 *** This finale has more laughs than Infinity Wars, even if we know it didn't have to be three hours. Some scenes don't work; dramatic tension or direction fizzles out and we barely notice before the filmmakers cut away. We're never disoriented, though, even if the characters sure sound alike.
I wonder if there are two kinds of people who see this movie: those that know everything about the Marvel characters and universes and can follow the plot, and those who want to be entertained, and are for seven to ten bucks, depending on where and when you see it. An interview with James Cameron in the '90s quoted him as saying that "for seven dollars, you get a lot of movie. End of story." I believe that was twenty-five years ago when True Lies cost a reported $120 million. According to IMDB, this film cost a $400 million. We get a lot of movie, though I doubt many can quote it. You get what you pay for, so there we are.
Pokemon Detective Pikachu - May 18, 2019 *** It's a certain irony that Ryan Reynolds gives himself over to a role most completely in a movie that uses his voice ninety-nine percent of the time. The closing scene, indeed all the quiet scenes, work best. Justice Smith provides a center for everyone else to bounce off. They and Bill Nighy are the best actors in the movie, while the rest are overwhelmed by special effects.
The plot is accessible just enough. The rules of the Pikachu world probably make most sense to the legions of people who wander around on their phones battling and finding cute virtual critters. The makers also make subtle references to film noir (the early night street scenes invoke Blade Runner) and the plot structure of an opening thrusting the audience into the middle of the action holds up when we circle back. There will likely be a sequel, especially with the global feel of a movie like this. The backers would do well to use Weiko Lin's terrific new book, Crazy Screenwriting Secrets: How to Capture a Global Audience, to push the atmosphere and implications even further.
Never Look Away - March 16, 2019 ***1/2 Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is that rare filmmaker who has one film so good you recall it vividly after one viewing almost thirteen years later. That movie was The Lives of Others (2006). Four years after that, we think, he was a hired hand for The Tourist and couldn't save it. Now comes a three-hour epic so carefully crafted and tells its story so seamlessly, we're not quite sure how he pulled it off.
That's because we wonder at about the two-hour mark how it's going to tie up all the plot threads. The director sticks with the characters, though, and maybe that's part of his point: life episodes resurface now and again, but resolution comes from within. The film is close to shot-by-shot perfection in terms of his characters against landscapes, confined spaces, and subtle lighting. Now in his mid-forties, Donnersmarck may make another two big films until he's sixty. At this rate, they'll be worth every day of waiting.
The Lego Movie 2: the Second Part - February 17, 2019 **1/2 So many references are made here so quickly and cut-away from so quickly, after a while, you wonder what their purpose is. Many, many people loved the first Lego movie. That's because it focused on a central character in a familiar yet unfamiliar universe and populated it with characters we recognized. This time we get a similar amount of characters, but that presence and voice of Morgan Freeman is much missed. He provided a stable beacon, a voice of reason, if you will, that everyone else revolved around and played off of.
This is the role of Emmett, and the first half is the best. Emmett has a dream, and that sets up the structure. The ideas and inspirations, however, get a tad lost in back-and-forth banter scenes that extend too long; my attention started to wander at times in the last half, especially as the villain shows up less and less. We wanted a sequel, got one, and now it's time to look for inspiration elsewhere.
Goodfellas (1990) - February 13, 2019 **** AMC is showing four gangster movies this month. When Martin Scorsese's film opened in September 1990 along with two other gangster pictures, others in production are rumored to have backed off because the greatest film about the mob had been made. Its strength is in how consummate the director and filmmakers treat their material. On seeing it a third time, I noticed the shots of food early on, followed by a slow-pan up. Families are just as central, but we get the soldier's point of view through Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, in a wonderful performance.
The camera is frequently moving but we never lose track of what Martin and his cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, intend for us to look at. What's also amazing is how little of a plot we can trace outside of the logline, about one man's journey through the mafia. It's about this in every scene but it covers everything revolving around the mob. It lost Best Picture to Dances With Wolves. I'm not sure how many are re-showing or attending screenings of that film are occurring around the world. Goodfellas, on the other hand, is still quoted today, and its genius, still being discovered, is so personal, like Scorsese's films. It appears to resonate differently with everyone, even twenty-nine years later. That's a cultural impact rarely achieved by a film.
If Beale Street Could Talk - February 7, 2019 *** It must be tough being Barry Jenkins. Two years after you direct one of the most understated, provocative, heartfelt mainstream films which wins the Best Picture Oscar, you have to follow it up. He's stuck to his style and again tells a small story with big implications and is tied to a much bigger American picture. This is especially with the great use of a quote by James Baldwin that starts it off.
Jenkins uses voiceover this time, yet he's most powerful when we observe with his camera people connecting with others. Sometimes physical, sometimes sharing the frame, always with their eyes. He's fascinated by looks people give: to their surroundings, the environments they inhabit, usually before or after sizing others up. The characters' situations are created by some, invaded by others, always beset by what's at stake. The performances here are nuanced and appear part of the same world. At times it's hard to follow the timeline, and maybe that's the point. At the end, Moonlight mattered because it was so straight-forward in every sense. Here the director plays with time, and may have robbed an emotional rush at the end.
The Grinch - December 20, 2018 **1/2 Maybe the original is so ingrained in our conscience, without a radical new twist, the tale is best left alone. This outing is entertaining enough, with many characters given added detail. The interactions are amusing enough, and that's that: then the movie switches back to another agenda and interaction, all of it for little effect.
Illumination is not pluming the depths with this film and The Minions, who were better as sidekicks. (Who are the protagonists in this movie anyway?) Here we don't leave the theater quoting lines or eager for more from Whoville or to spend more time with anyone. Perhaps a misbegotten, jaded Jim Carrey was barking up the right tree eighteen years ago. In a different movie, he probably would've worked.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse - December 15, 2018 ***1/2 I'm not sure where to begin. The animation is glorious, even if cumulatively this film feels like an assault at times (you can hear Hollywood insiders or many viewers saying already, "That's just how it's done.") The genre and storytelling rules are followed and changed up: we get a few main characters, many accomplices, and a few key villains. And yet, and yet, we're never confused and there are times where so much fills the frame before the rapid cutaway, we want to see this film again.
I also kept thinking of Ben Fritz's The Big Picture, the industry must-read of the year. Amy Pascal is clearly a driving force behind this picture. What's her relationship with Sony like now? And did the three directors quarrel much, have creative instead of combustible conflict, and generate this animated wonder? And where does this fit in with the other Spider-Man movies? On it's own, that's where, and that's all the more reason to see it, on technical and storytelling levels. It's one of the best films of the year.
Widows - December 1, 2018 ***1/2 Here we have a director firmly in control of his story and the genre. Steve McQueen's film works so well because of the seamlessness of episodes and what he gets out of his actors. All of them embody personas and emotional zones in what borders on a huge cast and in a plot that remains easy to follow. We are never confused, and boy do the curveballs come in a few ways.
One of them is one of the most creative shots to be seen in mainstream filmmaking this year that juxtaposes neighborhoods. We love to be shown the same thing in a different way, and there must be an undercurrent of audiences who want this. For the performances, Viola Davis is the anchor, and the two male leads deliver their best work in recent years. If there's one slightly mishandled step, it's that the plot revolves around campaigns for Alderman. A unique civic position, yes, but harder to gauge its centrality, so perhaps it's a commentary on our localized democratic bodies. This kind of movie hinges on the performances, though, and that's where the life is. They don't leave you quietly when the screen fades to black.
Green Book - November 24, 2018 *** Boy does this film work better than it should. Peter Farrelly's movie walks the narrow path of friendship, touching on many issues. I honestly noticed a little of what many have criticized about it: casting the white person as savior. It does, and the African American teaches the tough New York Italian-American a lot, too.
The performances are spot-on. We believe these are real people who, away from their native city landscape, traverse the American South with a unique brand of music. The screenplay balances time in the car, hotels, and interactions just off-stage as Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen, who is perfect) share some of the same, if not just as many, discoveries along the way. The sets are plain, the framing geographical, and suggestions just enough. This may not be the transformative film for years to come, but it walks the tightrope nicely, and tells a story few appear to have heard about. That's a nice accomplishment.
Ralph Breaks the Internet - November 23, 2018 ** There is something too-innocent about Disney movies. They lack the edge of...well, I keep going back to Shrek from seventeen years ago. There is friendship here, but not much inner need. Since these characters are in video games, we get the feeling they could be in danger or whisked away to another world and things would turn out okay, for them and for us.
The car chases are the best-shot in the film. Through the endless carousel of characters who have to have one-liners to etch their pseudo-comic presence and cameo, scenes are barely punctuated before moving on. We need edgierer writing, perhaps more improvisation, and some kind of underlying urgency. For all the princesses and children characters that appear in this movie, there is nary a damsel in distress. But don't worry, strength in the filmmaker's eyes appears to simply act and get tough. You get the idea.
Die Hard (1988) - November 14, 2018 *** Seeing John McTiernan's film thirty years after it stormed the screens mid-summer is to see an iconic action film that holds up. Upon release, someone called it an action movie crossed with The Towering Inferno. I am really not sure how famous that reference is today. A script consultant, however, once pointed out how brilliant the setup is, particularly with the villains, and we see how stacked things are against John McClane.
Since McTiernan reportedly wanted a percolating sense of joy throughout the film, he got a ton of help from Bruce Willis. He's pushed just enough as an actor, and Alan Rickman, in his screen debut, commands every scene he's in. There's also something to be said about special effects before CGI and the tired visual cliche of things flying in slow motion just past the camera. We feel like we have the best seats available for this night. If things slow a fair amount in Act Two, the climax makes up for it. So does the writing and acting.
McTiernan's uneven career ended badly with a conviction of lying to the F.B.I. in the Anthony Pelecano investigation. He helmed this good one and the great The Hunt for Red October (He only directed eleven films total, and the last three were reportedly terrible and barely seen). At one time he commanded action films, albeit briefly, and not consistently. This time he sure knew how to stage, cut, and coordinate action scenes, though.
Mission Impossible: Fallout - September 8, 2018 ***1/2 The last installment was the best sheer entertainment of that summer. So is this one for this summer, only the tearjerker scenes fall flat (the ending works). There are also a couple of action scenes that may remind viewers of '90s action films (True Lies and Clear and Present Danger). On the other hand, the chase scenes and stunt work are unparalleled; these scenes and the soundtrack, especially with the use of music, get your pulse up there.
So divorced are Ethan Hunt and his team from politics, they pretty much have no choice but to go rogue. Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie, who did the last one, stacks his scenes so heavily with plot twists and turns uttered by the characters, it's a wonder the cast keeps up. The actors look like they're following orders half the time. McQuarrie, like Shane Black, has clearly read Chandler, Hammett, and other masters of the spy/noir genre. The agendas are, or at least suggest, the characters in such short order, it lays a solid foundation for the harrowing scenes in act three (which are laughably staged and set up, but never mind). For the extended climax, this is has hair-raising as chase scenes get on the big screen. That's principally why we go, right?
Blackkklansmen - August 25. 2018 **** Spike Lee sure has had his peaks and valleys as a filmmaker, and here he makes so many conscious choices in how to present his characters and story, it turns out to be one of his best. A friend and I once agreed that Lee at least swings for the fences every time. Here he invites us in, draws us into the 1970s, and we gradually realize he's made a movie that looks like a '70s movie.
The director has his actors dial down their personalities. He knows the subtext and underlying issues are so pertinent then and now, and when he uses footage (no spoilers, I promise), it infuses the movie's message, though it's not a message movie for much of the time, we think. This little story stands on its own, and so does Lee's use of the present. Together they are a collage that go hand in hand. This is slyly one of the best films of the year, and sly is not a word that usually comes to mind with Spike Lee.
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation - July 17, 2018 ** In light of Ben Fritz's seminal book The Big Picture, one really should see Hotel Transylvania 3 because it's from Sony Pictures, trying to match Pixar, Disney, and others in the animation department, and to see how hard it is, and people try, to sustain a franchise. It's not so much the animators as the writers and, ultimately, the director, of course. They dole out character details and problems in a huge cast, such as Frankenstein's gambling problem, and never explore anything. Other character trajectories and goals appear such as a quest for a family heirloom.
A writing teacher once said "Events are not drama, reaction is." When there are reactions in this movie, they are so frenetic and cut away from so quickly, we barely have a chance to laugh. Then we have to remember which of the twenty characters or so who fall behind Dracula (Adam Sandler) and his needs, goals etc., because another one will be the focus of the next five-second gag. This isn't hard work, just not as witty, and too much of it. There's a richer story here. An entire portion of the movie could focus on the most inspirational setup: the Gremlins' airline. The rest of the goals are prompts, scenes, and then we're on to something else.
Ant-Man and the Wasp - July 6, 2018 *** Balance must have been on the minds of the filmmakers of this sequel. That idea, or guideline, kept popping up in my mind, and really did when at one point seven characters walk out of a building and we know a little about each of them. At least we know their roles in the story. William Goldman wrote, "It's all in the casting" in Adventures in the Screen Trade. Not only do they have Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer, the ever-reliable Laurence Fishburne is here, though he's given the least to do and does a fair amount. He always does.
Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly are back, along with Bobby Cannavale, a trio of FBI agents, Michael Pena's security office, and...it's quite the accomplishment that this movie doesn't feel more crowded. This is even with many special effects that unfortunately result in visual cliches. Well, it's enjoyable, though not as inspiring as the first Ant-Man. Few sequels are. In fact, what's out-of-balance is the product placement of two foreign cars nudging out the American for screen time. They could almost be characters themselves.
**Note: Having read Ben Fritz's wonderful new book The Big Picture, the end-credits coda references the Avengers' universe. Ben was right, and most of the audience got it. Guy behind me in the theater said, "That's not over, Marvel always has a couple skits." He was right.
First Reformed - June 20, 2018 **** Here's a reason to follow directors: Paul Schrader has been a master screenwriter on some landmark films (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull). He's directed since Blue Collar in 1978, which grew from his Michigan roots and looked at auto labor issues like never before. He's been spotty, however, the last fifteen years, his last solid effort being Auto Focus in 2002. Now, at seventy-one, he makes a masterpiece. This movie centers on and revolves around Ethan Hawke in a career-defining performance. Schrader has relied on singular performances before, such as Natasha Richardson in Patty Hearst, but here we are with Hawke as a priest while Schrader is in our heads. You bet priests think about the environment. Heard the pope recently?
Look at how this movie slowly opens with the classy credits. The opening shot is in stark contrast to the vast majority of the film: the camera barely moves, and we barely see the main character drive except toward the end. Movement is what Schrader is about; what moves us, how we think about it, and when we decide to act. The ending is a stunner, and for once doesn't decide everything for us. After so many shots are starkly framed, this one is simple, and leaves us to make up our minds on many levels. That is quite the compliment from a director whom we are so glad has returned to form. This movie matters the most so far this year, by far.
Solo: A Star Wars Story - June 19, 2018 *** I liked this movie. It stumbles here and there, noticeably with a robot's death scene with an attempted comedic backstory, but otherwise, this is more sure-footed than it seems and works thematically to the end. The screenplay, by Lawrence Kasdan, who burst onto the scene writing The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and his son Jonathan, moves along like a painting: characters are sketched and etched here and there. Ron Howard, whom just about everyone knows took the reins after the first two directors were fired, knows how to move a story along and cuts back and forth between master shots in action scenes. It's very well-paced for two hours fifteen.
Probably the most triumphant is the casting. Woody Harrelson was once described by Roger Ebert as the kind of actor who can walk into a room and you have no idea what he will do. He works in a sizable role, as does Paul Bettany in a pivotal one; in an age where Michael Fassbender seems to get everything, Bettany is half-forgotten by the crowds and handles his role with the right amount of wry, sly, sensibility. Alden Ehrenreich does great as Solo. So, as William Goldman once wrote that it's all in the casting, this movie proves it in scene after scene. It's more ensemble than centered on what many consider to be the most interesting character in the franchise. That's okay: when you give people more than we expect, the story endures.
Black Panther - May 13, 2018 ***1/2 Black Panther is a huge success, I think, because it distinguishes itself from all the other super-hero-comic-book movies. It stands on its own, and for something we don't always see on American movie screens: African tribalism. The film also doesn't feel male-focused as the female characters are just as strong-willed; though they don't share equal screen time (we believe), every entrance is nuanced so we know where characters are coming from, their story roles, and agendas.
If there's one unusual element, it's the structure, taking us to an East Asian country in Act One. We sense we have a two-hour villain on our hands before that character is dealt with, if you know what I mean. The movie also approaches the African American experience from what could be an oblique angle, and seamlessly weaves it into the story, then frames the entire movie with it. The battle scenes are just long, or short, enough. Now that we're set up for a sequel, this will be tough to match, but the characters are rich enough, they seem ripe enough to explore. Since this is grounded in realism, a smart move by the filmmakers. the only fear is the sequel will be loaded with special effects, and loaded can easily lead to that unfortunate category of "over-loaded."
Annihilation - April 28, 2018 *** As screenwriter and director, Alex Garland gets so much right the first two-thirds of his latest film, it's easy to see why science movies unearth so many questions and then solve things simply. He is a master at creating atmosphere and using all cinematic tools to pace his movies. He also immerses us in different worlds. Ex Machina did that, too. We understand, are oriented, then disoriented, even if a cliche I am so tired of feels anew.
You'll see: in the spirit of many military and so many horror movies, a group expedition slowly unravels, complete with people reaching where they shouldn't. The characters are believable enough; these people have lost something and, we feel, aren't moving on, hence the volunteerism though this is sort of glossed over. The performances suggest and bury so much, the lines sometimes delivered so calculatingly, we wonder just how different these people are from whoever's considered average these days.
Alas, it's a formula not done formulaically, just like Denis Villeneuve's Arrival after his brilliant Sicario. These two original filmmakers follow up masterpieces with solid efforts in the confines of hefty budgets and likely more people looking on. Maybe the two directors are not tough enough. Take the ending here - we already know what's happened and the movie tells us again, then ends. This is after an intriguing form behaves inconsistently in order to, we guess, end the film. We're not engaged enough for a sequel, so see this for the above. Some questions are good, too, but for storytelling, there's a format better than this one, and one that could feel organic even when it isn't.
The Shape of Water - March 31, 2018 *** We all know about expectations, especially if a movie has trailers, advance screenings, or back in the day, talkshow appearances. Since this film won Best Picture, they were pretty high. It is different from much thoroughfare, and stands on its own. The performances are first rate. No one misses a beat in front of the camera, which leads us to what went on in back of it.
Starting with that man in a rubber suit. It's a throwback to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, sure, and he's the least interesting character. Writer-director Guillermo Del Toro knows this, and casts his social commentary net wide. Much of the audience also knows or senses the three-act structure and in this case, if there's an Act Two-and-a-half, this movie gets bogged down in a few scenes that don't work. On the other hand, the suspense sure does throughout Acts One and the first of part of Act Two; how we get to the final scene I didn't buy. The movie also has it both ways: was it real, or fantasy?
Playing both sides is one consistency with Del Toro, which he did with Pan's Labyrinth with its mix of childhood innocence and grownup violence. He's no doubt talented, but aside from the late lull here, the romance feels thrown in as the rest of the story builds steam. He's great with espionage, though.
Early Man - February 25, 2018 ***1/2 Nick Park's new film, and he and collaborators at Aardman have been creating these worlds for more than two decades, sticks with its characters in tough situations. Class and caste systems are the focus, as are greed and misunderstandings staged like classic British plays. We laugh steadily, and may not remember some funny moments, but chuckling for eighty-nine minutes is more than we get from most movies let alone comedies. It's also, I bet, enjoyable for anyone who plays soccer at all levels or the millions who watch it on the professional and semi-professional levels.
Stay for the credits. Not for an end gag, but to see how many people work on these films. These works may be viewed as small, but they take enormous effort and, I think, are under-recognized. We hope they keep creating and finding audiences because this strain of humor in these worlds is one of a kind. The hog is funny, too.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri - January 31, 2018 **** Martin McDonagh's third film is easily his best. When you take five years between works and it's this good, this original and timely, we cut some slack, and are taken away right into America's backyard. If and when non-Americans view this film, what a snapshot. This movie operates on principles and parallels, and there are many at work. Even in the quiet scenes, some idea and affect, or effect, are afoot. We don't know what's coming next all the way to the ending. The story ends on an ambiguous note, and earns it.
No scene is overshot or undershot. The performances are like clockwork in a machine that hurls fastballs at us in between changeups. Sometimes you think about what I call Impact Characters in movies and stories. See what these people do: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell inflict and react to things they can and cannot control. No one under the hand of writer-director McDonagh misses a step. It's also that specific film that touches on many issues, though one is central.
It's interesting that Hollywood was once maligned for faltering around working class people. When The Full Monty hit our screens twenty years ago last fall, Siskel and Ebert lamented that people wanted films about the working class. With The Florida Project, I, Tonya, and this movie, we have proof that great movies can be made about struggling people trying to do the best they can with almost no luxuries (two of these movies were made by foreigners, by the way). It's hard to judge the impact of this movie. Perhaps Trump America is indeed more interesting than it seems. Or, those of us outside of these lives can seek to understand and reconcile with them. Most likely, many of us outside the one percent know these kinds of people all too well.
Darkest Hour - January 27, 2018 **1/2 Gary Oldman gives his career-best performance, embodying a character in a movie that without him, would be empty, and I mean empty save for Kristin Scott Thomas. He is sure to win the Oscar for Best Actor. We don't get too much of a sense of what Winston Churchill was about as a man, but boy is Oldman watchable with all the closeups and shots of him in a room. This movie also has solid production design and cinematography, though the shafts of light are a tad overdone.
Oldman has sometimes overacted (The Professional) and acted, dare we say, British in an American part (The Batman trilogy). Here he starts that way in the opening scene and holds back the rest of the way. Under Joe Wright's direction, though, we don't get much sense of his values. (There's a recent book about Churchill in the Boer wars, maybe that enlightens us.) Scenes flow together but don't add up to much. The filmmakers even throw in a few quotes near the end, which is predictable. So I suppose it's underwritten, but watchable. There's a better movie here with a clear dramatic arc. I kept thinking of The King's Speech and how it uncovered meaning layers from the discussions in the back hallways. This movie has the discussions, some suggestions, and you leave feeling pretty good. See it for the performance, then read up.
**Note: There is also a present-day line uttered by Winston Churchill that bothered me. Why try to modernize and undermine the work itself?
I, Tonya - January 25, 2018 **** This is that rare movie that gets better the more you think about it. It is exhilaratingly directed by Craig Gillespie, proof that almost twenty-four years after a scandal, we can become involved and absorbed in a personal story about an ice skater. This is timeless and resonant today, and finishes with statements of our society without hitting us over the head.
Margot Robbie shows she can act with a versatility and range while always in character. Actually, the entire cast proves themselves. Allison Janney should win the Oscar for Supporting Actress, and Sebastian Stan portrays a man who starts good and reveals troubles and torment through actions. The zooming camera and editing (by Tatiana S. Riegel, also Oscar-nominated) never jar us and keep our attention. That's superior filmmaking.
This film has such a profound impact on us, we think about it for a few days afterward. We look back to that time: so little has changed with our media circus. With the closing perfect scenes, Tonya was the flavor of the day in 1994 as someone to cheer for, then hate. Who's next?
The Post - January 19, 2018 *** This movie works cumulatively. Coming on or about the one year-point of the Trump presidency, Steven Spielberg and co. worked, I think, very quickly to get this film made. Since it's directed by Spielberg, we also enjoy almost every step of the way. His long-time cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shows rooms in noir-like light and shadow with facial expressions plainly showing emotions and, always, people thinking. Of the stars, Tom Hanks is the more evocative, playing Ben Bradlee as he glimpses the business world while running a major newspaper. Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham, on the other hand, plays royalty as sure-footed in some scenes, not in others, and even at this stage in her career, I'm not sure how much of this was intentional. Much is hidden with her; the thread of a woman-in-a-man's world is the most clear. Bruce Greenwood shows Robert McNamara as a proponent and spin doctor of war who is caught in a tough situation after serving as Defense Secretary. Of the solid supporting cast, Tracey Letts and Bradley Whitford are almost unrecognizable as associates and advisors to Streep. They know their roles and fill in the story's edges just right.
The movie was certainly written quickly: the phrase "at stake" is uttered several times. But for our time, this movie matters. It builds suspense while revealing characters in the Washington machine, and with the ending shot and statement about newspapers, we know Washington appears bottomless for stories.
Murder on the Orient Express - January 12, 2018 *** Kenneth Branagh's new directorial effort is a solid throwback. Branagh is here to celebrate characters, stories, and movies. His Hercules Poiret commands scenes yet doesn't demand much of his peers or the audience; he's surveying the world around him and never lets on he's in over his head. We admire and identify with the guy. The camera moves ever so slightly in some shots, faster in others, and takes in Turkey the we want to be taken. He also uses a nice overhead shot when first discussing the murder. As a director, he takes chances. This reminds me of Dead Again, his solid thriller that muddled in the middle before building toward a terrific climax.
The opening here is like the middle of Dead. It seems like it can't wait to get on the train. When we do get there and the plot's gears get going, we relax and enjoy the ride. The cast is pitch-perfect and everyone seems to know their roles just right. It's a mix of, at least to American audiences I suspect, fresh faces and veterans (Such as Dame Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Johnny Depp). If the first half is light-hearted, the third act turns serious, sincere, and in another long shot late in the film, leaves us fulfilled. As a director and actor, this guy eerily seems like he's finding his way and building toward more serious fare. He's giving us something to look forward to, especially with the very last shot here. That's more than most durable directors out there, and he's still curious about the corruption that lurks beneath the surface of us all, as are many of us.
Star Wars: the Last Jedi - December 26, 2017 ***1/2 Rian Johnson's take on the Star Wars franchise, probably the most successful in cinematic history dollar per dollar, returns and rejuvenates the story. Many things are sewn up and, as half-expected, left open for the next movie. Compared to last year's Rogue One, though, this doesn't feel strained. With the characters, the audience stumbles from one action set-piece to another, all of which are well staged and shot.
The script, also by Johnson, hovers very near lines from episodes four through six, veering off from repetition at the last word or instant. As most characters and archetypes are recycled, one pops up and breathes new life, played by Benecio Del Toro. The dramatic urgency of scenes and sequences, however, is doled out unevenly, especially in a capture-and-escape in what is presumed a take on Monte Carlo.
There are injections of humor (though one toward the end falls flat) including one laugh close to the beginning. In the end, we've had a good time. Many a teenager has professed to seeing this film more than once already. I'm not sure about adults forty and up will demand repeated viewings. We see it, we're entertained, and await the next big movie. Judging by the previews, the next part of this franchise will be one of the few big-budget movies worth watching.
American Made - November 25, 2017 *** For all its lack of personal involvement, Doug Liman's new film is continually entertaining. Tom Cruise continues to amaze me, and us, I think, on at least one level. He is quite a good actor, throwing himself into roles wholeheartedly and is watchable every step of the way. For how personable he is on screen, however, this movie doesn't bring in his patriotism or how he feels about the predicament as the stakes get higher and higher.
On the other hand, this film is very well made, Liman's best in years. It diagrams how one man's participation in escalating Latin American drug and arms trades begin and grow over time. The flashback tool is handled just right and lets us juxtapose what happened. We see how Barry Seal (Cruise) juggles all his business trips with family, and most domestic scenes, dropped about a third of the way in and picked up later, work. There just aren't many consequences along the way; they are observed but not felt. If you remember this time, though, it's a nifty snapshot and teaches without being didactic. That's an accomplishment.
Wonder - November 20, 2017 **1/2 The feel-good genre is alive and well. This family is so understanding, supportive, and "cool," this movie loses focus on what it's about. Even a school headmaster is understanding and with a slight battle, banishes the villain in one scene, never to be heard from again. That's because the villain isn't well-defined. Neither is the hero, for a fifth-grader.
Fifth grade can be tough at times, if not for periods, for extended periods. This kid goes through fights and verbal insults (one key insult isn't clarified well at all) and really comes out on top, of course. The ending, where the message starts to branch out, saves the movie. It still doesn't take away from the fact that this could've been produced by the Hallmark channel. When your parents are Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts, one of whom is in graduate school and gets out of her mess by retrieving data on a computer disc, you know it's all-too-easy. The sister succeeds on her two main levels. They all live in a very nice brownstone in New York City. Their home is always immaculately clean. The kid's dream, announced at the beginning, is sort of plugged in at the end, but not much is made of it along the way.
This movie is an okay diversion, a good reminder, but makes struggles look easy. Looks, as we know, aren't everything. Especially when almost every character in the movie is white. Maybe money does make things a lot easier. A lot.
The Florida Project - November 14, 2017 **** Sean Baker's The Florida Project grows in its power and to such an untraceable effect, we're left wondering what the storyboarding and conference calls and creative process were like. It's interesting how we've had two films about childhood set in Florida, the other being last year's Oscar-winner Moonlight, that are structured in a way for story elements to build right in front of us, yet we don't see the payoffs coming, or do they, or do we? This is the kind of slice-of-life movie that many artsy films try to be (the dreary, droning Blue Valentine comes to mind).
Baker's film is so real...let's stop there. Reality can indeed be episodic, and the filmmakers understand this. It can also be seamless, insightful, caring, and cold, occasionally all in half a day. The performances are insightful, heartfelt, and restrained. Willem Defoe also breaks against type as an ordinary guy with everyday struggles. We don't know how he and the other characters got to be where they are, they just are. The main characters around which the story finally settles are underplayed, and their big scenes are the least convincing. Ah, but the big scenes have to occur. You'll see what I mean.
In case you didn't notice, this film is a series of juxtapositions, starting with the city or mall or wherever which is right next to...I dare not reveal. With the straight-forward shots and the structure that sneaks up on us, this is one of the best films of the year. And it matters greatly in the context of books, too, starting with Evicted and Hillbilly Elegy. Those on societal fringes matter, too.
Blade Runner 2049 - October 8, 2017 ***1/2 Denis Villeneuve's new film is a triumph in production design, cinematography, and special effects. These three elements together with a pounding, marauding musical score all blend to create an atmosphere that's out of the park: it complements to the hilt, momentarily draws attention to itself, then fuels each scene and the rest of the movie. The moods and tones are so memorable we almost forget the performances. On those levels, this is much like the first Blade Runner, which came out thirty-five years ago and stood out so much for the above reasons. We're glad they made a sequel, and this falls into a similar category as the first one: we'll see it twice, maybe three times over the course of our lifetimes, ponder, wonder, and not feel a huge need to see it more.
Though it's thick with character exploration, heart is not at the forefront of Villeneuve's movie. There is more plot, which revolves around family, a change I'm not sure how many people saw coming. This is a great tour, and at two hours and forty-three minutes, too much. I'm not sure what they could've cut out, but there had to be something.
Logan Lucky - September 9, 2017 ***1/2 I'm not sure if what inspires Steven Soderbergh outside of seeing people work together in groups and in and around systems of societal norms. Years after he said he would retire from filmmaking, he keeps churning them out, telling stories so efficiently and wittily, I think he simply cannot give up his niche. This is one of the most enjoyable films of the year, and is the best entertainment for the first hour and thirty minutes. The remaining thirty or so get a little long. Two characters that come in late don't hold our attention like the others do. They're more of a force than people, but, I suppose, they are necessary.
The first three-quarters, however, has the care and love of detail that reminded me of the Coen Brothers or perhaps Spike Lee in his early days. We are plunged into a particular culture. As the plot machinations heat up, so do the visuals. The banter is there, too, and we get wonderful performances from the get-go by Channing Tatum (whom I doubted at one time), Adam Driver, Riley Keough, and Daniel Craig. They're terrific. The director likes these people in this story. My only fear is after this film and his fare such as Beyond the Candelabra, he might become too efficient for his own good.
**Note: One actor has soared back to integrity on the screen, proof that you can be down after hosting the Oscars, have a bomb of a movie, and recover. His performance is wonderful, and for the first time in a while I did not recognize someone for the entire movie.
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography - September 2, 2017 *** For all the urgency and intricacies and discoveries of Errol Morris's work, this one feels knocked out in a slight hurry. That is not to say the great documentarian doesn't take his time or uncovers enough to hold our attention for seventy-six minutes. This one-person journey, though, doesn't touch on all the hidden information such as The Unknown Known and his great The Thin Blue Line.
Speaking of the latter, the music here is reminiscent of Phillip Glass's score for it, though this is complementary rather than an entire character inhabiting the room with us. Instead of compounding historical importance, Morris has us walk with a person for a while as Elsa recalls spending time at Grove Press in New York, fraternizing with Allen Ginsberg, and sharing her unique life with her husband Harvey (their son is barely in the movie, which may be telling). This is a quick dip into another world, what film can do. Now it's time for the master to move on. I read that Elsa has Alzheimer's, so this had to be done quickly. There you are: life is bigger than film, and can rush genius.
The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature - August 11, 2017 ** For all its color, this movie isn't memorable. The filmmakers hurl so much at us it wears us down. The audience needs to breathe. As the recently deceased Marty Sklar, so involved with Disney Imagineering for decades followed the rule of know your audience, this movie seems to think its audience doesn't have the attention span of a second. I don't think the filmmakers know us.
It's also hard when democracy isn't given clout. The plot involves a tycoon knocking down a city park at will and building an amusement park. No checks and balances appear. Since the villain has his way, that signifies how much a derivative the movie is. All the thought goes into strained gags, and we appreciate good writing in this genre when we see it elsewhere.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets - July 25, 2017 *** Luc Besson continues to imagine, and with his special effects in the opening scenes, and how his camera navigates them, shows us he can indeed create other worlds. He also has one solid lead (Cara Delevingne) while another (Dane DeHaan) stoically tries to hold his own when they share the screen. Besson also uses the same cinematographer, Thierry Arbogast, as he did with The Fifth Element so boy does this movie look pretty (we also remember how much Bruce Willis carried that film). Even Clive Owen is spot-on as an army admiral whom we suspect at first sight and slowly has the tables turned on him. Watch his looks as his world folds in on him.
You can sense the "but" coming. The first two-thirds is great and the last third devolves into a classic shoot 'em up shootout at the end. The "natives" in this case, hovering close to Avatar territory, wear loincloths. We get the message several times that war is bad. Besson's imagination at some point stopped, and this magical world ends up sprinkled with spoken and visual cliches among great creativity. This film looks great and is expertly cut together. Besson borrows from much though it feels original and the verve with which it's made energy channels a backstory that's believable. All of this is with first-rate production design. This is fantastic to experience on the big screen. Now Luc can start imagining in other ways in which he himself or other storytellers can push him.
Dunkirk - July 24, 2017 ***1/2 Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk maintains the same format of intersecting stories as his previous films. His last movie, Interstellar, ran almost three hours and this one goes under two. This is important because this time I don't think anything could've been cut from such sophisticated plotting and minimal dialogue whereas before an entire character's subplot was unnecessary. Many shots stay in our minds after the film, and like Saving Private Ryan, you really do feel like you're participating in the war. This story also revolves around a span of reportedly eight days that was summarized in a paragraph in my high school textbook; many, I suspect, in North America will be new to this.
Dunkirk also follows the storytelling principle of choosing a particular time, place, and characters, and we instantly understand their plight. The swelling, almost constant soundtrack of music that was so wearing in Interstellar and The Dark Knight stops just short of wearing us down. That's an apt metaphor for a war film. I imagine Christopher, who wrote and directed, had that in mind.
Baby Driver - July 18, 2017 ***1/2 True: this is entertaining and superb craftsmanship. In a crime movie filled with a gallery of men, we even buy the love story. The emotions seem real. The end, however, is simply too much. Baby Driver runs one hour and fifty-two minutes and and could've stopped about one-forty. We've been assaulted before (more appropriately taken for a wild ride) in Edgar Wright's best film, Hot Fuzz, which came out ten years ago. This is his second best.
The witticisms add so much to a tried and almost tired genre, the urban heist picture. The performances are great, especially with what feels like a rediscovery of Jamie Foxx. He embraces darknesses in characters (Django Unchained); something about his eyes narrowing like a laser as he sizes up and probes people around him. The other Oscar-winner in the cast, Kevin Spacey, is also wonderful, adding heft, and Paul Williams's cameo is completely inspired. This is all great, including the central performance by Ansel Elgort. It just all sails right past a climax and keeps going and ties skillfully ties everything up at the end. It's just a tad...you know.
Despicable Me 3 - July 2, 2017 ** This is a toughie. A comedy that had me chuckle ten times but not laugh riotously, four or five storylines that are ripe for the payoff and never quite get there. This movie is at least consistent on one level: the opening is the trailer, and is the most entertaining part of the movie. The villain is in place and prancing about, then disappears for an hour. We have Gru and Lucy. We have the Minions. We have Gru's long lost brother. We're taken to far away places that are great to look at. There's the cross-cultural scenes, a reality song show scene that works, and the kids detour for a fantasy about a mythical creature.
I think we're up to seven storylines with characters who have potential for laughs, but nothing builds. The final showdown is recycled, and we don't fear for anyone too much. Maybe the last installment was so good, and El Macho so menacing, the kids so alluring with a lovestruck teenager, we felt they were real people. This movie will make money, and be cast aside from the other two in a pretty short time, as in weeks.
Wonder Woman - July 1, 2017 **1/2 So it does in fact all come down to expectations. After hearing how good this movie was from teens, adults, both genders (alas, now transgenders etc. consulted at this stage), my expectations were decent. The story arc is good, the acting mostly, though I'm not sure what Gal Gadot will do after this role. Her eyes suggest a fair amount and the rest of her face seems struggling to catch up, and that's not catching up to much. David Thewlis, Danny Huston, and a good comic turn by the underrated Said Taghmaoui make room for the special effects. Maybe this is like Dick Tracy, where the central role is the least interesting. The filmmakers seem to know this up to a point. I say to a point because there are some recycled bad guy lines ("It is pointless...to struggle," and "You are something-or-other than you can imagine."), that maybe today's audiences haven't heard as much. (That first example I still recall from Return of the Jedi).
The mythology incorporated into the screenplay works nicely. The first part is the best, and sets up Act Three. There is a power dynamic between two actresses who play off and compete with each other: Robin Wright, stern as she is in House of Cards, and the ageless Connie Nielsen, been a while since she graced our screens. We want to spend more time on those far-off islands. Chris Pine, not as good here as last year's Hell or High Water, does what he can in an underwritten role.
If this sounds like I'm bandying about, it's because some elements are there. Chiefly Wonder Woman's backstory. Other parts don't add up to much. This character deserves better, more depth, or less screen time, which might be impossible. She deserves something with all those special effects and a third act that drags to the finish line.
Gifted - June 30, 2017 *** For some reason, acts, all three of them, are more apparent lately in the structure of movies. Act One in this movie shows us what the previews did: a girl has a mathematical talent. Actually, she's a genius. Act Two has her branch out and explore the family history, her uncle develops a romantic relationship, and the kid might go to private school. Act Three looks at the family struggles who will raise the kid. Sprinkled about are courtroom scenes that individually work.
This movie is tightly written, and every line is given with belief and sincerity. That's the mark of a good director. Kudos to the performers, especially Chris Evans, proving his versatility I said he had years ago. He will be around a long time, super hero or not. It's also good to see Glenn Plummer again, and Lindsay Duncan is perfect in her role.
Alas, the last twenty minutes is so preposterous, it feels almost certain some scenes were cut out. That's also because we have too many characters, good as everyone is, especially Octavia Spencer. In the end, you'll see, the kid's not confused at all about what's transpired, grandma's not arrested and, we guess, the central relationship is intact. But what about the others, as in, many other things? Starting with the child's father.
Cars 3 - June 28, 2017 *** How Cars 3 treats and grows a character in the latter half of Act Two and all of Act Three saves another character and the movie. You'll see what I mean. Seeing episode-whatever of All Hail King Julien on Netflix tells me, and my kids, how fresh back-and-forth dialogue can be, especially with specific personalities and agendas. One character in these twenty-two minute episodes has something happen to them, everyone reacts, has different ways of solving the problem, and it's witty.
But back to the movie. Boy do we miss Paul Newman as Doc Hudson and the fabulous worlds the filmmakers whisked us away to in Cars 2. I remember John Turturro voicing Fabrizio, Emily Mortimer as the potential romantic angle, Michael Caine as the aging spy, and mostly you remember the espionage plot, culture clashes, and lavish locations that were wonderfully recreated. This third and likely last installment is back-to-basics, but Owen Wilson is asked to shoulder a lot with gosh-golly lines. The dramatic pull, his character's dramatic pull, isn't that at all. Then, a little more than halfway through, it's as if the filmmakers figured something out, and sail through Act Three. It's great, a while coming, and this is a close call. Time to create more worlds at Pixar.
Note: This is accompanied by a wonderful short called Lou which evokes and leaves just enough to the imagination. It's worth the price of admission. Less is indeed more on occasion.
Alien: Covenant - May 20 ***1/2 I'm not sure if Ridley Scott, who turns eighty this year, is interested in displaying evil to scare the heck out of us or has such a bleak world view. Either way, he sure is still interested in special effects. That was the best part of Prometheus, which came out five years ago. That movie devolved into your standard horror movie where individual members of a group are picked off one by one.
That's the same formula here, but thoughtful, intellectual questions of the origins and fate of the human race are posed, so we are entertained and pause to think along the way. The acting seems better this time: Michael Fassbender and the additions of Demian Bichir, Billy Crudup, and Katherine Waterston involve us more. We also get scenes shot in New Zealand whereas the last installment began on Iceland. Alas, the storyline retreads itself, but it isn't boring, and the thriller turns toward the end keep coming. We leave the theater provoked, even assaulted, and wondering where the pessimism comes from. According to this film, where it leads isn't good.
The Lost City of Z - May 10 *** James Gray has been a quietly steady filmmaker over the last twenty-plus years. His movies have a way of winning you over. Impersonal as they are, at least his method is naturalistic, efficient, and not boring. We Own the Night was a great portrait of an underworld balanced with a love triangle. The Immigrant was the same. Both, like this outing, are entertaining just enough. Working with veteran cinematographer Darius Khondji, the filmmakers love a sprawled canvas. (Khonji worked with David Fincher on Seven and Panic Room). These are paintings, with characters looking at each other at forty-five degree-angles to the camera. This is about the only visual motif I could discern here, and it's enough. The movie is smartly shot on film. We sense the jungle's depth and mystery, though imagination doesn't seem to be on the agenda here for the filmmakers or the audience.
We're reminded of Bob Rafelson's classic Mountains of the Moon (1990) about Burton and Speke searching for the source of the Nile. That was another American director journeying into the British mindset and socio-political landscape during explorations. Here the actors appear to have less freedom to act and react. Sienna Miller is turning into quite an actress; she dominates the screen in her scenes, which is welcome liveliness. Like David Grann's book, I imagine James Gray as a dinner guest who is pleasant, interesting, doesn't reveal much, and you don't get up for a second helping with the guy sitting across from you. You also, likely, go see his next film.
Kedi - April 29, 2017 ***1/2 On the streets of Istanbul, Turkey, that slightly elusive, iconic city known by most of the world, live cats. So what, you may ask? The cats are iconic, and there are many of them. How they survive would puzzle many. This film shows how many people find the meaning of life through caring for these creatures, what they teach us humans, and what we learn from them, which are not always one and the same.
This would be a hard film to make. Action shots of following cats on their individual paths make the city same impenetrable, a rich setting for a story indeed. these are supplemented with interviews with people, and the filmmakers wisely stand aside. We're never aware of their presence, bringing the audience closer to the material. Then there's that universal storytelling maxim: the more specific your story choices, the more universal they are. I'm allergic to cats, haven't been around them too much, and several friends have loved cats over the years. This movie annotates how people in a huge metropolis interact with them, read them, and build relationships with neighborhood cats as they take on and fulfill roles.
The film also doesn't overstay its welcome at eighty minutes, and the transition arial shots of Istanbul make the town beckon with possibility. Maybe it all boils down to survival, how we get along, no matter where we are. Regardless, animals have much to teach and give us, when we let them.
Hidden Figures - March 21, 2017 ***1/2 Here is that rare feel-good movie with substance that doesn't waste a single shot. It's also astounding this story is just now coming to light. The struggles by three African American women are just as relevant today, though they might be grittier by the numbers. The screenplay's structure is also balanced: we start way in the past with one character, the one we spend a tad more time with, and the other two are divvied up perfectly. There is a romance (with recent Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali) that conveys just enough.
It's also so simple, yet effective. Kevin Costner knows how to handle his scenes just right. The rocket launches, and the climax, seem on, if you will, autopilot. But for the first eighty percent, this movie strikes all the right chords. It also appeared on my top five of last year because so many talked about it. There's something going on here. Perhaps the Obama Administration set things in motion. One can only speculate the kind of movies the Trump administration will help create.
The Batman Lego Movie - February 11, 2017 **1/2 We're seeing if the lego franchise has legs. It does, but they're not sprinting. This movie has a focal character, and it's ground the live action feature films covered over the last twenty-eight years. The jokes fly, though sometimes wit is sacrificed for speed. We laugh ten or fifteen times, remember some sight gags with a hundred references, and move on.
The first part is aimed at kids, ages five to ten. A hundred villains are introduced, a poignant political scene done, and then boy does this movie whirl through Act Two. It's chaotic and jerky in style, and with the characters. Entrances are exits are barely noticeable. On that point alone this movie matters. We persevere to a powerhouse ending that is less memorable than the Act One. This franchise may keep going. What the filmmakers need are better-drawn characters, fewer of them, and some semblance of a relationship that stands the test of this film's visual assault.
Twentieth Century Women - January 31, 2017 **1/2 Here is a movie that gets the setting just right: 1979, where it appears we didn't know what to do with the sexual revolution and right before Reagan America moved in. Act one is definitely the portrait of a character and we sense Annette Bening will get her due at the Oscars. Unfortunately thee isn't really an Act Two or Three. The movie takes a few outings on the town near Santa Barbara (also a good choice for a location), the woman's son sees the night life, gets beat up for living with several women, and the other women he lives with experiment with birth control, going away to school, and teaching the boy about, well, themselves and life in general.
Much of the talk is general, and nothing much happens. Really. Little sojourns start to get interesting with much detail paid to the period. Then we have the last line, which is about the mom (Bening). We leave the theater, and Mike Mills, who wrote and directed this film, will hopefully make a movie that sticks to a theme and creates memorable moments. This thing fritters away in minutes.
La La Land - January 29, 2017 ***1/2 Damien Chazelle's new film after his spectacular Whiplash is wholly original and entertaining. The man clearly loves jazz, and music in general, and this time he adds whimsy. The actors are also at his discretion. This is a director's picture with great photography, whether the camera is moving or not. It is also, for the most part, solidly edited. In all, a very well-made film.
Which brings us to Act Three. For the first hour and forty-five minutes, especially with a wonderful opening that takes us away, we are enthralled. Then the movie gets serious. We sense we're going to get serious with an early scene where the two principles, played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, walk around a studio parking lot, discussing their dreams. This scene grows boring. Much later, Act Three focuses on them, and the story takes a direction without precedent. This is also foreshadowed in a very good scene with them discussing their future.
The film's message, then, is muddled. Follow your dreams no matter the cost? Follow them and accept the consequences? Doesn't matter who you end up with? As this is an Oscar frontrunner, it is about L.A. and is a celebration of the movies, music, and dance. It is wonderful to look at and enjoy, not stepping wrong for the first two-thirds. It will be a classic, and could've transcended to greatness if it decided what it was about, and stuck to it.
Moonlight - January 26, 2017 **** Never before has a film's greatness snuck up on me this much. This goes for many others too, apparently. I don't know of a more suggestive, perfect, ending shot, except for another film about being gay. That film was Brokeback Mountain, which lost Best Picture to Crash for 2005. Moonlight, shame to say, will likely lose to La La Land. However, and this is a big caveat in our cinematic pantheon, this movie follows so many storytelling principles, is so organic, authentic, and true to itself, we feel by the end as if we've seen someone's life. This is a person whom we barely know, yet know enough, and care about deeply. This is confounding in the best sense of the word. This film applies a story to a face most of us have seen from a distance, or walked past on the street with little thought.
We sense we know Shiron from the first part of the movie. Here's a kid who doesn't reveal much. He looks at just about everything sidelong. As a teenager, he's awkward and more clammed up. Something happens, one incident, which ties in at the end. The second to last shot is something we all need occasionally at the end of a long day. The last shot, well, let's just say, that looks matter, even fleeting glimpses. There's a lot behind some looks, especially when the trace back to our childhood.
Barry Jenkins, the writer and director, sure knows how to pace a film. When the lights slowly came up after not one but two perfect last shots, the audience was silent. I had no idea the 111 minutes were up. They weren't, which is what makes this one of the best movies of 2016. As I mentioned the cumulative effect of this film, the performances are what carry it. Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali are so good, I'd forgotten the other are they were in. These two should be around a long, long time.
Manchester by the Sea - January 8, 2017 ** This movie starts sure-footed and with uncertainty at the same time. The sweeping camera whirls around a lake in a coastal New England town. Soft music plays, fades into the background as the camera settles on a fishing boat where a man in his twenties plays with a young boy. Their conversation doesn't amount to much. We're not sure if there's a buried message there, to be referred to later.
The movie ends the same way, with the man and a different boy, a teenager, talking on a boat while fishing. We cannot quite hear their conversation. We leave the theater pretty indifferent. Kenneth Lonergan, the writer, director, and force behind this film, interposes scenes that start, meander, and end, then cut to a different scene. We always feel like we miss something, especially when the main character makes a key decision toward the end and goes against what two characters said they couldn't do in an earlier scene. The key incident that started this guy, played by Case Affleck, is never fleshed out, the after effects on characters and families never explored.
Though the film is done in suggestions and rushes, the performances and dialogue are so good in parts, we want more. Silences between characters are admired. It's hard to find fault with what's up there on the screen, but we've still missed several scenes and decisions that drive the plot. Affleck may win the Oscar, just like he won the Golden Globe, and the structure around him and the other characters doesn't shortchange anyone except for those of us expecting a great, immersing, fully emotional experience. For that, see Lonergan's previous film, You Can Count on Me.
Sing - December 20, 2016 **** Here'a movie for everyone, especially if you like music and how it's used in the movies. It is made with such energy and structures its story so well, you wonder how Illumination Entertainment can go wrong. Adult setups such as a heist subplot are handled just right with humorous asides, as gorillas wearing miniscule bunny disguises. Slapstick combines with witicisims. Ensemble characters seamlessly enter and exit around the main character, a Koala who barely strings together enough money to keep a theater going.
Music drives the movie along with cheerful need. That is what kids need today, perhaps we all do more often than we think. This undercurrent with visuals that don't overwhelm, continually inspire, and leave us wanting more, is what makes this movie, and medium matter. The soundtrack is awesome, too.
Nocturnal Animals - December 19, 2016 ** I did not know what to make of the opening credits of this film. Glitter sprinkled in, and then one arresting image after another, virtually the same but with different people, filled the screen with dramatic music for minutes on end. You know how some people scream for attention the same way over and over? This was like that, but it was different and memorable, so we give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt.
Having read Austin Wright's 1993 novel on which this film is based, I did not anticipate the stark commentary on the contrast between the upper and lower economic classes in America. I also wasn't braced for the lack of commentary and sparse, trite dialoge that populated the opening scenes. Amy Adams was clearly giving her all and Armie Hammer underplays to the point of absent-mindedness. The first half of the film, particularly scenes on a highway, stuck true to the book. These scenes are by far the best. Then the screenplay adds a C-story, supposedly to explain backstory, that goes nowhere and adds so little we wonder why it was inserted. You know drama is in trouble when you're not sure of character agendas in the third act, where one wants revenge but goes about it so uncertainly we're not sure what will become of certain scenes, people, and of our reactions.
Then there's the ending. This, unbelievably, felt right. It simultaneously mades sense and didn't. So much is left open to interpretation, leaving the three or four themes evident in the story all hanging. We've been engaged, not necessarily entertained, and not inspired. This is in light of strong performances by Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, showing a broad range in a murky character, and Michael Shannon. Some movies, like people, bite off more than they can chew, and aren't sure how to wrestle their way out of it. So this movie matters on that level at least.
Allied - December 3, 2016 **** This is the kind of movie whose stealth and skill sneak up on you, much like a spy him/herself. Director Robert Zemeckis, much heralded as the second most successful director of all time, leads you step by step in what is a throwback to the espionage movies of the '40s and '50s, and inspires us to revisit many of those again. If you have not viewed this era, time to start. This movie is amazing. There's not a wasted shot, and when suspense hangs in the balance deliberately for its own sake toward the end, we appreciate the craftsmanship all the more. When we expect a special effect to invade our story, Zemeckis cuts away. At sixty-five, he's closer to his characters and people than ever.
The movie is also even-handed. Marion Cotillard and Brad Pitt co-star with conflicted feelings filmed so plainly, we're not sure how simple or complex these characters are. Could that be said for people we know? Pitt's performance evokes the same underplaying he did in Seven twenty-one years ago. Some didn't care for his performance back then, and this one might elicit the same reaction. Cotillard fills her role with beautty and ambiguity. She never steps wrong, and the movie, making it very clear we're watching a movie, never feels contrived.
This was written by British writer Steven Knight (Locke, Eastern Promises) who is one of the most consistently good writers in the business. He and Zemeckis lead us on and we're drawn in without realizing it. We the audience are being romanced, which is what we need at times. The ending is also simple, straight forward, and perfect. Can't say that about many stories.
Arrival - November 20, 2016 *** Denis Villaneuve remains the most original director working today in mainstream theatrical movies. He's in control of his material and the audience every step of the way, even if we want some scenes to extend even more. When our characters first enter one of the worlds they enter into in this film, we quickly cut to a hasty exit. About two-thirds of the way through we're not sure how this story will end up, an then an emotional finish, if trite in nature, builds.
Amy Adams is the emotional center of the film. Here's an actress who carries the movie and all of its ideas on her back, and deploys them with her entire, if subtle, facial expressions. Jeremy Renner is solid, though he can stand to be pushed as an actor; he can do restrained concern and inquiry in his sleep. Forest Whitaker has a thankless role.
Where this movie triumphs is in atmosphere. How ideas, characters, and the structure of this story are revealed outweighs what we've seen before. This movie may not be around too long, but its craftsmanship is unmistakable. So is the director's touch.
Mascots - October 21, 2016 ** There are a few filmmakers who enjoy laughing at Middle America. Ben Stiller seemed to have a ball in The Watch, and Christopher Guest, in his best work, shows people trying to do something to the best of their ability. His Waiting for Guffman, which came out nineteen years ago,announced his formula and arrival as an observant director. Best in Show, by far his best, is so close to reality and so consistently funny, you can see it every few years and laugh just as hard.
Now comes Mascots, streaming on Netflix and with the same formula Guest has executed now, I believe, five times. While we're counting, I laughed ten times in the first ten minutes. Then the quick looks, the hesitancy, the insecurities weigh in like an uninspired tidal wave. Urgency is out the window. These people may be as real as they come, but this time the quirks don't last and aren't explored. Fred Armisen does the best job of losing himself in character and seeming earnest in his attempts. Parker Posey is her usual reliable self immersed in character. My beef is with Guest as a director, though his own is flat and tired. You can laugh at middle America all you want, but they, too, experience discomfort, and that can indeed be played for laughs. These people also matter--check the latest election results. This man needs a shakeup in the inspiration department.
A Man Called Ove - October 16, 2016 **** Once in a great while you see a film so moving and feels so natural. Hannes Holm's film is copyrighted 2015. Were it eligible this year, this film would almost certainly win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and would be strongly considered for Best Picture. Not many movies have you laugh ten times and cry eight. We identify with Ove as an old man and when he's young. He's looking back on his life but not in isolation: when kids move in next door and ring your doorbell, you have to answer. Especially if they are charming, curious, and relentless when it comes to feeling grateful.
This story also follows what Judith Weston discussed in our interview: that a character wants something and is finally granted it at the end. What does Ove finally achieve? That requires a second viewing. This man has lost much, experienced death with those closest to him. His temperament has its reasons. Yet he gives. His life has strong, deep meaning to those around him in a Swedish community (To call it a gated community would be misleading.) The fact that the children next door come with a light-skinned, Swedish father and Iranian mother, who speaks Swedish, is incorporated so nicely into the screenplay, we forgive any missteps by the filmmakers.
That is why movies matter. This movie engages our humanity to the fullest. The first time I saw Almost Famous, my emotions were pushed and pulled and lulled into a complete storytelling experience. Sixteen years later, we're left speechless again when the credits roll. The book, by Fredrik Backman, has affected many. In both mediums, then, this story should endure for decades. I didn't even discuss how universal it is, from somewhere in Sweden, this work should travel the world, and hopefully make it better.
Snowden - September 25, 2016 *** This movie is confounding. Oliver Stone's Snowden, coming two years after Citizenfour, Laura Poitras's Academy award-winning documentary about Edward Snowden, moves along gracefully. Stone's story is a map, following Edward through his military training days before working for the CIA, NSA, and as a contractor. This story smartly feels counterweight to Poitras's film as we're taken to the insides of the whale, the beast, whatever you want to call the cyber agencies of our government. What could fall flat in this movie doesn't: the domestic scenes between Edward and his girlfriend, played by Shailene Woodley, are handled and inserted just right. Woodley is the emotional vein, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward gives his best, most-nuanced performance to date.
The emotional weight of this film doesn't build. It's there for the audience to do the heavy-lifting. We realize about two-thirds of the way in that there will be no grand revelations evoking highs. People probably won't walk out of the theater, calling and texting friends, saying they have to see this movie. It is one for our times, though. One of the best supporting performances so far this year is by Rhys Ifans. He nimbly disperses his terse, thoughtful sentences. We're never sure how much he knows or his motives. He's a metaphor for the film, probably more than Snowden himself.
We needed more layers here, maybe more passion about issues with a broader range. This movie reminds us of Stone's W, where many I knew anticipated one film and got quite another. That's one reason I value the director so much. He still knows how to cut scenes and move a story along. He's not in your face anymore but surveying the land and reporting. Take the emotional strain away, however, and the mellower filmmaker seems lacking. I don't know. We can't go back to the director who made ten good, some great, films over ten years from 1986 - 95. But he can go back to what he did better than anyone in the day: provoke.
The Hunt for the Wilderpeople - September 22, 2016 *** Kids' movies from Australia and New Zealand, yes, we'll lump them together for now, are so innocent it's no wonder they fall off the North American radar. Children are given some sophistication, some glimpses of the adult world, but not much credit. In this case, Ricky looks about eleven or twelve, and is more articulate than the adult he ends up spending most of the movie with. We know this story: ebullient youth draws out the humanity of the ogre of an adult.
This movie could be more, could be tougher. The opening scenes brace us for a family drama and are heavy with the liveliest most-extroverted character front and center. Then the movie figures out it's a kids' movie, and the cops almost become caricatures. The mountains of New Zealand are gloriously shot, though; this is not quite the same land as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. For this power strain of cinema, we're grateful. Then again, anyone who's been to this country knows how easy it is to photograph and make it look like National Geographic. Waika Taititi, a talented, comedic director (What We do in the Shadows), should embrace themes adults, and kids, can handle. Then again, he has, just not explored them.
Hell or High Water - September 7, 2016 ***1/2 We all have genres of stories and films we're suckers for. You know, the kind where you see previews and are immediately interested. Well, as long as we have small, dusty towns where heists take place, a sheriff pursues outlaws, and southerners try to bury secrets along with their pasts, we'll have movies like Hell or High Water. What surprises me, and many others, I think, is how the storytellers find new angles of humanity in these here parts. All of us are human beneath our rough, gruff exteriors. Banks and the financial system have taken people for rides, no matter it's Wall Street or statewide banks in Texas that have only seven branches. The branches provide the outline and setting for this story; it's the still scenes of talk that matter.
If some scenes feel choppy in their arcs and throughlines, we recognize where two brothers are coming from. Ben Foster has gotten a lot of press, and it is due, but what about Chris Pine? Here's a star who suggests so much and does so little with his closeups and medium shots. Both brothers are angry, disaffected, and don't see a way out of being poor until one day...then there's the lawmen, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, who sense a big picture of the financial system taking from the common person similar to the that sensed by the brothers. The officers' feelings aren't quite explored. More could've been made in that territory, if you get my drift. But for this genre, this take on this section of our country, which we're not sure will ever die, this film is refreshing. Starting with its opening shot.
De Palma - September 2, 2016 **** The high rating for this film has as much to do with its subject as it does with craftsmanship. Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, the co-directors of this documentary, know they have a fascinating individual on their hands. Brian De Palma has made films for over fifty years, journeyed to the inside of the Hollywood system, and veered away from it for the last ten. His next film, financed partly in China, is slated to release next year, when he turns seventy-seven.
De Palma is the director who made me, and many others, aware of the camera. His themes are consistent. An actress once said she can tell his films apart from any other in under one minute. A friend once said the galvanizing aspect of his talent is you never know when it will surface. He's made some great films and some, we sense, he lost control over. He moves on, resurrects himself and his cultural standing, and we move with him. We're always with him as he talks for an hour and forty-seven minutes, and don't grow tired of his stories and how he tells them. We're still at arms' length, and feel a slight sadness with shots near the end of this elderly yet keen, solemn-looking man walking down the street. We see how he's aged, and wonder what he sees, what he's thinking. How many people can you say that about?
Cafe Society - July 30, 2016 ***1/2 Yes, it's amazing to see Amazon Studio presenting a Woody Allen film and, as soon as the movie starts, the master reels us in. We forget about the world with that opening tracking shot across a backyard pool in 1930s Hollywood. We first meet Steve Carell whom, I submit, is one of the best supporting actors out there. He gives such weight with his crisp line delivery, suggests so much with his edge, we get the right amount of him. Blake Lively, who did the best acting in The Town, raises her scenes again. We sense she's a generous-hearted actress, fully in the moment. Watch her eyes shift back and forth when she meets our hero. Jesse Eisenberg plays our hero, the Woody Allen character, and boy is his persona alive and well. His reaction scenes in the latter half draw us in, too.
The great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, three-time Oscar-winner and lastly for The Last Emperor, films the interiors as these characters are walled in among all that glitter. Act Three gets a little bogged down with our hero's New York family and his brother. In the end, though, Woody dreams up a new angle to present about ourselves. We move on in life, and dream, think, and ponder, not necessarily about the future.
Ice Age: Collision Course - July 23, 2016 **1/2 Like many sequels these days, this fifth installment in the Ice Age franchise has so many characters, which quadruples the amount of interpersonal interactions, straightforward conflict is almost hung out to dry. It's more fun to watch that little critter with his acorn in a spaceship. Talk about boiling down conflict and character goals to their essence. Denis Leary's drab reactions, the best part of the interactions, are too few, and Ray Romano's character has lost his urgency. Just how domesticated are our heroes? What would shake these situations up?
A meteor, that's what, and that's okay. What grows a little tiresome, distracting us from the incredible animation is all the reactions and scenes that fizzle out when we need a guffaw. We need dreams. We need bigger reactions which come from raised stakes. That's why sequels like this feel simply added and not explored. Our Kind of Traitor - July 13, 2016 ** This is the kind of movie we enter the theater wanting to like, know what we're in for and, we guess, easy to market. People who like espionage thrillers, especially those set in Europe, never seem to grow tired of them. The fact that this plot is so flimsy we overlook and forgive in the first half-hour. We're drawn in by the characters and actors. It's usually a good sign to see Stellan Skarsgaard, Ewen McGregor, and Naomie Harris in a movie, especially if it's the same movie. Too bad we don't get to know them as characters and a smattering of themes, most familiar, surface, then vanish.
We needed more shapes to scenes, which would result in emotional resonance. Then again, we have scenes, but the characters are kept at arms' length. Based on an upcoming interview, films allow us to simply be with characters, spend time with them and observe. IF they're not memorable, though, if they're not much past details assigned to them, we move on to more interesting people. Or have the whole story told from the point of the view of the most interesting character, played by Damien Lewis. He graces the screen with such gravity and suppressed calculation and wonder, we watch him closely and not much else.
The Secret Life of Pets - July 9, 2016 *** Alfred Hitchcock once pointed at a screen and said, "See that rectangle up there? My job is to fill it up." This movie from Lumination does so in wondrous glory. We enjoy looking at every frame, and want to revisit this world again. The characters, though, spry as they are, are not as memorable as their interactions. The relationships form at the curiosity-attraction level: they're archetypes except for the lead, voiced by Louis C.K. A close second is Kevin Hart, though his villain is riled up the vast majority of the time we sense the agenda but it's not made explicit.
Act One is fine as introductions go, then Act Two grows murky. There's no urgency or laying the groundwork for a heralding Act Three, which is entertaining and just short of inspiring. The filmmakers could've done more with personalities instead of aiming for gags based on reactions which come from personas established in seconds. More of the poodle jamming to hard rock and...where to go from there? Why does this animal like this kind of music? That's the kind of question these storytellers may have asked themselves and not explored much. That's because we're given a boatload of characters so the relationships are all surface. But we are entertained, starting and ending with the visuals, and for that, this movie is very effective.
**Note: The Minions short shown before this film continues their strong presence in short scenarios. They wil hopefully be around a while.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) **** There's a new 35mm print of this film. See it if you can.
Every business leader could see this film, many probably have, and a few hopefully decided this achievement was worth its weight in...you know. John Huston's classic movie contains so many ideas while focusing on one quest in one corner of the globe in a short amount of time, that old adage that less is more creeps up on us. Within this,notice the trajectories of the three main characters: all are consistent and somewhat predictable. What's interestingly handled is how the Mexicans enter and exit this story, how the mountains frame the three men and lurk indifferently in the background. Out in the desert country, away from everything, the imagination broadens with so little to do. Appearances, materialism, and foreign worlds seep in with every line of dialogue and glance between people. A fourth character enters and leaves, and look what he leaves behind to be discovered. We're uncovering secrets with these characters as well as about them.
I mentioned foreign land. Maybe a quarter of this film is in Spanish without subtitles and though straightforward, we're hinging on every word. That's one of the reasons Huston won the Oscar for screenplay. For direction, this movie is a masterpiece in pacing and advancing the story with every frame. The photography is also simple, giving us space to observe men contemplating their quest and each other. Then comes the last shot, which ties back to businesspeople who think big, and should think before they act and embark.
Finding Dory - June 18, 2016 **1/2 This long-gestating sequel finally arrives and, after a shaky start, builds, stumbles, entertains, then has us well up at the end. Shoot: there's a better story here, one that centers around personalities instead of those fraught with disabilities. I'm not sure how many times Dory mentions in the first ten minutes that she suffers from short-term memory loss, I'd say about a dozen, but it feels like a crutch, one the filmmakers are stuck on. In the first film she played off Nemo and her personality was front and center, trying to connect with the little tyke. Here she operates in a parallel story, wrestles with separation from her parents and is on a similar quest to reunite with them. That repetition is okay, and she meets an Octopus, voiced by Ed O'Neill, who has an agenda. His character is the best thing in this movie, because the other characters are tapped and shown mostly for their disabilities or special talents. They haven't arisen from a particular place other than the Marine Institute in Monterey Bay.
Much of the movie takes place there, and this setting feels parochial next to the South Pacific where the first film occurred. The critters navigate various parts of this setting, and it feels like a warehouse versus the wild blue yonder, which, we sensed, was where anything could happen. Here the interactions are strained, then calculated, then inspired toward the end.
I'm not sure how many will quote lines or jokes from this one, whereas many still recall what the fish chanted when Nemo performed a rite of passage thirteen years ago. We identified with the screen then, knew the real world reference, were taken away some place special accompanied by sharp-edged performances and writing. The agendas were real and urgent. Here we're down the block, are vaguely entertained, and leave the theater feeling fairly satisfied. The third act is inspired with that story device of putting characters in the worse situation possible. It's effective, and we finish nicely. The eagerness for another installment depends on the audience members.
The Jungle Book - June 9, 2016 ***1/2 If you remember the classic Disney animated Jungle Book or have read the books by Rudyard Kipling, you won't be disappointed with this adaptation. That's because it stands on its own, balances dialogue that reveals plot and character, and most of all uses CGI to its fullest potential. The jungle itself is fantastic: the shots establish, take us away to that fantastical world and it's always clear what we're looking at, and should be looking at. And man do those details fill the edges of the screen. This is the kind of creation that resurfaces at awards time next year.
The story itself you've seen before and the structure we've seen many times. The child actor Neel Sethi as Mowgli evokes innocence beset or perhaps spurred on by curiosity. Bill Murray successfully creates Baloo, and he had big shoes to fill as that bear, as voiced by Phil Harris, who was the most memorable character in the original version. The one misstep is how the story interweaves the orangutan; a deviation. Still, this thing looks spectacular and is, as us adults usually think nowadays, a tad too intense for youngsters. But the images the Disney team, under the direction of Jon Favreau, for whom this is a huge departure, are composed and deployed economically and beautifully, to ponder long after we leave the theater.
The Angry Birds Movie - May 28, 2016 *1/2 Some movies you're curious about if only to see how the heck they make a feature-length story of ninety-seven minutes out of an extremely popular video game. Throw in what a friend once told me, that anger is the easiest emotion to tap into, and with an upcoming interview with comedy master Steve Kaplan, this should be fairly easy, right? Not if you don't give the characters any Issues to Explore it isn't. The filmmakers of Rovio Animation are even given a rich setting, a tropical island, and don't give any reason for the birds to be there. There's a community, anthropomorphized animals as expected, but what do they subsist on? With successes such as the Shrek franchise, it's a fairy tale, so those storytellers can bypass a lot. Here we don't know what universe these birds inhabit. One thing this animated film does continue in tradition is reference grownup movies if not modern life, but a gag from The Shining, which came out thirty-six years ago, didn't get a single reaction from the audience around me.
The cast is headed by Jason Sudeikis, and outside of being disgruntled, I'm not sure his character knows much about himself. He's joined by two others in a quest to save the village from a plunderer who steals the village's eggs. Stealing unhatched babies is a pretty serious issue. What's not a serious issue is a bum of a bald eagle up in the mountains who used to be a great warrior and flies in to help save the day at the end. At one point this eagle, with no character traits other than being lazy (he doesn't feel happy or sad about this), dances to Tone Loc and then exits with no impact on any of the characters or the audience.
Act three fills the screen with events and predictable reactions as an entire city of innocent bystanders is taken apart by our heroes. At what cost? Why do we care? The audience didn't cheer at the end, or talk much to each other during the credits, and quietly left. There you are.
The Nice Guys - May 21, 2016 ***1/2 Shane Black has now been on our radar for almost thirty years, having written Lethal Weapon (1987) in his early twenties. His work stands on its own. No one does action movie banter like he does, one of the reasons, I bet, he took over the Iron Man franchise three years ago. My interview with Tom Malloy vindicated the gut feeling I had about Black's work. Parts slowly stick out way past the banter. He has his signatures, and they're very much alive in this reinvention of the buddy movie, private investigator genre, and recreation of the seventies. Since he was born in 1962, though, we don't feel like Black is revisiting his childhood or paying too much homage as much as he's using L.A. as a rich setting for an action movie.
This, you'll agree, has been done before, which makes The Nice Guys all the more surprising. Black, an avid reader, clearly knows the classics of the aforementioned genres, which is why this movie matters and stands out. As a director, he throws curve balls at us on many levels: the three-act structure, scenes winding down just before action ramps up, and what little is said or done before violence erupts. Even, especially, how quickly a scene or plot point is over yet achieved its purpose. When we think we've witnessed enough back-and-forth between Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in first-rate performances, the movie pauses yet again with plot development and we welcome the chatter back. Moviegoers of various ages and I laughed about twenty times through this film and for, perhaps, different reasons at the same jokes.
The movie even wades into cliche territory with a child in peril, which Black flirted with in The Last Boy Scout (1991). There's violence against a thirteen year-old here, and I think this could've been avoided as the principle was established. I still value this writer-director, though: he gets us to lighten up, laugh at the movie, and ourselves, and entertain us consistently while going over the top in the climax. It occurred to me people might wonder why spend money to make this movie among the world's troubles. It's because of the problems we face that slick entertainment can be made, because it's made. Now that he's mastered this genre, and continues to invent and reinvent within it, we still cling for Black's unmistakable voice. Not many you can say that about.
Everybody Wants Some!! - April 29, 2016 ***1/2 At this point in his career and life, you get the feeling Richard Linklater has enough control of his craft he can have fun. This movie is advertised as a spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused, his 1993 film where a friend and I recognized half our high school, or at least their type, in the cast. This movie is also practically a sequel to the director's brilliant Boyhood, released just a year-and-a-half ago. This movie is lighter yet the scenes, we sense, are constructed and delivered in an order.
The only structure of the movie is a countdown up to the first class in college. Anyone who's been off to college likely remembers that week before Freshmen year starts. You meet new people, some from places you've never heard of. The one unifying theme is you all chose to go to this place, to attend this institution, the first, for some, away from home for an extended period. You are, after all, adults, and boy can it be fun. According to this film, it's a party interspersed with fresh, young, people testing boundaries in their first-ever share house. This is also, perhaps, Linklater's first ever guy-guy movie, where blokes play knuckles to pass the time. They drink beer, rarely eat, and go out every night. These guys are curious, and all are in a certain pecking order on the baseball team, which was granted two houses by a university in Texas.
We're not sure how autobiographical this film is, and with all these unknowns, we bet the director found people who resembled his old mates. One viewing might be enough; curiosity, along with insights into human nature, propel us only so far. But what nostalgia, and what a time, an era, that still exists, sort of.
Eye in the Sky - 4/2/16 **** This movie pulls your emotions in so many ways while building suspense, it's a wonder the story works so well. The story is so linear, so straightforward, you want to retrace the steps to see how things are constructed. Gavin Hood, the South African director of Rendition and Ender's Game is amassing a solid career. He seems to understand the scale of forces at work, and the implications of international actions and events. All the performances, whether behind laptops or on the ground in Kenya, suggest buried emotions and agendas. Eyes reveal all, no matter how many legal angles and rule-oriented moralities people try to cover or, frequently, defer to a person with greater authority. When some deices to "refer up," to a higher position, you could plot the points and analyze them to oblivion.
People do refer up, then we sense they question their decision. One minor character is pivotal, and unearths so much for many of the principle players. Toward the end, we're balanced in our perspective, yet surprised. The filmmaking, the moving camera, makes sense every step of the way and is never fantastical. Reading Barry Eisler's The God's Eye View, this movie matters a ton to many, and is one of the best films so far this year.
Hitchcock/Truffaut - 3/11/16 ** Kent Jones's film of the book of the same name starts so promisingly, and we know this is a difficult film to make. These are two of cinema's all-time greats, and we get to know the two of them when they met in the early 1960s. It was an unlikely meeting in Hollywood. Hitchcock was at his zenith, flying high at the age of sixty-three with his string of now-classics just behind him over the last eight years. Truffaut was in his early thirties and had studied the grand master. After highlighting the circumstances of the meeting, though, Jones has a hard time arranging the footage. The director reveals part of Hitchcock's creative process, how both subjects took episodes from their own lives and applied it to their art.
This does not sustain, and where things get murky is where we get lost in Hitchcock's trajectory, which grows murkier the longer this story goes on. A few cinematic moments are dissected, and the interviews with today's masters on Hitchcock's films are consistently interesting. So there we are: this movie is halfway-in, much about the master of suspense, fleetingly about the French filmmaker, and not much relevancy to us, or the world around us. It's fairly interesting, slightly illuminating, and not galvanizing.
There are big reasons people still study these two directors today. That's where Jones should start. He touches on this, inspires a little, and can dig much deeper than the seventy-nine minutes afforded us in the theater.
Kung Fu Panda 3 - 3/5/16 *** You probably don't need or want to hear the plot of Kung Fu Panda 3. Jack Black leads an all-star cast that includes Angelina Jolie, Jacki Chan, Bryan Cranston, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, and J.K. Simmons. With all that talent, Black dominates much of the movie and every scene the panda inhabits. The story wisely sticks to its roots and Jennifer Yuh Nelson, this time co-directing with Alessandro Carloni after helming the previous installment solo, knows what she's doing. We laugh a fair amount, smirk just as often, and need a break from our star.
If you see this, you'll probably think back to the rickshaw chase, the mighty castle, the plotting peacock, and great sight-gags of Kung Fu Panda 2. This third outing completes the panda's identity quest, has gorgeous animation like the previous two, and we're left happy to see it once. Now that the filmmakers have completed their own journey toward spectacular animation, why don't we flesh out our supporting characters and stick to what works: family relationships, great chases, and add a little commentary along the way. Couldn't hurt.
Trumbo - 2/27/16 ** This is a toughie. The stakes are there but not the drama. The characters are given short shrift, even when the main one occupies the screen 90% of the time. A capable actress, Diane Lane, has a shell put over her and her big scene cut short. She has one scene with her daughter that goes nowhere in the scene or afterwards in the story. The plot has clear implications, and unfortunately there's a hundred of them. What's left is the portrait of a man who persevered, who supposedly made his family suffer, we're told, and came out on top. Shame we feel so little.
Bryan Cranston gives his big performance after luring audiences in for hours upon hours of Breaking Bad. This is his big screen departure, in a sense, after many supporting parts, and it's an important one. Douglas Trumbo can arguably be called one of Hollywood's best if not prolific screenwriters of the post-WWII era. He went to prison, lost friends, apparently almost lost his family though we don't see it, and worked with some of the movie industry's finest.
Scenes that gather dramatic steam are followed by humorous ones. The director, Jay Roach, has done comedies (All three Austin Powers, the first two Meet the Parents) as well as serious fare (Recount, Game Change). Here he attempts drama and with his writer, John McNamara, manically supply scenes that usually engage, sometimes entertain, but don't provoke. Given all the historical weight and ideas and values this film connects with our current climate, we know how important civil liberties are, but as a viewing experience, don't feel it here.
Where to Invade Next - 2/25/16 ***1/2 Michael Moore has now been on our cinematic landscape for over twenty-five years. His books ask great questions and we listen when he preaches. This film is simultaneously depressing and hopeful, the latter right at the end. After painting rosy pictures of mostly European countries who got their implemented ideas from us Yanks, his rally cry for change is palatable, and seems possible.
This movie starts similarly to his Fahrenheit 9/11: a black screen with sound ratcheting up curiosity and tension. The movie then slows where he have a tad too much of our host on the screen as he gleans ideas from Italy, France, Norway, the seldom seen Slovenia, and the one non-European country, Tunisia, among others. He is right to cover a fair amount of ground to prove his points.
s a director, Moore knows when to cut away for a joke and not employ this tactic too much. He balances his interviews with his own narration and real footage of his discoveries along the way. He doesn't pretend to know too much which is endearing. Isolationists will be appalled by how well citizens of these countries live, or those that blindly digest Fox news. We in the U.S. may be powerful, and that does not mean we cannot improve, or be taken aback.
Hail, Caesar! - 2/4/16 **** It is getting harder and harder to judge a movie made by Joel and Ethan Coen. The least one can say is they, along with their frequent collaborators, most notably cinematographer Roger Deakins, keep dreaming up ways to explore familiar territory. Thirty-two years after Blood Simple where M. Emmett Walsh talked about Russia, the Russians appear again, seemingly out of nowhere, plausibly in this movie. These are entertainers, thought-provokers, and know how to hold a story together. Their movies also sneak up on you, and matter more the more we drive or walk home and think about them. These filmmakers are also in complete control; we don't sense a false move, even if the only theme in this movie comes with the last line and we're not sure what it means, but then...
This is an inside story about a Hollywood fixer in 1951. The personas drive the movie visibly on camera and, we sense, off camera where we're never sure what the characters are up to. These people are so sharply etched and yet reflect us in the audience. Our intimacy with those on the screen is at first distant, then we all get closer as we laugh a little more each time someone appears. Then these characters react funny. You'll see what I mean in a scene with a scarf in the editing room. The Coens also flesh out a little moment, nay, seconds into many seconds; you'll see what I mean with a scene between a movie director and a star.
The camera placement, the editing, production design, the controlled performances are so flawlessly constructed that in the end movies like this do matter. They inspire. I mentioned exploration: you think these storytellers, whom a friend and I agreed are the most original cinematic storytellers working today, have toiled with everything, then along comes a Russian...you have to see for yourself.
The Revenant - 1/9/16 **** The previews we've seen. They look intense. then think back: there's a rhythm to them, all four different ones I've seen. Looking back, there always has been to Alejandro G. Inarritu's films. This time the music, by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bryce Dessner, and Carsten Nicolai, the music grows as a character and the sound is ever present. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubeski has long shots that hold our attention; we are so inside these scenes and stories we never lose track or focus. These are life experiences. Then there's the editing by Stephen Mirrione (sometimes noticeable, other times seamless, always rhythmic) and Production Design by Jack Fisk which looks completely authentic. All these aspects are part of what make Inarritu's films the most cinematic of all American movies these days.
Boy does this director like the human face as much as nature and atmosphere. The actors looks just as immersed as we feel. Leonardo DiCaprio, in his first collaboration with Inarritu, knows how to convey depth and do so little. It's a full-bodied performance, even when covered with layers of clothing. Tom Hardy, that shifty actor, suggests with a glance. That's part of the reason their story fits so well with the Native (or First) American cultures.
The nature shots, scenery, and uses are among the best I've seen in a feature film. If Act Three feels a tad long and predictable, we approach it so uniquely we forgive. Like Birdman, in a way, our main character is finally granted something at the end. The screen fades out, the sound lingers. So does this film.
The Big Short - 1/1/16 ***1/2 Adam McKay's new movie really does matter if only because the stakes are so high and are not revealed until the end, unless you felt them around 2008-09. He structures the movie a millimeter shy of broad comedy and has four distinct characters, all of whom are on the outside edges of high finance. Michael Lewis's book of the same title spent weeks on the bestseller lists and led you by the nose through the labyrinthine world of high finance. The people we follow in the book and the movie gleaned from publicly available information, traded and bet on what they knew and what they thought they saw coming. The screenplay goes back and forth much like a James Ellroy novel, balancing traders, hedge fund managers, and those who work in proximity to Wall Street.
McKay, I think, asserted himself as a director with his actors. Steve Carell is ensconced in character, is clearly on the spectrum, which we also sense about Brad Pitt who's in maybe twenty minutes of the movie. Definitely on the spectrum is Christian Bale. All three of these stars give memorable performances and, perhaps more than that, create emotional worlds in which they work. The filmmakers and actors have us in their cinematic grip the whole way, and then comes my one objection: they insert real life celebrities such as Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez, and a behavioral economist. They explain a concept, talk directly to the camera, and this is on top of when Ryan Gosling talks directly to the camera as a character in the movie. The real people upstage almost the whole movie. Did the filmmakers feel like they audience wouldn't keep up? That we wouldn't be drawn into the story on its own terms?
Lewis's book insisted you go with him, and many did. We are with Carell and Gosling as they play Type-A people with humanity bubbling underneath. This story is solid, disheartening, realistic, and quite a leap for director McKay. Now they need a tad more confidence in everyone.
Joy - 12/28/15 ***1/2 This movie invokes part of this site's landing page: it motivates, at times exhilarates, and all the while portrays a woman among the pitfalls of business, which she creates from the ground up, and family. If director David O. Russell, who has a firm hand on every frame of his films, missteps a little, it's that we have too many shots of Joy, though Jennifer Lawrence assures us she's one of our finest actress- stars out there. She can dissappear into character, carry a movie on her back, and integrates so well with whomever she shares the screen, we're cheering for her no matter what she does.
That matter is her invention which merely presents itself to her, arrives in her head and sets her off on an unpredictable path of entrepreneurship. The invention is not her life's mission but grows out of her role in her family. Family squabbling is a theme in Russell's work, and occupies the first act of the film. Joy's family is complicated with a half-sister, a jerk of a dad who moves in with her and shares her basement with her ex-husband. I've just shared the tip of the iceberg, but it's more like an abyss. Joy makes it happen, is a suvivor, and just how is she going to live?
Russell knows just how to balance his screenplay, and takes Joy to a TV studio for those shopping channels. She is a headstrong plain Jane, is appealing to many, and overcomes so many obstacles that we see sides of humanity in everyone we meet along the way. Bradley Cooper, Isabella Rosselini, Diane Ladd, and a terrific Virginia Madsen inhabit their roles as if they've been doing these for decades. If Act Three feels a tad overlong and a shade too many closeups of our hero, that's okay. We're aware of Russell's camera and he knows just how to make personal films that move us just right. If he ever shifts back to big movies (Three Kings), he should be given free reign.
The Good Dinosaur - 12/22/15 **1/2 Pixar and Disney have created a quiet little film among all the holiday mayhem. Between lots of explosions and special effects blasting out of the other theaters, this is The Little Engine That Could crossed with Forrest Gump in dinosaur drag. It won't offend a soul as one set piece with nasty if not forbidding creatures after another encounter our hero, Arlo. This movie also takes its time and uses recognizable voices, most of all Sam Elliott, against the backdrop of a universal yet desolate landscape. It also pits our hero against nature to the hilt.
I mentioned this movie won't offend anyone. That's because the characters and relations aren't explored too much, and there aren't as many laughs as other tales these companies have put out. One nicety is there are shots mixing real photography with CGI. A nice touch, and outing. Now for grander ambitions. Given Disney's business strategy with storytelling and myth-making, Bob Iger and company can afford a few risks.
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens - 12/17/15 **** Finally, the sequel to Episodes IV - VI we've been waiting for. J.J. Abrams and his collaborators, chiefly Lawrence Kasdan who at thirty wrote The Empire Strikes Back, go back to the story roots which, my wife pointed out, is what Disney does really, really well. This film stands on its own yet references much of the first three, and most of all it returns to two themes that went missing in the last three installments: family and screwball comedy. Remember when the original Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope had one shot and three laughs in the first ten minutes surrounded by dramatic entrances and spectacular special effects? This one does all that, and evokes wonder, as in, what will happen next, and why did that scene seem familiar?
The original stars return and, like Episode IV, unknowns share the spotlight. Without cinematic baggage or established stars such as Liam Neeson and Samuel L. Jackson, we take everything as new. Also back are wonderful action sequences and setting contrasts along with twenty or so laughs. The laughs are genuine along with everything else, but mostly, well, the feeling is this was worth the wait. Like the original three released in 1977, '80, and '83, this was shot on film which Kodak shows in color in the ending credits. Like the first three, this one will be watched over and over again. It also helps the last of the first three was released ten years ago; they seem to be more an abberation all the time.
Spotlight - 12/11/15 **** What's public, private, and how much dogmatism it takes to take on a reigning institution and expose a scandal in a prominent city are all covered, and more, in Spotlight. Actually, it boils down to investigative journalism and an elite team of five, headed by Michael Keaton, at The Boston Globe. It helps that even if you're not from Boston or never been there (I have not), you've heard how powerful the Catholic church is in that city, which many say is small and feels like a town. This is the movie that shows, suggests, and evokes the feel of Boston that Black Mass should have and didn't even come close. One tracking shot showing an old high school characters attended across the street from the Globe says enough.
Cliches feel new. Characters are developed as pieces to the story, starting with Liev Schreiber as a new editor at the Globe who's a "Jew, not from here, and doesn't like baseball." His dialed-down yet firm urging to follow up on a story is what gets the ball rolling and sends Spotlight after the church. This is done through the courts and a lot of knocking on doors. The other performances are pieces too and everyone cast just right. Closing scenes tie everything up just enough.
I mentioned dogmatism. Michael Keaton's character keeps the pieces moving, and watch him at parties, in bars, and especially the last shot. At one point his character stays silent on a key issue which is close to an accusation and is later revealed. Newspapers attract a breed, keep many things bubbling on burners, and journalists just keep on working. They press on. This movie takes place in 2001 as newspapers and, we think, investigative journalism, were at a crossroads to say the least. We sense the profession's precariousness. There also aren't many movies like this anymore, but we remember the classics.
Having read Vincent Bugliosi's Divinity of Doubt and how the Catholic Church reassigned many charged priests, this scandal rocked the religion briefly though I'm not sure how many remember it today. If the dialogue doesn't stand out in a rather talky movie, the pressure is all the more on Tom McCarthy, the director, one to watch, and his editors to move the story along, which they do expertly. We feel like journalists, not wanting to leave stones unturned, and playing a part in deciding how and when to shape and release a story. Scenes are done so that we get information, see enough of a character and how they fill a room or interact, and move on. This film is subtle and inhabits its own world. All this adds up to a true rarity.
Creed - 11/29/15 ***1/2 The little piece on this site's landing page says movies motivate us, make us think, and tell us what's happening in the world. Philadelphia still looks like a tough town in 2015 as it did in 1976 when Rocky won Best Picture. Creed is the seventh installment in the franchise, and it's a very effective and at times affecting movie. We're still cheering for Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) in his fight late in the movie. So is his girlfriend played by Tessa Thompson, who strikingly reminded me of Lisa Bonet. Rocky is in Adonis's corner. This is where all the Rocky movies end, and at this point, what do we expect? It's a franchise, a brand. How we get there is the meat, so to speak.
We follow Adonis from a boys' reform school to the L.A. gym to Philly. Sylvester Stallone does not make a grand entrance as he comes up from the basement of his deceased wife's restaurant. The cliches start, luring the retired manager out of retirement, the villain challenging our underdog from afar, the girlfriend ... actually, feels introduced, given her space, and her relationship with Adonis is the most organic thing in the movie. These two characters are given time; we're simply with them and the small talk feels real. When Rocky discovers something about himself late in the movie, it also feels real.
I think Stallone and company knew this franchise needed fresh eyes if it was going to pull this off. The director, Ryan Coogler, who co-wrote it with Aaron Covington, knows how to piece together a story and make the elements feel natural. They're camera work is solid, and the visual motif of entering dark before light entering a fight works very well. The supporting performances, by the gym trainers and Adonis's mother (Phylicia Rashad) are finely etched.
We know from the opening scenes this movie takes its story seriously, and the closing lines bring it up just short of being egotistical. These and a few other aspects are why these movies win us over. At sixty-nine, so does Stallone.
Spectre - 11/17/15 *** This has to be the most successful-yet-cobbled-together James Bond movie in years. Make that decades. Or is it the other way around? After a terriric opening sequence there are the obligatory Bond plot setup scenes before we follow James to Rome. The fact that he escapes Rome with only one man chasing him after far-reaching power is communicated so effectively is a sign of things to come. No one ever looks to the Bond films for realism, but possibility masked as plausibility combined with stealth helped suspend our belief before. After Rome we go to Austria where the villain henchmen kidnap someone in broad daylight with windows on at least two sides yet no one notices or reacts. James then heads someone off at the pass and they seem, by their driving method, not to notice a small plane barreling down on them. See what I mean?
At almost two-and-a-half hours, an extended Act Two doesn't quite feel prolonged in terms of pacing but cliches we've seen since the early Bonds are there, right down to how our hero squirms out of being tied up. The digital readout which has been around so long appears several times. When Bond is running through a multi-storied, multi-faceted building, he just happens to end up right next to someone who is tied up in the adjoining room. He frees the person so easily we don't know if the villain is inept, just toying with Bond, or both. This is in a very short Act Three which ties two or three plotlines together so haphazardly we notice the thrumming music by Thomas Neuman that never lets up for about, say, sixty percent of the film.
This probably sounds critical. These are the parts that could be improved, but this movie entertains. Daniel Craig is always reassuring. The villain played by Christoph Waltz is not in this thing much at all, and the women convey yet are not given much to do. This is the second Bond film directed by Sam Mendes, the Oscar-winner for American Beauty. He should hand things over, or I know a writer who could fill in some gaps and make things run more smoothly.
The Martian - 10/28/15 *** Ridley Scott, who turns seventy-eight next month, has made several space movies so he's at home here and focuses on the humanity. Scratch that: balance is the word that comes to mind because those Mars landscapes look real, the science is dealt with intelligently and for the most part realistically, which ties back to the humans. We really do believe that people are working around the clock to get Mark Watney (Matt Damon) home. The music adds and makes individual moments cinematic, so this movie works great if you don't remember much of Apollo 13 which came out twenty years ago, or Saving Private Ryan with Damon in a similar role, seventeen years ago.
Spoilers ahead: Watney is stranded on Mars. NASA, in a starring role all by itself, delays its decision to tell the crew that left him behind, thinking he's dead. Will they go back? Are there deliberations on the ground and in the air? It's not all original, and the middle of Act Three bogs down a little, so it's amazing this film works as well as it does. Seventies music pops up and moves things along or acts as counterpoint or underscores. Then it jumps in at the end. You leave the theater feeling good, knowing there's much worse out there.
Oscar-winning editor Pietro Scalia, who worked with Scott on the less-satisfying Prometheus, holds the swooping landscape shots longer this time. the actors do enough in the hands of a director on a mission. That mission's end, we're not sure, but we're glad he's still working.
Bridge of Spies - 10/23/15 ***1/2 At this point in his career, Steven Spielberg can uncover a story, get a bona fide star attached, probably, and make a solid movie. He's done it again, evoking cinematic moments with music, witticisms among tight plots, and action pieces. This one also has clear A and B storylines, and Tom Hanks, no matter what press he gets, is warm, sincere, and knows when to lighten up. Spielberg has also used Janusz Kaminski as his cinematographer for the last twenty-plus years. The look of the movie has that washed-over, extremely well-lit background, perfected in Minority Report (2002) and many other efforts from the director-cinematographer duo.
All this said, does this movie really matter? You betcha: who knows what our spies do in the field, how haphazard some operations are, and what lengths the world governments are willing to go to in order to achieve agendas, appease the other side, and by and large get things done. The sets are polished, as is the script. Spielberg can also start a movie quietly probably like no one else because he's been noisy before and we know action will come later. This starts with a man, alone, doing something. He stops, looks in the mirror, goes back to what he's doing. The phone rings several times. He finally walks over and picks it up. He does not utter a word, but heads to the subway where he's followed. Men in suits and fedora hats follow him there and on the street.
This is all done in a series of closeups, and pulls us in. There are many worse ways to start a movie, and even worse to spend two hours. It also may be time for the master director to reach for the fences again, but for now, he hasn't faltered.
Sicario - 10/2/15 **** The framework, or plotline, is simple. The director, Denis Villaneuve, may borrow or employ. God knows the setting is familiar after all the U.S.-Mexico-border movies, news stories, books, and TV shows. And yet here's a movie that awakens us, that uses all the tools to engage and draw in the cinematic senses. Sicario sets up scenes, may finish conclusively or simply lead into the next one, and ultimately conveys so much about a politically tense, economically difficult, and culturally confusing topic that we need to see it again if nothing else than for the experience.
Take the overhead shots. There's the dusty, arid terrain we know so well. Here the shots are held fr just the right amount of time. One of these shots is sustained as five black SUVs go across the border from El Paso to Juarez. The vehicles pass through while what seems like hundreds of civilians wait to cross. Military-style vehicles pick up the escort in Juarez, then coming back across, a familiar incident occurs. How it's done is what matters here. This movie suggests so much while leaving so much a mystery and knows that it's the atmosphere, the underlying what ifs that matter most.
The characters are the same way. This is the third prominent border movie Benicio Del Toro has inhabited, each with very different characters. Here he is so subtle in similar sensibilities he showed in Oliver Stone's Savages. Emily Blunt does little, conveys a lot; we are with her even when she's not in the movie and many of us, probably, are just as naive. Josh Brolin, amazingly, provides the clearest-cut character.
I mentioned director Villaneuve borrows, or is it paying homage? The opening shot of Chandler, Arizona sets up everything: just beyond the frames lies what we're in for. Sergio Leone operated with the same principle in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. The great veteran Roger Deakins is the cinematographer. Icelander Johann Johannsson did the music (he also scored Villanueve's Prisoners). Whoever he uses, this director is one to watch. He knows so much about his characters and story that he has to do less, or can take his time, and employ everything the cinema has to offer. Now that's filmmaking.
This is not a box office film, and it is one that sticks around long after we've seen it. Then we reflect on why it stays on our minds. It transcends; it is felt, and still feels, and we still imagine long after seeing it. Sicario probably won't be up for any Oscars either, probably because this is a film that penetrates, permeates, and operates on such high and deep levels it's hard to pin down one individual working on it that rose above the others. A towering achievement that pushes the very definition of accomplishment.
Black Mass - 9/18/15 ** Based on a great book where if you skip details, you kick yourself, comes a movie that's all atmosphere, spent a fortune on looks, and the details left in don't matter too much. The filmmakers try to cram so many characters (the book is sprawling in that regard) into a two-hour movie that they shortchange a few prominent ones while devoting way too much attention to one that is given short shrift by a one-note performance. That character is F.B.I. agent John Connolly played by Joel Edgerton. He has about the same look throughout the story, an obvious character arc that elicits no reaction from the audience, and occupies about forty percent of the screenplay. The other crooked agent, John Morris, who is equally as interesting in the book, is turned into wallpaper. At least the portrayal of Morris by David Harbour isn't the actor's fault; it's the screenwriters, who also combine the two's stories, as in the book its Morris's marriage that falls apart, not Connolly's. This is a needless change because we don't care about this John Connolly, though his wife shares one of the movie's best scenes with James "Whitey" Bulger.
As Bulger, Johnny Depp is simply off the charts. Every time he's on screen he wears history on his middle-aged jacket and pants combos. He does little, evokes a lot, and dominates every scene. A tough prosecutor shows Corey Stoll at his best. He burns instead of prancing as he did in Ant-Man. Benedict Cumberbatch lends gravity, while Stephen Flemmi who is such a big part of the book is downsized to a one-dimensional sidekick. All these characters are against locations, especially interiors, that have an enormous amount of detail and look great. But the book established early the cultures and atmosphere of Boston, South Boston, the mechanic shop Flemmi and Bulger ran together which was near the F.B.I. building, and the Irish ethics and codes. This movie could've taken place almost anywhere outside of the accents.
Consider the opening scene of the book which is two pages. A teenage Whitey comes into an ice cream store, is spied by a much younger John Connolly. Whitey buys the kid an ice cream, and some kind of bond is cemented. Why didn't the filmmakers do this, or something like this? Think how efficient the medium is, and how better two hours can be spent.
Phoenix - 9/14/15 **** After a month out of the theater, it is nothing short of amazing to see a film that reminds you of why you go, and how indeed absence makes the heart like the medium even more. Christian Petzold's film stars Nina Hoss as Nelly Lenz, a woman horribly wounded during World War II. We meet her and a woman (Nina Kunzendorf) who are driving across the Swiss border. They board in a house under unclear circumstances save for escaping the war. Nelly sets out to find her husband, whom she believes in her heart she finds. We're never sure, and suspect for over an hour a few things in such a straight-forward story. That's the thing about live: events can be obvious, people not so much.
This movie is so deliberate, photographed so plainly, I couldn't have foreseen how the second half would build. We are simply with these characters, who slowly become people, and agendas eventually revealed. So often in American movies are emotions over the top and clear there's no room for buried feelings, especially on film, that we forget there are people who do think several steps ahead. F. Scott Fitzgerald has a famous quote for writers: "action is character." That, and so many other nuances, resonate here. Even the climax is understated, but goodness knows the audience's reaction wasn't. This is also the kind of story you run through your mind again on the way home and are never disappointed. The copyright of this film is last year, but surely, with Leviathan, it was a contender for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. I had to choose between this and a few other movies, and the others may be good, but doubtful they are as fulfilling.
Shaun the Sheep Movie - 8/7/15 **** You know that slightly famous quote that the hardest movie to make is a successful comedy. How about a comedy without a wasted shot? Over eighty-five minutes, without any discernible dialogue, and a clearly discernible plot, it's all the more amazing. My family and I have marveled how Nick Park and the makers have constructed the six-and-a-half minute episodes for the last four years. Now comes the movie and oh does it deliver.
The movie's success is established early, sticking to its roots on the farm where all the episodes take place and a tracking shot that lets us know it's a movie (The Muppet Movie did the same thing thirty-six years ago with Kermit in the pond). The filmmakers are betting most people in the theater have seen the TV show, so the plot quickly sets in motion, but doesn't call attention to its City-Slickers-in-reverse story. We go from the farm to urban life, of which I dare not spoil for readers. What's incredible is how many archetypes and people the characters come into contact with, and the sheep characters are etched just enough to act or behave funny in one straight-laced situation after another.
One of the keys is the villain, who gets in on the act. We know this character won't change, none of them do. He is, however, given enough motive and arc to push the story towards its surprising yet inevitable climax. None of this feels contrived, yet its all contained in the world of Shaun the Sheep, which hopefully expands to the big screen again. This is the kind of movie overlooked for awards, and shouldn't be for a second come early next year.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation - 8/4/15 ***1/2 For sheer entertainment, witty dialogue, and a never-ending cat-and-mouse game, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is hard to beat. It actually beats every summer movie in these categories, though it's so different from Mad Max: Fury Road, you can't really compare the two. This is only the third movie directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who twenty years ago this month launched into the spotlight with writing The Usual Suspects, for which he won the Oscar. He wrote last year's Edge of Tomorrow and Valkyrie, (2008) both of which starred Cruise. He also wrote for the screen and directed Jack Reacher. He and the big star clearly like working together. McQuarrie has a thing for cold-hearted people; there's not much room for heart in his films, but his dialogue keeps things cookin' along. He also may need a directorial signature at some point; his zooming closeups and camera angles resemble the first Mission Impossible, directed by Brian De Palma, which came out a whopping nineteen years ago. We saw this in Jack Reacher, too, and De Palma, as many know, followed Hitchcock quite a bit. Luckily for McQuarrie, I'm not sure how many sitting in the audience today know who those two predecessors are.
Anyway, the movie is a series of double-crosses and second-guesses. Some dialogue stops just short of making things clear, and it keeps us hanging; deep down we admire these people to take this story so seriously. The stunts and chases are terrific, and for exotic locales, as many know, we get Morocco. The franchise itself has a signature, the heist Ethan Hunt (Cruise) attempts with a computer person as backup. This one's shot so well we're lured in and forget we've seen it before.
The first two-thirds are the best, especially a virtuoso sequence at an opera. The climax borders somewhere between improbable, trite, and preposterous. However, we leave fulfilled. How hungry we are for the next one depends on the stupendous stunts and chases which, for this series, keep getting better and better.
Inside Out - 7/28/15 ***1/2 Here's a movie that falls into that special category of "It gets better the more you think about it." What would the frequency title of this category be? Slightly seldom? A little more often than "rare?" After roughly a decade of books about brains, what passes through or stays in the Amygdala, what is healthy for the machine upstairs and so forth, comes a movie that is indeed carried by its ideas and visuals. We are given emotions instead of characters, so Pete Docter (he directed the two Monsters animated movies), John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and other giants in the animation field only have to go so deep. We have storytelling points such as the quest, the inciting incident, and the main character's goals which, if are not grand, are clear, presented, and brushed aside.
The main character, a girl, actually, is brushed aside for Act Two of the movie as her principle emotion and a sidekick try to forge their way across her brain. This is not as interesting in terms of feelings and lacks an urgent dramatic pull, but Docter and co. right the ship at the very end where emotional maturity occurs. For many kids, I think, this is an unexpected journey that will spark wonder and curiosity, which is what this movie is about. There are a few memorable parts, even fewer interactions grounded in wit and intellect, but the aforementioned qualities lead and carry the way.
P.S.: This movie runs just over two hours including previews and includes a ten-minute or so short titled Lava. Why do they tack this on to a kids' movie? Two hours not long enough for a kid to sit still? It was sweet, cute, and not that necessary.
Ant-Man - 7/21/15 ***1/2 What stood out to me halfway through the latest Marvel Comic adaptation was how smart it was for the filmmakers to make Michael Douglas such a big part of the movie. After a few turns in smaller films (Solitary Man, Behind the Candelabra, for which he won a Golden Globe) and a battle with throat cancer around the time of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), his acting conveys so much with as much of a wince, a curious look past who's talking to him. He and the star, Paul Rudd, twenty years after Clueless, set the father-daughter theme in motion and see it through to the end. It's also this choice of the filmmakers, to set these two up as parallel characters outside of the obvious dueling billionaires (Douglas and Corey Stoll) that adds weight when the movie seamlessly shifts from a superhero movie to a Mission Impossible movie, complete with hand-drumming in the heist sequence.
Then there's the supporting cast: Michael Pena shows comic timing, adding to his repertoire, and Evangeline Lilly covers the scale for toughness in the corporate world, yearning for a family secret, slowly succumbing to romance. Stoll is the perfect villain, heftier than Douglas and Rudd, and one of his associates is played by the venerable Martin Donovan, who mostly exudes authority which suggests evil. And did I mention Bobby Cannavale, who is showing up more and more? With this gallery of characters we're given a gallery of special effects, but these are deployed out of the story, and not at us, but through us as we observe these people clearly for almost two hours. It's the gallery of characters, sometimes in the midst of broad laughs, that make this outing rise above all the others.
There's a last scene of domestic bliss, which is unnecessary, which tries to show that hey, everyone turns out okay. The filmmakers also might know that many grownups are seeing this movie, and we know all is not okay in the world. As long as many don't think back to the fact that the three former criminals who help Rudd happen to be Russian, African American, and Mexican American, we emerged unscathed enough despite the film's implications of our penal system. But here all three have righted their wrongs, are protagonists, and isn't life forgiving?
Minions - 7/14/15 *** Two years after Despicable Me 2, the Minions have their own movie, and early on we sense the filmmakers know the little tykes aren't the most interesting characters and that we'll be entertained by what happens to them and around them. The first ten minutes, especially the first few showing the Universal logo and the critters' evolution, are consistently amusing. The Minions need a boss, go through a few, then three of them escape the stronghold and venture to a big city. I do not want to give too much away, except for the movie aims at about a hundred cultural references and obstacles to hurl at the little cuties before the plot takes them overseas.
It's in the second half where the story really takes off as the Minions' jokes and reactions, which worked for little asides and car chases in the Despicable movies, come at us one after another. We're given a solid villain in Scarlet (voiced by Sandra Bullock) who dominates her husband Herb (Jon Hamm), who is really more of an assistant. Their agendas sustain the last half of the movie, and the cultural angles tread just carefully and edgily enough in our country's cousin. Throughout the story shots are held just along enough with each clear, our eyes knowing just where to look. The climax and ending work, too, showing us what the movie was all along with a great introduction to a previously referenced movie in this review. Then come all the intermittent jokes through the credits. On a summer day in mid-July, this is solid entertainment, and if not always the most inspiring, parts at least inspire imagination, which is what movies are about.
Jurassic World - 6/12/15 ** Well, there are reasons for cynicism in the movie industry. This is a complete retread of the original Jurassic Park which came out twenty-two years ago this month. I was twenty-two at the time and was awed and pretty consumed with that cinematic experience. This movie starts the same way complete with a helicopter taking people into what has now become a theme park on a remote island somewhere in the southern hemisphere. The animals are smarter, trained, and toy with the humans. The first was also called onto the carpet for being what it was, a haunted house movie. This one is too, without Jeff Goldblum delivering one-liners, and unfortunately with most if not all of the trite, tired horror movie cliches. I counted three times when a character thought a scare was over, sighed, then something burst onto the screen or through a window next to them. Hands swipe at windshields. People are yanked by dinosaurs up into the air with limbs flailing. The beasts lean down so we see all their teeth or just one eye.
About the biggest difference between the first installment and this is that military tactics are called in to attack the feral animals. Everything else has been done in other monster movies; Ridley Scott's Alien and Prometheus come to mind, with corporations meddling with science. Except here, the human agendas feel like their inserted, not outgrowths of personalities. In 1993 we really did feel that Sam Neill was interested in those creatures, and that Richard Attenborough dreamed of creating an island and world all his own. This time, a fine actor, Vincent D'Onofrio, imposes his opportunism because we need something else to distract us from the fact that this is a monster movie. Amazing that we need more than that for a slam-bang movie to have resonance, but it's true.
Spy - 6/12/15 *** There's really not much you can say about a movie starring Melissa McCarthy that's a spoof of James Bond and co-stars Jude Law, who might have made a decent James Bond. These movies are what they are: profane, often violent, all of it played for laughs, and usually very fast-paced. You barely get a chance to laugh before the manic filmmakers are cutting to the next setup, with the payoff seconds behind, if that. The first thing I noticed was that McCarthy's name is the only one appearing above the title in the opening credits. She has become such a big star, which says more, I think, about our society and our yearning for average-looking people to appear in a movie than anything else. She's okay, and there is probably an audience segment that is tired of looking at drop-dead gorgeous actresses.
The other featured actress, who is just that, is Rose Byrne, who shows fine comedic timing. She dials down everything and speaks in a manner of annoyance. The other actor, in an equally if not better fine turn, is Jason Statham. This guy has persevered through all his action movies, and hopefully will be around a long time. I can't remember who said in reference to Robert Downey Jr. at the time, that if you like someone on the screen, chances are you'd like them in real life. Statham is still likable and knows just how far to push bursting frustration. He easily one-ups McCarthy in their banter scenes, and we're ready to laugh at, and with, him more by the end of the film. Speaking of laughs, I chuckled several times throughout this comedy while the audience around me, including my wife, laughed much more. Maybe I'm too leisurely, or like lines delivered with long setups and payoffs where it's not always obvious this is a movie. Clousseau it ain't, but it'll do, especially for the producers.
I'll See You in My Dreams - 6/11/15 **** There aren't many movies you can say this about: it takes it's time. So many efforts are in such a hurry, we wish the filmmakers would slow down. See below. This film also must have been a tough sell. Who would want to see a film about a single, ageing woman who finds like and romance in a couple of male counterparts, spends time with friends, and loses a loved one? Almost every character in this story is sixty and up, including many Hollywood character actors, and we can't take our eyes off them. This is very much an intimate movie, shot mostly with interiors (a house, an assisted living home) and the exteriors such as a golf course, a boat, a street, has the camera close to the actors. There aren't many master shots. This movie is also understated in so many ways: even a comic scene where a cop questions four elderly women on the way home from a grocery store, isn't over the top, but therein lies a secret. With all these recognizable faces, we feel like we're watching real people, even if they're played by June Squibb (much better here than in Nebraska), Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place, and Blythe Danner.
That last actress is the central character around which this story, co-written by the director, Brett Haley and Mark Basch, and directed by Haley, revolves. She graces every scene, seems curious from afar about everyone she meets. An eye-flutter from her speaks volumes, and that's part of what cinema is about. I like a movie with unlikely parallel characters. A pool guy, played by Martin Starr, also leads a life adrift with a bachelor's degree and a mom to care for. What will we do when we get old anyway? Perhaps similar things as to when we're young, perhaps not. Whatever lies ahead of us, we should enjoy it, try something new, maybe something old that can feel new again, and revisit our talents that have long been buried.
Tomorrowland - 6/10/15 **1/2 Here's a cinematic experience that takes you away, sparks wonder, evokes fleeting emotions, and barely has a memorable line in it. It lacks wit and human dimensions beyond single agendas that are at service to the plot and high stakes. By the second half, we sense we missed something in the first, along with the characters. Casey, one of the three protagonists, wants to go to space, but this does not make her likable, or likable enough. Does she or another girl, Athena, and George Clooney truly care about one another? Just about scientific ideas? Clooney takes this story seriously enough, tears up in a death scene at the end, and we almost do, too, but we're not sure what and how much the dying character meant to us throughout or at the end of this journey. This overstuffed plot has secret servicemen drive up twice, seemingly out of nowhere, at the requirements of the story. The villain is planted early, shows up much later, yet his motive is a tad unclear, and his speech is toward the end unmemorable, unconvincing.
So what's to like about this movie? The visuals and future world displayed early, that's what. We get lost, suspend all reality, and that's what this medium, or at least part of it, is for. Why is it that storytellers always focus on movement in the form of mass transit, segways, and cities alone? No matter: the sets revealed through a smooth-moving camera are spectacular. Then we double back to the human story which is about present actions determining the future and not giving up. The messages are clear, but the characters sure aren't. Clear motive is a big deal, and when the future of humankind is at stake, that's fine. How anyone feels about it can be straightforward enough but has to be particular. When part of the climax, in this era of many climaxes, boils down to a fistfight, we know the filmmakers have run our of ideas. When the director is Brad Bird, in his second live action movie after the thrilling Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol three-and-a-half years ago, we expect a lot, but something is creeping into his work: characters. His last movie was a firmly established franchise with a star and supporting characters we sensed were all in it together. Maybe Bird needs someone to push against, and one would think Clooney is up for it, just not this time.
Ex Machina - 5/19/15 **** Here's a movie where you think you've seen all the story points, walk home, and are overcome. The last twenty minutes linger over a single character; we're lulled, then put it all together thirty minutes after the movie finishes. There are not many movies like this. It's amazing to see a story where the filmmakers have thought it all through, and where all the clues, including the minimalist dialogue and actions by the characters, add up and have a purpose. This is the directorial debut of Alex Garland, whose name I first noticed on The Beach (2000), based on his novel, before he wrote that and 28 Days Later (2003)and Sunshine (2007), all of which were directed by Danny Boyle. For this story he follows a cardinal rule: reward the audience for watching, even if the last twenty minutes drag.
The camera technique and editing aren't too earth-shattering; we feel he's seen the work of Andrew Niccol, whose Good Kill just opened. There's emotional distance between everyone, and buried longing that is so suppressed we're not sure where the characters' emotion lie, or if they've gone away. That's okay: we've seen enough movies with ten times the emotion it's nice to give us space and evoke wonder with a single glance, which is the power of film in the first place. And it's nice to just think.
There's a cat and mouse game here that slowly emerges (We also feel the influence of David Fincher), goes away, then surfaces again. When we see we've been played, we enjoy the thrill because it's about ideas, people we know or at least recognize, and some we wouldn't mind witnessing their downfall. If Garland and all the special effects crew aren't wholly original, at least they've arranged the pieces into one of the better, low-key cinematic experiences in a while.
Mad Max: Fury Road - 5/15/15 **** Here's a summer movie that knows everything: audience, character, world, story, and most of all, its roots. It's been thirty (!!!) years since Max made it beyond thunderdome, and the director of all four, George Miller, who turns seventy this year, knows not to disorient his viewers. He does this on a few levels, but mostly with his camera and how he shapes his scenes. Master shots set up and close scenes, pulling back from a vast, arid mountain range that wasn't in the first three. That's because Miller and crew filmed in South Africa and Namibia. I was reminded of when Sergio Leone filmed his westerns in the vast landscapes of Spain, so refreshing after audiences had grown used to John Ford's favorite site in all of his westerns, Monument Valley.
Amidst this land comes a story structure that is present and natural. These characters live in the present. We see Max again as a loner on the road. He is quickly captured and escapes in an opening shot in a herky-jerky style like many other action movies. The story really excels when the filmmakers return to what they did and do best, create worlds. The chief antagonist controlling a vital resource while many perish we've seen before, and Miller knows this. He expands on what the second and third installments did so well, and then come the chases, which we expect, and are shot in a less frenetic style so that we enjoy them no matter how relentless the pace. Every scene and sequence feels sure-footed; we know so much work went into it. The actors, Charlize Theron, and Tom Hardy and many unrecognizable actors, know their roles. Miller has them play up the emotion and urgency through looks just enough with all the banging and crashing.
I mentioned the roots. One character's eye is damaged, as was Max's in the second film, The Road Warrior. There are vertically-challenged villains, flashbacks to Max's daughter, who died in the first film, Mad Max, and made him a loner. That character backstory freed everyone up to drive like hell: they're out for themselves but we feel they have to, on some level, look out for each other.
Right after seeing this movie, I wondered about George Miller's career. He was a physician and raised money to make the first movie. He did all three over six years before going to Hollywood to make The Witches of Eastwick (1987). Apparently that was a less than stellar experience, so he left for five years. In 1992 he made Lorenzo's Oil (1992), a drama with Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon, which was liked by many. At the time I couldn't believe these movies as well as Babe: Pig in the City (1998) and both Happy Feet movies (2006 and 2011, he won the Oscar for the first film in 2006) were directed by the same man. His range is vast, at first glance split between his dystopian franchise and animated, family-friendly fare. He's also been overlooked for much of his career probably because he's so hard to pigeonhole. We should, instead, just look at his body of work as that from a talented storyteller who consistently is all about the story, and builds from his roots.
Monkey Kingdom - 4/26/2015 *** Disney Nature may be a little slow on the uptake as far as doing well for and by the environment, but the spinoff is admirable. They flash on the screen that a percentage of opening week sales goes to wildlife preservation. Only opening week? Okay, we'll take it. The strength of the movie that follows is it balances expository info., which is didactic at times, before settling into a story about a mama monkey, Maia, and her son Kip. This follows a pretty straight-forward arc as the two and their tribe are tested with Monitors, Monsoons, and of course courting males. It's also set in a landscape we've scarcely seen, Sri Lanka, another strength.
Tina Fey's narration, credited at the end, is fine, and drew a few laughs from the one-third house we saw the movie with. I don't fault her for the paucity; it's more that Disney plays it safe in anthropomorphizing the animals. At eighty-one minutes, this outing doesn't overstay it's welcome, has informed us, and the visuals, the best part of the film, are consistently engaging. The editors even get eye-trace right, with right-to-left pans in the majority of the first half and the opposite tracking motion later as we draw to a close. The whole thing is innocent enough, and good enough.
While We're Young - 4/18/2015 **** This thing grows and becomes living, breathing while we watch. It may feel choppy, especially early on, but we are with these characters in all their attempts at goofiness, professional success, to connect with others, and finally, intimacy. Friendship is the centerpiece, or it starts out that way, yet the final shot tells you where it all leads. Since we understand these people (those forty and up will probably get the most out of this picture), we don't doubt Noah Baumbach has full control of his subjects and story. This little journey where details add up feels authentic, personal, and boy do we enjoy the performances.
You know that old maxim that the more specific storytelling choices are, the more universal they become? We sense Naomi Watts shouldering, supplementing the movie and the relationship with her husband, played by Ben Stiller in a controlled performance (that is a compliment), as another couple, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, enter their lives. This entry is enriching, invigorating, and a wake-up as friends of the original couple settle into parenthood. But Baumbach is after deeper material, how we can even be deceived as we age, how idealism is maintained, withstands, and endures. Sometimes there are situations in which we grow up all over again.
I mentioned the last shot. It feels organic, that we didn't end up here by accident. It's also empowering, and let's us make up our own minds. The future seems wide open to these characters and Baumbach, one of our most precious independent directors today. After Frances Ha, we can't wait for his next trip.
Danny Collins - 4/9/2015 *** As expected, Al Pacino carries this movie. The filmmakers would be dumb to have him step aside at any time. Dan Fogelman, in his first time directing, is sure-footed with his star, and now he needs a bigger canvas. He's not as interested in his characters as he is in having them revolve around his star who, at seventy-four, still commands.
The character and story arcs we see coming, but individual moments stand out, even above the relationships we see given short shrift by the plot gears. The supporting characters played by Annette Bening, Bobby Cannavale, and Jennifer Garner are all dutiful, and evoke just enough when they're on the screen. Then there's Pacino, who plays soft, hurt, bottled up surprise and sudden self-awareness like nobody can. His ageing rocker is in the midst of his swan song, and with the help of his older manager (played by the effervescent Christopher Plummer), knows it. Both their times are running out, or are they? It's never too late for redemption, no matter if it's been done before.
What We Do In The Shadows - 3/7/2015 ***1/2 We see the old alarm clock sound, followed by a hand reaching from a coffin to turn it off. We smile, and know we're in for a good time. One of the most endearing parts of New Zealanders, and Australians I might add, is that they don't take themselves too seriously, especially when they're among themselves. They don't pretend to be more than they are or venture into comedic existential territory with which they are not familiar. When the vampires of this comedy go out in the city of Wellington at night and hit the club scene, we sense some notes that'll be played yet with a cultural bent all it's own.
Jermaine Clement, the co-writer, co-director and the most famous of the lot, also doesn't waste our time. He and the other three vampires live in a flat, which is really a run-down house. The movies starts with them having a "flat" meeting where one vampire is cornered for not doing the dishes. The lads go through friendships, betrayal, and convey enough emotion and familiar reactions that we don't give up on them, nor do they lose their innocence and likability. The audience I saw this with laughed consistently, and that's enough in this day and age, especially when our vampire movies are more serious, and lack less wit, than ever before.
Boyhood 3/3/15 (2014) **** I saw this movie in the theater. See it there if you can if only to see how an organic story grows while it is done in rushes. About thirty minutes in we ask, what is director Richard Linklater trying to say? Then the last thirty minutes occur, and slowly, even meanderingly, does this film's greatness show itself. We've seen Mason age from six to eighteen. We've presided over him slowly clamming up as an early and late teenager. He goes through two of his mom's husbands, enters new schools, gets a note passed to him in class and is later threatened in the boys' bathroom. These events may seem unconnected, but they're not disconnected, if you get the drift. The adults in Mason's life, especially his dad, played by Ethan Hawke in the movie's most complete performance, act selfish, caring, observant, and insightful, sometimes seconds apart in the same scene. Mason's mom (Patricia Arquette, who won the Oscar for this film), evolves from a twenty-nine year-old struggling, single mother to a forty-one year-old, wiser, somewhat more stable adult who successfully raises two kids.
That's one of the film's bigger points that sneaks up on us: adults keep evolving, as do kids. The dad takes Mason camping, talks to him and his sister at bowling alleys, and breaks his word before giving him a birthday present that is very personal. If the film, at two hours and forty minutes, grows a little talky with Mason and his girlfriend near the end of high school, we don't mind; we've been at those awkward moments with transitions on the horizon, where our decisions may not match, or are intended to, what we feel. The themes in our lives can stay the same too as Mason and family revisit music, politics, and gatherings.
I mentioned the length, and I enjoyed every moment of it. If th Academy of Motion Pictures can give Peter Jackson a Special Achievement in Directing award thirteen years ago for the Fellowship of the Ring, can't they give one to Linklater for having the courage and conviction to create this wholly original feat? Can't this picture share Best Picture with Birdman? In the last few scenes, we sense the kind of person Mason has become yet don't know him too well at all. Your average adult could start a conversation with him, sure, but we don't necessarily know where it would go. The last scene struck me as odd before its perfection emerged: we're not sure about that first day of college. The person Mason is photographed with could become important, or not. We don't know. Surely a sequel, Manhood, could be worked out, or at least evolve with us.
Blackhat - 1/24/15 **1/2 Michael Mann's Blackhat is so serious yet so outlandish on so many levels that about halfway through, you try to sit back and enjoy it. Now, Mann is a serious-minded director. Look what he did with Miami Vice nine years ago. We can't quite relax because events move forward. I chose the word events over drama because when all is said and done and two characters walk off with millions in this movie, we're vaguely interested what will become of them. That's because we sense they're given backstories, and our hero, played by Chris Hemsworth, explains in a vaguely intelligible montage, who he is. The plot point about him is that he was at M.I.T., collaborated with his Chinese fellow student, and the two of them set up a taskforce to go after someone who has set off a nuclear reactor to rehearse for a bigger crime.
The villain is also just that, a plot point, and man, is he shallow and easily taken down at the end. But back to the setup: we're introduced to characters played by fine actors such as John Ortiz, Viola Davis, and Wei Tang. They seem like real people, and this movie is grounded in reality, but then comes generic action that is choreographed so inexplicably obvious, that when characters die, we sense loss, and then move on. But then when the international dimension is so set up in the first hour, with scenes of officials negotiating and appearing so heady and thoughtful with so much vested at stake, how in the world do two protagonists with top secret information and millions in their pockets walk through an airport into who knows where at the end? Everything taken seriously in the first two acts is dropped. It's a series of not quites, all the way up to what is this movie about? Which ties back to Miami Vice and for that matter, Public Enemies. Both movies had my interest from beginning to end--that is the sole reason this movie does not get a lesser rating.
Mann clearly researches his topics. Now he needs to revisit what made Heat and The Insider, his two best, so galvanizing and inspiring. Diane Venora in an interview characterized Heat as a Greek tragedy. The Insider has been revisited by many including yours truly four times over the years. Now the great director needs to revisit his dramatic roots. I don't know if it's Hemsworth or the director's work with him, but something more has to be done to make him interesting, and more than that, an archetype.
The Imitation Game - 1/17/15 ***1/2 Here's a movie that built such a good, strong narrative, centered around one character, surrounded him with and gradually revealed five or six interesting characters if you include the war itself, and settles for a needless, vain ending. I haven't seen Benedict Cumberbatch much, not having seen any episodes of Sherlock. Along with a pitch-perfect Keira Knightly, Charles Dance, Matthew Goode, and Allen Leech, the director, Morten Tyldum, who made the great adaptation of Jo Nesbo's Headhunters, tells a linear story and touches on many different themes, as did The King's Speech four years ago.
Alan Turing was one of the great mathematician's of his time, and his dogged persistence and, shall we say, off-kilter social skills, helped build an elite team that effectively turned the tide if not won the second world war. The sharp-etched supporting performances all lend a hand; themes appear, disappear, then rear their heads. The biggest ideas revolve around secrets, when and how we hide them, reveal them, or bury them. The often-zooming camera and quite, unsettling score, underline the snapshots of people in war rooms, the bombings of London, and the subversiveness of communication under duress. All of this is so well told that when the last ten minutes arrive, we get one character telling Alan Turing, the man we've grown to admire on a few levels, how terrific he is. We do not need this. We also don't need the last shots of just him. Did he succeed because of or in spite of his team? That may be ambiguous, but the characters' impact on this story isn't. Suggestion, rather than strong emotion, might have worked better in closing.
Wild - 1/7/15 ***1/2 Many stories are hard to film, and flashbacks can be hard to handle. Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon in probably her most complete acting performance (I haven't seen all), achieves both. It's also hard to film a solo trek. I did six days in the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho once. The director, Jean-Marc Vallee, tells the backstory so well, we almost wish there was more of it. Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest trail on the heels of a divorce, drug addiction, and a downward spiral after her mom died. A woman hiking so many days on her own is courageous enough; what Strayed finds within herself is a sense of self. She takes many quotes and takes co-credit for them, making the words of Robert Frost, Flannery O'Connor part of her. That's what we do in life, no?
Cheryl meets various characters on her sojourn, most of them men. The film can be interpreted as a woman trying to find out how to relate to men. Some overtly flirt with her, others suggest with offerings. It happens, and we're not sure where these interactions will lead, and ain't that the truth, too. So universal is this story, and so well-structured, that the few misses along the way stand out, then fade, much like the characters on Strayed's journey. We don't tire of Witherspoon's performance. She is sure to get a deserved Oscar nomination. The photography and music aren't overdone. We are glad for the trip taken, and aren't quite sure what's missing. I don't know--maybe closure of a few of the minor characters could've helped. But then, that's how those journeys are, where open and closed interactions appear and then vanish with not so much as a shrug before reflection later.
Foxcatcher - 12/27/14 ***1/2 Through the levels of commentary in Bennett Miller's new movie Foxcatcher lies a thriller. This is the kind of story that plants seeds, moves on, and lures us in all the way. David Mamet sure does come to mind, but his films have more personality and, dare I say, heart about its subjects. The filmmakers here stand very much outside the plights of the three main characters, two of which are brothers and one of which is a rich outcast, which turns out to be Steve Carell's best screen performance by far.
These three people in place, there is no focal character, as one school of thought on storytelling would have you believe is essential. The film is instead about two relationships, or three if you include the isolated rich man's struggle to relate to anyone. Since the story is about the relationships, we sense Miller and company lose a little control and focus about two-thirds of the way through, where sympathy and fear usually take over; we sense, yet don't feel. The movie is, however, never boring as we snap back to a finale. I heard several gasps around me in the theater in a climax my friend and I saw coming. We are still gripped after that point, and see a unique story photographed, paced, and one that steadily evoked suspense for over two hours. Not many films you can say that about.
The Homesman - 12/13/14 *** Some say the opening shot or shots tell the audience what the film will be about. This is flat land with an equally flat sky, the cinematography is by the always-working virtuoso Rodriego Prieto. He's been used by Martin Scorsese, Alejandro Inarritu, Ang Lee, and Oliver Stone over the last ten years. Here we feel his stamp is on every frame, and Tommy Lee Jones, as star and director, knows these characters and land like his own skin.
I'm not quite sure what this movie is about, but here's a stab: do our lives make us crazy or are we born that way? This is one of those fables in the old west that we walk with for a while. There is one distraction: Meryl Streep pops up near the end and she has way too much cinematic baggage to be a character out of the blue. James Spader, when he enters his pivotal scene, embodies his character and we forget all we've seen him in before. Hilary Swank gives an emphatic performance. Remember, this full-scale actress has one the top Oscar twice, meandered a little over the last ten years, and we ponder what a crapshoot it is to have a career in the film business. She was wise to team with Jones, and together they handle her character sympathetically, at times clear-eyed, yet evoking mystery. Where will her life lead to? Where did many back in those days?
The Penguins of Madagascar - 11/28/14 *** Almost always entertaining, witty at times, and a bit choppy in important areas, Dreamworks' The Penguins of Madagascar has successfully built from the Madagascar movies four characters. Their interplay isn't as entertaining as in the twenty-minute shorts, but they are likable. In fact, a new team is introduced: The North Wind, who promises much, delivers a fair amount, and gets a tad lost in the climax, which is where the personalities and agendas should really bounce off one another. Also, the villain's agenda gets muddled: we're not really sure outside of revenge what Dave (voiced by John Malkovich) wants. In the tradition of the James Bond villains, he's maniacal, but not on a humiliation-need basis. Dave is just funny, amusing, like the rest of the film.
The beginning is sure-footed: many penguins are marching in Antarctica and we meet the foursome at a younger age. We progress to Venice in a great boat chase that pokes fun at other chase scenes from other movies and is simultaneous outlandish while using its surroundings. We meet The North Wind as seen in the trailer four months ago. This back-and-forth whetted our appetities, but the screenplay doesn't quite know how to balance the two teams with Dave and his legion of followers. One transition between a capture and another locale is not explained, and the climax is bungled. The ingredients and wit is there, but without clear, matching motives, we're a tad lost. Then, after the initial credits roll, we get an extra featuring King Julian (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his sidekick Mort, and we realize how much they add to the original Penguin spinoffs. Those two could've added much, much more, culminating in clear-headed wants and needs.
Birdman - 11/24/14 **** Here's a movie that is completely authentic, organic, and whose structure falls into place about halfway through. I'm not sure I've seen a film at ease with itself and achieving so much. It would be too easy to fall into a self-absorbed commentary on stardom, yet I think it's how many go through life after a golden era or two. As Riggan Thompson, Michael Keaton is uncannily cast, twenty-two years after he last appeared as Batman. The late eighties, particularly 1988 when he was in Beetlejuice, Clean and Sober, and was cast as Batman which broke records in the summer of 1989, was his high time. He meandered through most of the nineties, starring in a few mainstream misfires (Pacific Heights, Multiplicity) and was mostly off the radar and popping up in supporting roles in Jackie Brown.
Building around Keaton, all the performances are good. Long shots, and there are many that are several minutes, linger, zoom in slowly on faces and spend a lot of time inches away from the actors. Then we zoom slowly out, and when we need fresh air, we leave a Broadway theater and have two scenes on a balcony above the theater, a few in a bar just down the street, and realize there is a structure amidst this naturalistic storytelling. We are inside a play, a theater, a bar, and with Riggan every step of the way, even when he's not onscreen. Even Zach Galifianakis occupies yet gives over to Keaton, while Edward Norton plays the actor who is superior, and perhaps undermining, his co-star of the play. Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough know just how far to push their performances to the edge, and Emma Stone, in the movie's most straightforward monologue, commands, then gives back over to Keaton.
At every moment I couldn't look away, yet felt completely comfortable if I missed something, because Alejandro Inarritu is so sure-handed. He always has been, even if we disagree with parts of his story. His films are personal and appear to so many around the world, because they are so personal. This is the kind of wholly original film that wins awards, and lasts long after.
Interstellar - 11/17/14 ***1/2 Christopher Nolan continues his run of big-event, cinematic movies that have to be on the big screen. There's scarcely a memorable line or characters that linger, but man are they bold, big-headed, and stay a step ahead of the audience (at least this member) every step of the way. This one is closest to Inception, where Leonardo DiCaprio led a team into the sub-conscience. That work bowled me over and mowed me down with its relentless, pounding score. This one has Hans Zimmer's music building, then fading, and when you think about it, it's like long breaths. That's intentional, or has to be. That's why we can settle in for two hours and forty-nine minutes and not feel the length.
The actors do what they can as people in the midst of big, scientific, plot-driven questions don't allow much room for anything else. Yet individual moments, with Zimmer's music, let us feel; then that feeling disappears. There are two bedside scenes that get to you. Toward the end, my wife said it best: "This is intriguing." It is, and cinematic, and if the characters don't resonate deeply, the visuals sure do, especially projected in 35mm. Early on I thought I needed to see this at the IMAX. That would be great, too, but not needed. Humor rears its head once or twice, before we get back to the ideas. That's what this movie is about.
Big Hero 6 - 11/9/14 ** Disney appears to lack the wit of Pixar and Dreamworks. The company tries to create jokes for grownups that are either far-fetched (the movie takes place in San Francokyo...get it?) in th near future and have a smidge of commentary on Silicon Valley. Neither take off, and for that matter, the motive of the villain is left murky. Alfred Hitchcock once said, "The more successful the villain, the more successful the film." This villain, a cousin of Darth Maul out of Star Wars, is powerful all right with his army of microbots, but he's given no human qualities. If he got his revenge, what would become of the rest of us?
Therein lies a big point: robots and teenagers thrash about the city, hurling discs, arms, and weapons and, especially at night, not a single citizen is in sight. The four California teenagers engender not a care in the world for each other. The best relationship by far is between the fourteen year-old Hiro and the robot left to him by his older brother, who dies in a fire staged by the villain.
Therein lies another point: death. Disney has done this for, oh, almost a century, maybe further back in print. When will this end? When will astonishing visuals, which occur in the third act as our heroes bound through a portal to another dimension, not be supplanted by tired cliches? When Disney hires wit, and isn't afraid to offend a single soul out there.
Nightcrawler - 11/5/14 ***1/2 Jake Gyllenhaal has quietly, steadily built a career of quality. Think back to Donnie Darko, now thirteen years ago. That was very much a director's picture, and Richard Kelley has since stumbled, and Jake has too (Love & Other Drugs). It's not that he recovers and gives his next film his best shot; he's never phoning/faxing/emailing/tweeting it in. It's that he chooses diverse movies with the theme of atmosphere (Zodiac, Prisoners, End of Watch, Enemy), remains himself, and isn't aching for our attention. He gives us that most valuable commodity many, many people crave nowadays: space.
Dan Gilroy's new film is very much a portrait of Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal), whom we first meet thrashing about in scrap metal. He's apprehended by a cop, whom our main character quickly dispenses with--we don't see exactly what happens, and with him, move on. We next see him driving around L.A. at night, he approaches a wood yard worker, follows him into his trailer office, and makes a strong case, burning with emotion under the surface, and the guy turns him down: "I don't hire crooks." Louis smirks and silently wags his index finger at the man. Louis was made, and he moves on again.
Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, we are always with Louis. Another technique from Scorsese's classic is that Bloom is always in the frame - when the other person is talking to him, we see his shoulder, then cut to only Bloom. After this intro., he interviews a young, almost illiterate man of Indian descent. Bloom gives him employment, holds power over him, negotiates with him, just as he does with a local TV news network with Rene Russo as the news director. The film then follows Bloom as he builds his business, sells his footage, wipes out his video-feed competition, and successfully creates his market niche. This all works so well we're captivated right up until the end when some needless rock music is slapped on as the credits roll. Gilroy should've cut right as Bloom is training his new team and says, "Remember: I wouldn't put any of you through anything I wouldn't do myself." Yes, and what if he's not what he seems? As in, a tad crazy? Such commentary on our business climate should stay with us, and it does despite the ending.
Men, Women & Children - 10/18/2014 ***1/2 Wow, is this a movie that works in individual moments, scenes, reactions, and gets to its message at the end. Technology has indeed come full circle since September 5, 1977 when our first satellite was launched into outer space. We use technology every day, with personal devices really taking hold the last ten years. Now, many teens have them and use them to communicate in one-sentence thoughts in an evolved language that sometimes transfers to speech, as in the term, "RL," standing for real life.
The scene in which this comes up is with a high school football player who has quit the team, or is taking a year off (his future return is uncertain) who now spends a ton of time with an online game. This is one of the many stories in Jason Reitman's film. What is Reitman indeed trying to tell us? the notion of text bubbles appearing on the screen above the characters' heads at the mall, in the high school, and onscreen are not taken to the nth degree as the trailer suggests. It is however, a good story about how adults currently interact with teenage kids, and the teens themselves, communicate, react, and especially speculate on what transpires because of, and as a result of, these bits of transmissions around us all the time.
If the structure gets messy with the ensemble of over ten characters, there are great scenes toward the end. One series of texts between a teenager and an intercepting parent drew a big gasp from me and another audience member several seats away. Adam Sandler, in his best role in years, plays a cooped-up husband; he dials down, is withdrawn, has been that way for a while. Dean Norris, who has been in movies the last twenty-five years, shows a full range of emotions, as does Judy Greer. The other adults give great performances, especially Jennifer Garner, wound very tight, of conflicted, caring, obtrusive people who want the best for their teenage kids and have different ways of going about it. Are they helping or hurting teenagers discover the adult (or real) world?
We're not sure, and I'm not sure this movie is either. The message comes at the end. There might be a sub-genre of films or stories out there where the story finally arrives at its message in the same vein one writes a high school essay and the teacher or friend says, "This is the starting point for your paper." This is a rough draft, the same reaction I had to A Beautiful Mind. Both are compelling, and grace surfaces. There might be something more where this movie came from.
Gone Girl - 10/5/2014 *** Solid, yes. Inspiring, sort of. Faithful, yes. So where does this leave us? A strange recollection of an adaptation came to mind: Sydney Pollack's film of John Grisham's The Firm in 1993. We recognized what we read, nodded at the southern locales, knew what was left in and cut out, and it was faithful to the spirit and message. A piece of cinematic treasure it wasn't, but we had solid performances from all the actors and execution from the filmmakers.
Gone Girl gets great performances from its actresses: Rosamund Pike has a lock on a Best Actress nomination. Her steely eyes can be innocent, curious (in a childish way), caring, and witty. They can also be cunning, conniving, and telling of buried venom. The other standout is Kim Dickens as Detective Boney, whom I thought would be plumper, more rotund and bossy; her performance grows on us, though, probably because she's the least known of the principals. Carrie Coon is rock solid as "Go," Nick Dunne's sister. Which brings us to Nick, who is pretty crucial and should match the missing Amy (Pike) stride for stride with all the insecurities, manipulations, and behavior changes. In all those areas Ben Affleck goes through the motions, but we don't feel this guy is capable of anything at any time. In Flynn's book (finished this morning), the author stacked the decks evenly - one had the upperhand until the other outwitted, or made a brash move and outmaneuvered with family members, the cops, or the media. This last facet is well handled.
The other male performance, by Neil Patrick Harris, also falls flat. How do you think a single, rich guy in his late thirties whom we guess has seldom dated, behave if the girl, looking like Rosamund Pike, whom he dated in high school, shows up on his doorstep for the first time in twenty years? Harris's character has no passion, lust, or mystery about him. I know guys that if single for that long, would flip out and maniacally do anything for her. He merely shows up and is standoffish.
I checked the poster on the way out because I'm always curious how they package a big movie with a big director. It said, "From the director of Fight Club and The Social Network." The second listing stuck with me. All the legal depositions, ins and outs of friendship, so deftly handled, paced, and inserted in The Social Network are missing here. Ah, but we have to judge what film Fincher made. The slow tracking shots are kept to a minimum, the brooding score usually there, but the sense of forboding, the mystery, that we're not seeing everything we're supposed to, or want to, is absent. This thing is faithful, it moves alright,and could've been much more, starting with its leading men.
A Walk Among The Tombstones - 10/1/14 *1/2 You know a movie hasn't worked on someone when one of the five I saw this film with walked out ahead of me and asked his friend, "You workin' tomorrow?" That's because nothing was fully developed here: There's Liam Neeson's relationship with a kid, the culture of fear with Y2K headlines (the story is set in 1999), the two climaxes, the alcoholics anonymous scenes (of course our hero is a recovering alcoholic cop seeking redemption), or senses of urgency and menace. When one trapped character kills himself out of fear for two accomplices in a kidnap and torture, we only wonder if it ever occurred to him to move out of state.
Scott Frank was a top screenwriter in the 1990s with Dead Again and Get Shorty. His script for Minority Report was airtight as a thriller, character study, and chalk-full of ideas. His directorial debut, The Lookout (2007) at least had originality, was clear about its theme, and gave the crime genre a new look. It also suggested, while this film hits us over the head with blood, guts, and unconvincing acting. For instance, we don't need to see a seven year-old girl with her eye shot out; Neeson's reaction would've done. Speaking of the guy, Neeson has become a two or three-dimensional actor, lower than the digits on his bank account I imagine. In the end that's what we're thinking of, because it sure isn't wonder at how Frank wanted us to feel walking out of the theater. Which leads back to the line between two of the five people I saw this with. All of the filmmakers, including journeyman writer Lawrence Block, who's novel inspired the film, deserve and are capable of much better.
The Drop - 9/14/14 *** I'll say this: New York crime movies haven't gotten that old, not when stellar actors are on board and we sense they could strive for more, but this is the movie they got made. Tom Hardy has built toward leading man status, and created a character we think we know yet are not altogether surprised when he takes a sudden turn late in the story.
This movie's strength is it creates a world, a Brooklyn where people glance around, often keep to themselves, and always keep their cards close to their jackets, as it were. Even when they seem friendly, the voices and menacing words will change but the expressions won't. Like Hardy, Noomi Rapace has that air of mystery about her, yet in the end her part is left in the lurch. She's just "the girl" in a man's world. Dennis Lehane, who wrote the short story on which this is based as well as the screenplay, is straight forward; this picture is linear in events, even if the characters aren't. He could branch out and push himself more. For instance, "the cop" part is also well played by John Ortiz, but these two supporting roles don't hold surprises, or many principles, which is where less is just enough, and not more.
Guardians of the Galaxy - 8/31/14 *** Oh that trite and true saying: for what it is, it is very good. This movie, the box office winner of the summer and year, has tons of special effects, lots of humor, and those cinematic moments that make us feel. When one of the five main characters wells up at the end with swelling music, we feel it, and don't feel as if the story is going out of its way. The moment feels genuine, as does the beginning. Yet this film doesn't depend on these moments. It earns them.
Between these framing scenes is a lot of action, a fair amount of banter among five guardians whom we've all seen in the previews, and a rodent with much attitude that is just held in check by the filmmakers. There are indeed a ton of special effects as this band of five are tossed between two warring civilizations, and it's more memorable than the other summer blockbusters such as Dawn of thePlanet of the Apes and Godzilla. Why? This one has wit, several laughs with not taking itself too seriously, and five distinct characters. For once a bodybuilder isn't treated as pure muscle but is very literate.
You might find it a little depressing that this is the highest grossing film of the year, but it works. And it has wit inserted between genuine menace and acts of heroism. A little clever humor goes a long way in big action movies. Remember the kid telling the Terminator to put his leg down in T2?
Sin City: A Dame To Kill For - 8/21/14 ** I'm sure it's been said somewhere: repetition does not equal theme. Robert Rodriguez's sequel to his 2005 hit Sin City starts great with a breakneck pace with one of the most interesting characters from the original: Marv (Mickey Rourke, in an iconic role.) We listen to him ruminate between fights and action, but most of all, we're thinking with him, and always like watching him.
Then we get two new characters who are also interesting to watch, especially with this noir comic book look: an old pro, Powers Boothe, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who should take darker roles. They achieve such a dichotomy over a single table we forget the other characters are there. Enter an amped-up Ray Liotta, a sly Josh Brolin, and boy do we see a lot of Eva Green, to the point of where we doubt the imagination of the filmmakers. It's at the twenty-minute point where the latter two characters begin their story, which isn't half as interesting as the beginning, and unfortunately it goes for sixty of the film's hundred minutes. The first three actors I mentioned earlier disappear until the last twenty minutes, which are so uninteresting, especially with Jessica Alba, whom I do not think can act. Even Christopher Lloyd's single scene doesn't inspire. This last sequence, with Rourke, Boothe, and Alba, doesn't even feel like an exercise; it's merely filler, and ends on a line of dialogue we've heard over and over again.
Rodriguez has successfully created this world, and this time shares director credit with Frank Miller. Now these two need character development like no other gifted storytellers I can think of. I saw Rodriguez's Desperado (1995) with Antonio Banderas, and recognized talent. Time to get up close with people.
Lucy - 8/4/14 ***1/2 Oh how to rate this film. Any movie that makes you leave the theater with an extra kick in your step, that raises your senses to such a pitch level that you want to race home and start writing about it immediately probably deserves four stars. The one misstep is the trite casting of Asian gangsters, but then that frees up Luc Besson, the writer and director, to embrace and explore the bigger ideas in all their glory. For how many closeups we get of Morgan Freeman and Scarlet Johansson, the special effects and their underlying ideas whirl us through a story that leaves our heads spinning, but it does more than that. This work inspires, even dares, us to think, then go out and keep on creating the world in which we live while pondering our course. Not many movies do that.
For newcomers to Besson, he hit it big with La Femme Nikita (1991) and The Professional (or Leon, 1994). With The Fifth Element (1997), his energy and verve were intact and expanded into science fiction. He then had a misfire, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. His quickly made Angel-A, shot in glorious black and white, was quintessentially his, admired by me, missed by many. Since then he's been creating albeit on different levels, writing and filming the Arthur and the Invisible series. I saw only the first one on DVD and believe the next two, which cost much to make, only screened in Europe despite many Americans in the cast. He's said he has a strong connection to his childhood. What a blend of innocence, exploration, violence, humor, and action this man is. For Lucy he's reunited with composer Eric Serra, whom I looked up once only to find him solely linked to Luc and his films. Besson is also working with Thierry Arboghast who worked with Luc throughout the '90s and in last years truly odd The Family. Lucy is his return to what he is truly passionate about: ideas. And lots of shootouts.
At one hour and twenty-nine minutes (only four minutes longer than the last movie I saw in the theater, see below) not once did I consider looking at my watch or away from the screen. We're always in wonder, in awe at what is being attempted before us. Johansson commands and explores in a tour de force performance, while Freeman evokes knowing yet grasping at straws. Then there's Serra's music, the zooming camera and quick cuts between closeups and wide shots, sometimes making us laugh. Yes, this movie does that, too. The gangsterism is part of the commentary. We're not that evolved, and as we sit in a theater watching another shootout, therein lies the message, and you know what they say about how you say things: it's all in the delivery. This one knows the means and the message.
Planes: Fire & Rescue - 8/2/14 * Planes: Fire & Rescue leaves you exactly with the feeling you do not want walking out of the theater: empty. I thought back to last year's worst offering, The Counselor, and at least the filmmakers tried. That movie took a stand on at least one thing and had a message in the murk: don't get in over your head. Or, know who you're dealing with when in international deals. Or...this movie had no wit, with characters of no origin, originality, or purpose other than to befriend our hero, Dusty, and fight fires whenever they come up. Even the square dancing scene falls flat. Later, at the fusil-lodge, puns go nowhere. The plot goes nowhere. As I was putting my eight year-old to sleep last night, he asked, "Who do you think the villain will be?" Having read a few books on storytelling, I told him I suspected nature. The wildfires aren't even interesting.
The filmmakers blow a chance early when Dusty, a racing plane, is grounded with a defective part, and discovers a new purpose in a small mountain town. I thought of Cars, where Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is stranded in a small town that clashes with his ingrained vanity. Dusty, as voiced by Dane Cook, has nothing to cheer for or against. No persona. He's hit on by a female car because...he's hot? Who cares? Having read Norman McClean's Young Men and Fire thirteen years ago I cared about smokejumpers, learned about fires and kinds of logistics. This movie didn't have one learning moment, and even foggily made light of the Native American character. There's a scene where that character tells a story in a low, mysterious voice (he's voiced by Wes Studi) and mesmerizes the others. Then Dusty said he got most of it. That's it. That's a payoff? Is it insulting? To the Native American or to Dusty?
There are several scenes like this, and many I couldn't understand what the characters were in fact saying. John Lasseter, director of both Cars and the first two Toy Story movies, is listed as an Executive Producer. He should have had much more input. The idea and setting are there. Now for the characters who actually have to resemble real live human beings, not sorely attempting standups. They'd be booed off the stage in five seconds. And how do I know that? I barely chuckleded three times, my ten year-old nephew twice, and my eight year-old once. Once can be generous on a Saturday.
A Most Wanted Man - 7/30/14 *** This is quite the slow burn of an uncoiling plot, and Anton Corbijn has now made two European spy thrillers and seems to know his stories inside and out. Both screenplays are so tight in structure that scenes, if they don't lead anywhere immediately, we get references to them several scenes later and it all feels right. Afterwards I wondered where more drama would fit in.
If the visuals aren't interesting, the performances sure are. You can't take your eyes off Philip Seymour Hoffman: every look, sometimes every move, has thought and in this case buried emotion behind it. Buried emotions, half revealed, half concealed, are at the heart of this story. Even big bankers (Willem Defoe) evince they don't know everything behind every move and offer they make. Robing Wright fills the role of a CIA Operative who's on board and we're never quite sure why, though her face screams honesty. Honesty is punished in this world, and the colors, often darks and grays, evoke a cold world. Will the Cold War, or as I read the other day our current era of Cold War II, ever die? Change shape drastically in the spy world?
Probably not, says John Le Carre. This movie isn't one to evoke or elicit huge reactions, but ponders, and we enjoy it thoroughly once. Then it falls into that elusive category of those that are good, solid, and don't necessarily need to see again.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - 7/19/14 *** Armed tyranny is the biggest danger we face as a civilization, according to this installment of a much resurrected franchise, or is extreme political factions with agendas usurping the greater good. Or a combination of both. The themes of family, trust, and, dare we say, loyalty to one's group/race are front and center and repeated; political factions trump friendship. I'm only talking about the apes, as they are far more interesting than the human characters, whose backstories are their characters and once again in action movie we have few if any quotable dialogue.
The words succumb, however, to that superior aspect of cinema: the ability to create worlds. Almost all the shots, some slowly zooming in on a lone figure with his/her back to us, are interesting. Rainy Northern California, particularly San Francisco, is without power and distraught, and needs the apes, whose colony is next to the chief, accessibly power source.
But back to the apes. The movie starts and ends with Caesar (Andy Serkis), and the opening shot has been in all the previews, and he holds everything together. The biggest star, Gary Oldman, is set up as a leader, then on screen so little we wonder what happened to him or what he's up to, and when he appears again late in the film, he plays probably the dumbest character he's ever played for such a fiercely intelligent and charismatic actor. I'm not the filmmakers knew what to do with him. Then there's the fact that the apes decide to imprison humans very quickly for what is established as only a fairly orderly group. These kinds of thoughts, though, quickly vanish, especially as the climaxes mount. We are reminded of Godzilla in more ways than one, and suspect this latest blockbuster, as noted, will quickly fade to clear the way for the next one. For intense summer fare, with deep political roots that are though-provoking, you can do much worse. Something tells me we'll soon see what worse is.
The Immigrant - 7/10/14 *** Two scenes where the camera is solely on Marion Cotillard, one her confiding to a priest and the other with her pleading to one of the love triangle members, hold this movie together. Otherwise, this film would be so emotionally and psychologically murky, it probably wouldn't work. In my recent interview with Jacqueline Frost, she discusses the color palate, and that's the biggest reason to see this film. The cinematographer, Darius Khondji (Seven, Panic Room) uses soft light, focus, depth so well, we feel as if we're looking at a textured and layered painting, and that we're back in 1921.
The story starts with the storied Ellis Island, where immigrants including Ewa (Cotillard) and her sister land and see America for the first time. An immediate need/goal is established as Ewa's sister who is quarantined for suspected sickness. Ewa is chosen out of a crowd by a gentleman (Joaquin Phoenix) who takes her under his wing with salesmanship while hiding reason. When Ewa gets in trouble and heads back to Ellis Island, she meets an entertainer (Jeremy Renner) who falls for her and happens to have a history with the gentleman.
What ensues is a classic love triangle though told in a way I haven't quite seen before. We lose track of character's motives and wants in single scenes. We're not sure whether the movie's working, then over an hour into the movie a key character dies and we feel no sense of loss. We don't even really care who succeeds, but keep looking lingering on what fills the frame. The last shot is wonderful, and follows a big dramatic scene shot and edited so awkwardly, we wonder if this is the big finale. The director, James Gray, has done messy before (Little Odessa, We Own the Night) but with conviction. This time the actors seem halfway in, but it tells an important story and is great to look at.
Chef - 7/7/14 ** Here's a movie that starts so strong, is eager to please, and has such crackle with banter, conflict, and personalities in the first forty-five minutes, we settle in for a film that is just, good, really good. Then the movie settles down along with us, and the last half has such little conflict and rewards its main character so easily with so little wear and tear, we don't feel this story's earned half its dues. According to the IMDB, Jon Favreau has nineteen director credits, has written several and acted in many more. At forty-seven, he's a seasoned veteran. He's also returned to a personal project after directing three mega-budget movies (The first two Iron Mans, Cowboys & Aliens). As an actor he can carry a movie. Now he needs an interesting character. In reaction shots he's funny; in interactions we wonder exactly what he'll say and do though his emotions are clear. As a chef, it's his kitchen, and we see his point, feel his plight, and ponder how many chefs out there feel the same. One of the best scenes comes early as the restaurant's owner, played by Dustin Hoffman, wants things a certain way from the kitchen in his restaurant. The scene stacks the decks evenly, and it builds from what we think will be a brief interchange. This sizzles, leads to a blowup with another antagonist in an ensuing scene, and our main character is down on his luck.
It's here the movie slows way down, aims for laughs that don't have an impact on anyone (especially a scene in Miami with a cop), and worse, we see the ending coming a half hour out. Boy do things turn out great for this guy with little struggle. When he and his ex-wife say "I love you" over the phone in a mistaken reportage of who says what, we don't believe it. I thought, "If this guy builds a relationship with his son after little struggle, gets back together with his drop-dead gorgeous ex, his new venture succeeds, and one villain turns to be on his side, this is over the top." A decade ago, a writing teacher said even the most cutting edge Hollywood movie has the main character if not go from having nothing to everything, he/she goes from having a little to a lot. This chef even hooks up with Scarlet Johansson and Sofia Vergara in the same movie.
The story doesn't propel to a finish; it drags, one easy success after another. Twitter is invoked so often I started thinking about Chris Anderson's book and theory "The Long Tail." This is well set in our age of startups and people striking out on their own. This movie's message is clear. What it doesn't have is need or urgency. In a movie that celebrates food and is chalk-full of music that moves things along (a device used very often the last hour), we leave the theater feeling pretty good, and will likely quickly forget.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 - 6/15/14 ***1/2 Compared to Edge of Tomorrow, I sat at the back of the theater for this one, and appreciated the world Dean DeBlois and his filmmaking team created in all its wonder. These storytellers may be inspired by, and borrow from, the Japanese grand master Hayao Miyazaki, but they've made the world all their own. Even a (spoiler) dying parent feels organic in the story.
The laughs are planted just right amid the action. The story, involving kidnapping, the need for redemption and a family staying together, are not overstuffed, but inserted in the icy world of vikings. This movie teeters on innocence, then blurts out wisecracks among visuals that stun us. The lines that do make us laugh are memorable. An advertising book once said that when we laugh, we remember. This is so true in life and the cinema, and when supplied with a gallery of colorful characters, we're endeared even more. The whole family, about age six and up, is enchanted.
Edge of Tomorrow - 6/14/14 *** There's a trend here. Science fiction creates worlds but scarcely characters we care about, even with the most charismatic of movie stars, Tom Cruise, who can still carry a movie and make it, and himself, watchable after about two hours. He's still working with writer Chrisopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie) and teams up for the first time with director Doug Liman (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The first two of the Bourne series) whom I dismissed as a hired hand after a few big budget misfires. This movie works, but I doubt it'll rank among the best of this genre.
In fact, you can imagine the pitch: Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers. The storytelling, well done, gradually reveals the mission that encompasses aliens that are not far from those introduced to us by Ridley Scott in 1979. Cruise does some of his best acting and reacting on film, especially after the paper-thin Oblivion last year. Speaking of the aliens, we also get the platoon taking on the enemy, with a distinct nod to D-day around its seventieth anniversary. So why see this movie? It's enjoyable. The jerky camera is there, and there are action scenes that work. This movie stays a step ahead of us the whole way, yet when we look back, we're not inspired to see it again, yet we're fulfilled. That folks, is a mixed bag, albeit a good one in summer time.
Palo Alto - 5/26/14 **1/2 Maybe this is how many teenagers appear to the average adult who doesn't hang around long enough. Teens seem nice, appear attuned to what's going on around them, and don't speak up too much outside of immediate reactions. That's certainly how they behave in Gia Coppola's new movie, which starts in a few directions.
We've seen teen parties before, but never quite like this. Here the scenes are bordering on dead zones, with people looking like wasteoids, aimlessly sitting on couches, some playing games, some trying to pick up, all briefly articulating speculation on what could happen, and what often doesn't. That's this movie, which shuffles back and forth between two characters, Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val) and April (Emma Roberts), and we never get to know these two too well. Teddy, stoned, hits a woman's car, and pays for it with a stern warning and community service. He also hangs out with the wrong guy, Fred, who's a real jerk, and the movie, in one of it's best scenes, suggests why Fred is the way he is when we meet his dad.
The parents are so checked out in this movie, either on drugs, self-absorbed, or distracted in some way, that we sense why these kids go from one implied social situation to the next. Competitiveness for college is voiced by a school counselor to April in one scene. We know about teen pressure, and these kids seem to dodge it in every way possible. What is this movie about exactly? I sense it's offering a snapshot, and could've been more if it had taken shape. Sometimes there are consequences, and sometimes not, as when the boys chop a tree down with a chainsaw and this is mentioned one time afterwards.
You know, a good friend of mine moved to California in seventh grade. I visited him a few summers and saw some of his new friends appear one visit and then vanish the next. People seemed to come and go, and from the way my friend talked, the schools, teachers, social events, you know, those set-pieces for growing up, all fogged together in a turnstile of emotions, fads, and eventually a blur. That was in the mid-eighties. This movie freshly shows that, and things seem to have gotten foggier since those visits.
Godzilla - 5/23/14 *** Decades after watching Captain Cosmic on TV along with all the Godzilla shows and a few movies, we're ready for a fresh way to follow the big lizard around. We get it: after a great title sequence and a brief story about a nuclear facility in Japan, the family theme is built, and the baton is passed from father (Bryan Cranston) to son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, in a dialed-down role, but don't let that fool you). Creatures and their purpose are gradually revealed, even if we think of the aliens from the Alien franchise a little too often.
Much damage is done on earth, millions are displaced, and thousands are implied to be killed. What holds this together is Johnson's performance: his piercing eyes held Savages together, made the bromance believable, and this movie is so plot-driven that the closeups of gaping characters, with the exception of Ken Watanabe, almost gets old. The filmmakers know just when to cut away, and give us great shots in the movie's best scene where skydivers descend near the fighting giants.
I mentioned the movie is plot-driven, and impersonal, but boy is that rectangle filled up and eye-trace on target. The best monster movies have the monsters stand for something. Here it's global warming, as suggested by the friend I saw the movie with, and the battle for natural order. That about covers it.
Le Week-End - 5/12/14 ***1/2 It must be exceedingly hard to write and craft a movie where two actors occupy the screen eighty percent of the time, and even harder to introduce an important third character halfway through and reach a satisfying conclusion involving all three. Roger Michell's Le Week-End does just that, and haven't been the biggest fan of Jim Broadbent, and Lindsay Duncan has barely reached our shores. Yet we warm up to these two characters, Nick and Meg, long-married and throwing out musings on life as it winds down, along with, perhaps, their marriage.
We are indeed unsure where this is headed, and director Michell knows romantic comedy (Notting Hill, Morning Glory) and stories about ageing and wondering where things will end up (Venus, Changing Lanes). Here he blends the two. Enter Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), and in a pivotal and welcome plot development, he invites the couple to a dinner party, where he is the toast with a just-released book. He toasts Nick, and Nick immediately delivers one of the funniest, jaw-dropping speeches in recent cinematic memory. This movie builds towards resolution, and becomes a revelation.
We've seen Paris before, seen Brits-in-France movies before. This one meanders and stutters so much in the first thirty minutes I wondered how likable or accessible it could be. Then the story seamlessly shifts into focus, and it feels naturally. The last shot at first underwhelmed, and then we realize how true this movie's statement about life is. Le Week-end is essential for anyone forty and up. Below that age, you may be less than entertained, but you won't leave the theater unfulfilled.
Under The Skin - 4/18/14 ** Jonathan Glazer's new movie starts familiar yet unfamiliar. We're under his spell early on, especially as the film takes its time. Single images, sounds, and cuts are deliberate, and this works well in present day Northern Scotland. (Warning: spoilers ahead) It also has a whole new way of showing human abduction by aliens. This is in the first half, and it stars one of the most sought after actresses around, Scarlet Johansson, in one of her best performances. The story starts so interestingly, so specific in so many ways (the setting for example: highlands, highways, and cities, especially Edinburgh and Glasgow) and wanders (boy, does it wander) so oblivious and obliquely through the second half after giving us so much information early, we lose interest.
A woman (Johansson), which we figure out pretty quickly is not human, seduces men. How this is shone is the men wading into tar-like liquid. We also see the second victim first decomposing, then imploding, under the liquid. We have long-held shots of the woman driving a truck around. The third victim gets away. Why or how? We do not know. Her accomplice, who rides a motorcycle, tracks this man down, kills him, the act is witnessed by a neighbor and...nothing comes of it.
About two-thirds of the way through the story, we get the tone, the atmosphere, and are grasping at the point. Some shots in the highlands are wonderful. Others linger too long, as do the scenes. What is this movie about? An exercise? Message? A friend and I have a longstanding agreement about some movies: artsy does not mean good. This falls in that category. If you're going out on a limb, you can't leave the rest of us in the dust so bad we don't care where you're going. I will say this though: it got a big reaction out of some guy sitting near me in the audience. He yelped when it was over. Why, who can say?
Captain America: The Winter Soldier - 4/16/14 *** This sequel is the kind of summer blockbuster we expect: quite a few villains, a harken back to the original, and a few new relationships for our hero. Chris Evans stars again as the Captain, and his future as an actor, I think, is bright. He's been on our radar for ten years, back to Cellular with Kim Basinger in 2004. I wanted him to lighten up, make a few wisecracks. He is so earnest, I realized the lighter moments belong to Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie (in another strong supporting performance) and indeed Robert Redford at one time. Our hero, then, provides the perfect center for all the other characters, and many other inanimate objects, to bounce off of, including the six or eight climaxes that close the movie.
The action scenes are staged and executed with such verve, we forget the stakes aren't so high. This is, after all, the box office record-holder for April, and it sets out to entertain. The filmmakers pace the film expertly: we're never that out of breath. We're also quite forgiving when Captain and his team adopt the same warlord philosophy as their opponents, sacrificing few for the peace of many, when the villain's herculean warship is blown to smithereens.
I mention the action scenes: there are times such as when one man with a heavy machine gun fires straight at Captain America, and keeps on firing while Captain runs right at him while deflecting all bullets. Another time, Jackson survives many gunshots to a car and a full flip. Other times there are high-speed chases on freeways as everyone else obliviously drives by. Maybe these are comments on our world and our collective insularity. I sure hope not.
The Lunchbox - 4/15/14 ***1/2 You always wonder about a movie's structure when the preview gives so much away. Or, you wonder how things will play out when a soon-to-be-retiree in a claims department realizes he's getting the wrong lunch from a lonely woman who is trapped in a desolate marriage. The two start writing notes to each other. A third character emerges as the man's successor, and he becomes more necessary than we realize.
Cultural traits appear: the communication networks of Indian women, how we all handle ageing, sometimes wish we could go back and be young again, and how we interact with those much younger than us. There are also family members, the requisite love we feel for them though they may be pains in the neck. This may not sound entertaining, but watch Irrfan Khan, of Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi slowly open a his lunch at work as he sits by himself. At forty-seven, this delicate actor embodies an aged man who remembers much, acts on little, and remembers far more than we realize. Nimrat Kaur, as the lonely woman, gradually lets her face deflate, and sense the world outside her home, where she spends much of her time with her young daughter. I mention the third character, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, and he changes, and has more influence, than we realize. All three of them are interesting to watch--our attention never waivers in a movie like this, and it's a film where a tapping finger, given a few seconds on screen toward the end, means something. That actually says a whole lot about the power of film, and about one takes our precious time and treats it accordingly.
The film is quietly all about relationships, and that life is for sharing: starting with food, family, childhood, huge moments such as a wedding, and secrets. People measure carefully what they say and don't, especially when thinking about how to be a better person. I hope and trust The Lunchbox finds a global audience.
Enemy - 4/13/14 ***1/2 Ah, to be toyed with, exploited, to have gullibility tested. Notice I did not say believability. This movie is very Lynchian in the beginning--I imagine the master smiling at the screening, seeing images, feeling moods from which he is so heavily borrowed. We wonder what lies just beyond the camera frames as one idea after another is planted, and things move so slowly we concentrate on the single image and few movements right in front of us, one at a time.
Enemy wanders and works because it sticks to its themes. Jake Gyllenhal has given better performances; he is dialed down here as this is a director's picture. We sense he and the other actors are moving at the director's urging, at his control. The director is Denis Villeneuve, who directed last year's "Prisoners," also starring Gyllenhaal, and is now according to a few sources the guy "everyone wants to work with." I mention this movie sticks to its themes, especially as political philosophy parallels the personal. Gyllenhaal plays a professor who says, "everything repeats itself." This is said twice. Then the story sets in motion. We're really not sure if there are one or two main characters, who we're led by when and how two lives interact, and who's partnered with whom. The movie is careful not to give away how many sons a mother has.
If the movie slows, the ending is a jolt, and it works. We then reflect on the balance of what is real and dreamlike. Then we think back to the beginning on the way home. The next day we think of those empty Toronto apartments. This is the kind of movie you don't notice the cinematography, but boy do the camera frames matter, and man do we think of what's repeated in this film, and what it means. There are echoes of Eyes Wide Shut and the aforementioned master, and "Enemy" still stands on its own. That says something.
The Grand Budapest Hotel - 3/25/14 **** Talk about constantly creating interesting visuals, and this is consistently a Wes Anderson film. Eighteen years after Bottle Rocket, sixteen after Rushmore, and only two after Moonrise Kingdom, he is on a roll. Anderson's films are like paintings come to life. I took a photography course senior year of high school and was slightly belittled by the instructor: "Well, your focusing on the composition, really the scales of photography and not the art itself." What's wrong with shot composition complemented by Production Design that is so accurately photographed that the framing is a main part of the movie? In an era of jagged camera angles, quick cutaways, and eye-trace that is all over the place, Anderson fills up the screen with such precision, we appreciate the work that goes into it.
I mention the word "complement" because this is one of those movies where all the cinematic storytelling elements fits together. The setting, on the eastern border of Europe with Russian music, is a tightrope between fantasy and realism. We're never tired of these characters, their colorful dialogue that is as precise as the sets, or this setting. For all the shots, it's the performances that keep us grounded. It's also told in flashback, which can be problematic, but we are with these characters, especially Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his lobby boy (Tony Revolori), as they venture from running the Grand Hotel to wrestling a will from a deceased. The actors, and there are many, inhabit their roles but they never look confined: they naturally imbibe the story with their pauses, looks, and dialogue that fills our ears.
With all these elements among still and tracking shots, Wes Anderson shows us he is a master at pacing. We never feel hit over the head with all the work he's put in here. Actions naturally evolve, with urgency, and a sense of fun. That's what movies do: they whisk us away, are memorable, and boy are we grateful. This is the best movie so far this year, and hopefully is remembered next awards season.
Stranger by the Lake - 3/24/14 *** All three main characters in the movie Stranger by the Lake are on some level sociopaths. How this personality trait is revealed, and how slowly, are key. The story takes place at a lake where gay men go to "cruise" or swim. One, Henri, goes to just sit, away from the crowd. Of course Franck, a young buck we first see pull into the parking lot, is drawn to Henri, and though Franck is going to cruise, he also likes the conversation. Then Franck notices the handsome Michel, is drawn to him physically, and watches Michel murder someone. This we saw in the preview.
What happens next, people's reactions, is what defines them and this film. The only other prominent character to turn up is a police inspector, who asks all the right questions and gets closer to the truth. The film reaches a few turning points toward the end; the last shot at first seems ambiguous, but think about it: it is about character, where lust if not love leads us, and what we need even though it could be bad for us.
This movie is slow-moving with many shots of wind blowing through the trees and many scenes of the most gratuitously male gay sex I've ever seen. With all the stillness and romance, however, the details start to add up. One reviewer saw the story, at one point referencing the 1980s, as a metaphor for AIDS and the gay community. It can be seen that way, but also about an isolated community that makes up its own rules, and lives or dies by them. Who knows what happens on those long European summer vacations anyway?
Non-Stop - 3/24/14 *1/2 There are two scenes in Non-Stop that had me laughing out loud. Both have to do with crowd control: the first is where a U.S. Marshall (Liam Neeson) quiets all the freaked out passengers aboard an airplane by promising them all free international flights for one year. He does without consulting the flight crew. Everyone is suddenly quiet and returns to their seats. The second is when he spills his guilt and guts over what a bad father he is, not a very good cop, some other self-opinions, and again everyone quiets down. These scenes are after it's been determined the flight is in grave danger, and there is ongoing yet unspoken confusion of who's in charge of the flight, the Marshall, the flight crew, or assertive passengers.
This is essentially an Agatha Christie whodunnit with ensemble characters on an airplane. When the villain is finally revealed, how he hacked the federal cell phone system and sent upwards of thirty text messages, all of which appear on the screen, is never revealed. The villain's motive was in essence not understanding the war in Iraq and resenting that life went on in this country. This is all revealed near the end, when he has the Marshall at point blank, and the flight is still in danger and apparently everyone is still in their seats.
Speaking of trust, boy do people on this flight, including the pilots and attendants, take things at face value. They believe Neeson at every turn, that he's telling the truth, and he believes there really is (spoiler) a bomb on board without investigating. Speaking of which, we get the weariest of all bomb movies, the digital readout. Oh yeah, in the end, this Marshall saves a little girl, the villains die, and there's a suggestion of romance with what can only be described as a week ending line: "it depends." A lot depends for this movie to work, including realism, such as getting the bomb through security: the carrier cuts in line after getting annoyed with the person in front of him. That was key to the villainous plot. Yes. This story also depends on belief in people's words based on a few pleadings, and that people believe each other at the service of the plot. You get the idea. I close only with the hope that the next flight me or anyone over six feet takes has enough ceiling room to clear the reportedly 6'3" Neeson by a few feet. Now that's an upgrade.
Dallas Buyers Club - 3/9/14 ***1/2 Two things came to mind while watching this movie: world's colliding, and action indicating character. The former comes from when I saw the Australian director Peter Weir ("Witness," "The Truman Show") many years ago and that's how the host summed up his films. That's at the heart of "Dallas Buyers Club. The latter in the first sentence lies in Ron Woodruff, played by Matthew McConaughey in by far his best performance. Actually, I don't think he's ever phoned it in--only the makers have, or the studios needed product and he was under contract. McConaughey is a native Texan, so the mannerisms he has down. The subtleties of Woodruff, though, come out naturally as this cowboy finds out he has AIDS, rebuffs the doctors, and then the medical establishment. I mention subtlety: this Texan also gradually sheds stereotypes, all the way up to going into a gay bar.
The French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee shows this alpha-male with nothing to lose. We sense he'll try anything, and slowly befriends a drag queen played by Jared Leto in his best performance. This story is not so much about friendship as it is about facing mortality, and the lengths we will go to when faced with it. Woodruff doesn't easily trust anyone, looks at many sidelong even well into a conversation. We want to know this guy a tad more, and the filmmakers cut away a few seconds too quickly at times. In Act Three, with the movie juggling a character's journey, a mounting epidemic, and case against the FDA, we lose our bearings a little, but that's what makes film so hard. We're talking seconds here out of a two-hour film.
I am also seeing this one week after the Oscars. The two acting trophies are very well-deserved as these characters are memorable, multifaceted, and we watch Leto and McConaughey embody their characters. We are with them, comfortable, and know people like them. That's why films such as "Dallas Buyers Club" are important.
Le Grande Bellezza - 2/21/14 **** One of the great delights we get out of foreign films is that they are indeed foreign, and "Le Grande Bellezza," this year's frontrunner for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars is very Italian indeed. It is mostly from a male point of view, about a sixty-five year-old man coming to grips with his identity in the days after a party, and what a party it is that starts off this movie. But there is a dreamlike quality to it that doesn't hold shots too long, is always interesting, and forces us to watch. Some viewers might feel adrift, that this won't add up to much past visuals.
Ah, but feeling adrift is the point, and this is compounded by the last text narrated by our main character at the end. This story feels Tolstoyesque as it stumbles if not lumbers from one scene to the next yet feels natural. What is life like at sixty-five anyway? Especially when you've written one book forty years ago that most people have read, that you are known for, and you haven't another since?
I said this movie is very Italian. There are scenes where people talk politics, poetry, borderline existentialism, all done over wine and frequently at a dinner table or patio. Paolo Sorrentino, the director, was born in 1970, and he has made a great film about Italy past, present, and slightly musing about the future. He sees his country almost as a paradox, or contradiction. Among the visuals, even after seeing the film, think back to what his sprinkled throughout: art, statues, children, ambition, how characters appeared and were dropped.
Then there's the ending, evoking mystery and inspiring awe, resolution, and just short of reconciliation. Then say through the end credits for the last shot, one of the greatest in memory. It takes courage, inspires wonder, and leaves us at peace. It encapsulates, and is why we go to the cinema.
The Monuments Men - 2/9/14 **1/2 Sometimes a film comes along and its importance, the reasons it was made, surpass the movie. Here is the case: art is important, especially of this magnitude, and we have a story that hasn't been told before. The backdrop we're pretty familiar with except for all the towns this stellar cast drive around searching. That's where the story falters: there is very little chemistry among these characters, and what little there is comes up against (very) brief, serious-minded action scenes.
"The Monuments Men" is a throwback to World War II movies, and I imagine the pitch was indeed the Oceans Eleven crew in a World War II art heist picture. This could work. A few subplots sure don't. One is with Matt Damon staying with a French farmer. These scenes of the two men riding a horse tractor in the French countryside and a flight over Paris in an old two-seat airplane lead nowhere. Later, Cate Blanchett, playing a spy, attempts to seduce Damon, and is unsuccessful as he stays faithful to his wife back home. This enters the story, leaves, and we're done. Another scene has a soldier confront Bob Balaban and Bill Murray. The three share cigarettes, and part ways. There was a little tension, then we're done.
Clooney and his producing partner, Grant Heslov, who plays a doctor, clearly spent a fortune on Production Design, and state plainly the importance of this story a few times and from a few different angles. The scenes don't morph or build into something more, however, and we're left aware, educated, yet uninspired. I have no doubt the director of "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "Good Night, and Good Luck," and "The Ides of March" will bounce back and show what a craftsman he is. The stakes are there. The urgency, suspense, and tension are not.
August: Osage County - 1/26/14 *** This movie had me until the final shot, which wasn't a fadeout but jumps to a montage of the cast of characters. The few who read about Peter Sellers's reaction to the ending of the great movie "Being There," where the filmmakers showed an outtake instead of fading to black, know what we're talking about. Sellers said "they broke the spell." This movie does the same thing. Why?
Tracy Letts has now had three plays adapted into films, and all three have been at least artistically successful. He keeps the revelations of past doings coming to light in the present. He does not play nice. I also imagine it's hard to edit these family dramas: the best job of cutting between characters is around a dinner table in the movie's centerpiece. One character pushes another too far. Is the former conscious of doing so? You betcha.
Meryl Streep is a sure bet in this thing, and a career-best performance from Julia Roberts is not expected. The supporting performances also ring true with faces of several years ago: Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, Ewan McGregor, and Margo Martindale all play off the two leading ladies from different angles. Benedict Cumberbatch is the most one-dimensional, and the least onscreen. That's okay: Letts knows just when to crank up the heat, punch buttons, then have people dodge truths in the quieter moments. This is solid across the board, until the end. We all have families, and wonder how they're going to play out over time, as we age. Mystery is indeed a theme of Letts's work: what's seen and not, what's discovered, what's done off-camera, and discovered in the third act that's not even mentioned in the first. "If we could predict the future, we wouldn't get out of bed," the oldest sisters says once, almost as a throwaway. I wonder how many live for this, or are aware they do.
Lone Survivor - 1/19/14 **1/2 I am pretty sure it was Quentin Tarantino who, in a colloquy with Robert Zemeckis, came up with the sub-genre, "Buncha guys on a mission" movie. Underneath it all, "Lone Survivor" is that, with a little light on Afghani culture. This movie eventually reaches across borders. Until then, we get a realistic war movie with some effects here and there about a squadron of four Navy SEALS trapped in the Afghan mountains. They run into a group of young locals with goats, let them go, leaving their acts up to karma after some squabbling that encompasses some moral arguments. What do thy talk and argue about when indirectly trapped on enemy territory anyway?
The greasy hair, the warm sun, and cramped quarters all depict a slice of life. The jingoism showing the brotherhood is almost too much. A movie like this, we don't need it, and need something deeper, especially after two films by Mark Boal and Katheryn Bigelow. The cliches such as the failed rescue attempt, the struggling wounded soldier, and the "good enemy" don't quite feel anew. Then at the end, right before the credits, with the real photos, especially with the real Marcus Luttrell and his savior, get to us. We appreciate it, and he needs a more profound war movie that explores the framing theme at the beginning and end of the story.
Her - 1/13/14 **** Where to start. This movie is so simple in some ways, indeed one way, yet reaches pretty dang deeply. At it's core, Spike Jonze's "Her" is about how we relate to others in a technology-infused world. Along the way, guilt, narcisism, privacy, and trust creep in, are embedded in almost every scene. I still don't know what the main character, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) whose face is shot up close more than, say, eighty percent of the film, wants out of life. Maybe it's just to connect. Is he really lost?
We know from the get-go that Theodore is capable of intimacy. We learn that he's loved, lost, and seeking. We are with him, learn to trust the Operating System "Samantha," (voiced by Scarlet Johansson) whom he meets via email sent directly to his ears through an earpiece, and go through the pushes and pulls of a relationship progressing through, well, what many, many people go through when meeting and dating. This movie uses all senses of the cinema: we see Phonenix's face flinch, search, and most of all, contemplate, while Johansson talks to him, us, and no one else. The cuts are in rhythm with his thoughts, their speech pattern, and it's all masterfully done.
Jonze has made three films that really are about relationships. After bursting onto the scene with "Being John Malkovich" in 1999, three years later he made "Adaptation." His detour into childhood fantasy with "Where the Wild Things Are" was mixed with a grand journey peppered with distant, unlikable characters. Here he returns to his own turf, thanks many prominent friends in the closing credits, and has helmed a quirky, immaculately-paced, shot, and cut, masterpiece surely to appeal to people wanting to connect, I would say, almost anywhere in the world. Or at least those in Shanghai and L.A.
Saving Mr. Banks - 1/2/14 ***1/2 What a solid movie that at brief moments doesn't feel sure of itself telling parallel stories, yet when it sticks to its main character, John Lee Hancock's film pulls off the structural stunt nicely. Emma Thompson, as P.L. Travers, excels at half-suppressed, half-revealed feelings, or how Richard Schickel once described Harrison Ford. We enter the movie when she's turned Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for twenty years to adapt her book, "Mary Poppins," into a movie. We don't expect it to start in Australia in 1906, and we seamlessly jump back and forth from there to London in 1961, especially with a tracking shot and match cuts. This is a bit of a gamble, as we may or may not be interested in a little girl's life over a hundred years ago.
This part of the story, however, brings out Colin Farrell's playful side as her father. I've always considered him to be how one critic described Whoopi Goldberg's career in the '80s: Hollywood isn't sure how to use this talent. Here we see the buried sickness, the concealed adult world turn 180 as soon as a child enters the room. In 1961, Travers finally decides to give Walt a chance, and flies to L.A. to meet the man. Even when she slights a toddler on the plane, we somehow know this writer has buried goodness.
It takes the man himself, in a vintage Hanks performance oozing charm, to bring and dig and persuade that inner warmth to come out of her. The songwriting sessions with Richard and Robert Sherman serve as a metaphor for Travers: we gradually see her unfold, especially as she recalls her childhood. These two stories are so well, so gracefully intercut, that we are with both characters, the grown Travers and little girl, every step of the way. This movie also skillfully toes the line between Walt Disney being genuinely interested in someone and trying to get his hands on a property that becomes classic. We never quite know, and he wins us over. In the closing moments, the swelling music stops just short of schmaltz, there is the fadeout before real recordings of the songwriting sessions are played, and we leave happy and, more importantly, fulfilled while not condescended.
The Wolf of Wall Street - 12/27/13 **1/2 In writing on film, this movie is the toughest to give a star rating. I questioned the rating system through the last half of this film. Martin Scorsese is our greatest living director, and perhaps better than that, he's consistent. He hasn't made a truly bad film. Even the scripts thinnest on character, which are by virtuoso writers ("The Color of Money") are made with verve, are shot and cut with great acting, and have the director's stamp. "Kundun" had astounding imagery and took us to Tibet on a religious, spiritual journey on the other side of the earth.
After the preview in August and reading Jordan Belfort's book, I so looked forward to seeing "The Wolf of Wall Street." The preview stated, "More, more, more...is never enough." We awaited to be taken through this moral process. I could even see themes of Scorsese's earlier work: distrust of women, suppressed, explosive barbarism with a lack of sentiment, and humanity among bleaker human attributes. If there's been a central character we admire on some level, think of Sam "Ace" Rothstein in "Casino," we see Ace's humanism, his triumphs, his mistakes along the way, and he takes us through his journey. He teaches us, and reacts.
I expected a semblance of that journey with this movie, but the supporting roles, chiefly Jonah Hill, are not fleshed out as characters. Toward the end where he tells Jordan he and the founders have his back, we, the audience, don't feel a sense of relief, admonishment, or much of anything. The other partners at Stratton Oakmont aren't explored either, and nor is their office environment in relation to Wall Street or other places. They don't come across as people, but part of a community we see fleeting glimpses of, which are usually enough. How the heck does a trading firm operate like this under the radar anyway? What about a filing system with the SEC and how do they gain clients?
There were more questions. Through it all, his rise, his fall, his two wives, and addictions, how does Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) feel about all this? Is he ever happy? Do his dreams ever change? A key scene in the book was his confiding to his much older Aunt Leah. In the movie, we meet Leah at Belfort's wedding, see her knowing gaze, and the later confessional turns briefly sexual, then we don't see Leah again and only hear of her death later. When Jordan hears of her passing on a yacht in Italy, he is headstrong on going to Monaco and seizing $20 million in her name, which leads to a storm sequence that strands us, and the story. There's no dramatic impact.
One of the best scenes in the film is when two F.B.I. agents, the main one played by Kyle Chandler, question Jordan on his boat parked near downtown. The smiles mask the underlying manipulation, the anger, the resentfulness, and the back-and-forth works so well because in terms of pacing the scene slows while ratcheting up the tension. Later there is an overdose scene, with DiCaprio and Hill, that goes on so long we wonder when it will end. It's actually an overdose sequence, and you'll see what I mean.
Also through all this, the drugs and hard work never take a huge toll, psychological or physical, on Belfort. He's never really down on his luck, and skates through his rise, betrayal, indictments, and moral and professional triumphs. The early marriage scenes we've seen, and his second wife, played by Margot Robbie, holds her own with DiCaprio on the screen. This movie has the most nudity of any Scorsese picture by far--that's the culture, we guess. We just didn't know how far it went all this time, or probably still goes on.
This movie shows the excess and doesn't place it anywhere in proximity to anything. We see it, cannot relate to it, and understand it on some level. Many have seen riches and depravity before. Now we need someone to take us there coherently and not cover so much ground. Matthew McConaughey appears early and has the other great scene in the film, which was the preview, explicating to DiCaprio how Wall Street functions relative to everyone across the country who pays the firms money to make money...for the brokers at the firm. Wee needed more characters like him, and Rob Reiner as Belfort's dad. Reiner thunders, is aghast, dominates, then lets his son go about his work.
This is also Scorsese's most "guy" movie; women are in the background, will assert themselves, then dropped. Dropping characters is one of the hardest parts of structure, but the impact on others is also shunned. Time for the master director to branch back out again, yet choose more simply. The story needs to accumulate, to show and tell how things change. The ending shot is wonderful, suggesting America's role in the world, commerce, and much more. More of these would've gone very far indeed.
American Hustle - 12/21/13 **** David O. Russell's "American Hustle" quietly, in its own way, is probably the best movie of the year. It is certainly the best-crafted movie with the best editing. The whole who's-screwing-who has been done many times before, and based on my interview with Gil Bettman which touched on pitching TV cop shows, what sets this one apart? I'll tell you why: the characters, the moving camera (speaking of Gil), the manic energy, which is a Russell trademark in his six major releases. About an hour in, and toward the finish, something wonderful also occurred to me: the movie is personal. Going back seventeen years to "Flirting with Disaster," Russell has managed to put his stamp on five major films since then, and at least the least successful, "I Heart Huckabees," reaches the farthest.
The performances sneak up on us. There are moments of passion, hesitation, calculation, and just plain thinking. The movie starts and ends with Christian Bale, who's good enough to win an Oscar as he did three years ago with Russell directing in "The Fighter." The seventies soundtrack drums, underscores transitions and characters' moments, even seconds, of scheming. Just as "Three Kings" started with Rare Earth's "I Just Want to Celebrate," Russell again uncovers some classics (he was born in '58, so he knows this era well, and adds to the personal touch.) All the performances are good and in control of the story, even if they have the tables turned on them. We know, and do not know, or at least think we know, what each character is thinking at any given moment. To reach the audience in that way, while twisting the plot, while showing glimpses of many sides of humanity, is one towering accomplishment.
Nebraska - 12/19/13 *** Phedon Papamichael's cinematography is the reason to see Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" on the big screen. "Glorious black and white," as they say, plunges us into another world. This time it invites us in. Papamichael's camera, surely an oscar candidate, evokes other landmark achievements such as "In Cold Blood," "Hud," and "Raging Bull." We see why George Clooney keeps hiring him. The story, however, proceeds slowly, and I see why people aren't flocking to this film: the dialogue is spare with bouts of confrontations, misgivings, and threats of revenge. Profanity, sexuality, and emotions burst out of these people, mostly from small-town Nebraska, and an obstacle that interrupts a father-son journey to Lincoln. Outside of Stacy Keach, it looks as though real locals were used in the supporting roles.
As a star vehicle, I thought Bruce Dern would reveal more, but that's left to Payne and Bob Nelson, the writer, and this is his first feature. This film is really about isolation, re-visiting family and the past, musing over it, and leaving again. Payne has covered this territory before; it's "The Wizard of Oz" in downtrodden, forgotten Middle America. Little, unexplained actions, especially one in the second to last scene, are what Payne is all about.
Inside Llewyn Davis - 12/8/13 ***1/2 In the Coen Brothers's twenty-ninth years on the movie scene, this isn't their best. However, you can settle into your chair, look at the screen, and know you're going to be entertained, and they haven't lost their work ethic. Every frame advances the story, even the ones that are repeated. There are a few of these: a long, narrow highway that ends in two doors, overhead shots of characters asleep, light and shadow, well, they know how to use it. Almost every picture can be frozen and you could just look. Cinema is one of the art forms we can't play over and over in the theater, and have to go with it.
Then there are the performances, and the dialogue, in this, their eighteenth film where we still don't know how a line will wittily break a silence or sustained, sincere moment. The music pulls us in--you'll see what I mean, and cutting away from Llewyn Davis on stage doesn't distract. Joel and Coen are inviting us in, and we are with Llewyn Davis, even though we don't find out too much about him, as he confronts but settles nothing with song collaborators, a friend's girlfriend, his father, and a former romantic partner. There are supporting characters, and the dialogue, and oh, the delivery of John Goodman is memorable, even if the F-word is probably said over fifty times here.
This is also Oscar Isaac's breakthrough. From Guatemala, he transforms himself and plays naturally past the camera. The Coen's themes readily surface: the central character getting beaten up, sinister characters appearing out of nowhere and we have to determine, if we can, where they come from. They seem to have a dark view of humanity, as we go through similar events, remain mostly unchanged, and keep going, with little differences along the way. But there's something there, and they do it well with a balance of events and character that approach us and leave us wanting more. At about the one hour fifteen mark, I was ready to wind it up. The last scene does leave us thinking, and wondering what's next for these two filmmakers. That's also what they've done for almost thirty years.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - 11/25/13 ***1/2 I can only imagine how hard it is to do a sequel, other than being an accountant for this film, which if you think about isn't that hard. Anyway, that's why so many sequels repeat ("Men in BlackII") what the original did or expand and go in a new direction ("Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn").
"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" in a sense splinters the two markets and takes: Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in the Victors's Court, sort of a gated community, of which many of the rich do these days. She's called back into action, teams up with a diverse group in a new version of the hunger games complete with new outfits. They key to this story, like the first one, is the level of deception, where characters aren't who they seem, or change sides, or appear to say or suggest half-truths. One big difference, and advantage, to this one is the master shots, setting up the action, or, hey, just watching two people talk and battle wits. Reaction shots cut back and forth appropriately. This is great until the very final shot, or graphic, whatever you want to call it. The camera holds on Katniss's face, an interesting one that we've seen a lot of for over two hours. The sound builds, the screen goes black, and then an emblem of a flying mocking jay cuts loose from its ring. This is a graphic, after the human story, and what is it? Hucksterism? It almost upstages the movie. The camera lingered on Jessica Chastain's face last year at the end of "Zero Dark Thirty." Here the director, Francis Lawrence, who handled so many shots and cuts so well, should have cut away. This story boils down to Katniss. Keep her up there.
Badass Presents: Bad Grandpa - 11/10/13 *** The three stars are literally because I laughed twenty-plus times during this movie. It delivers what it promises, and surprisingly came in at second place at the weekend box office with a current U.S. gross approaching $80 million on a budget of $15 million. The movie is, my wife pointed out, a variation of the Sacha Baron Cohen's Ali G show and related characters. Once again we are touring through the southern midwest, the south, and out-of-the-way parts of society that wouldn't, we guess, suspect they are making a movie. Or would this happen anywhere? Still, the locations are interesting as Johnny Knoxville, masquerading as an eighty-six year-old man and his eight year-old grandson, the likable Jackson Nicoll, set off on a road trip to deliver Nicoll to the boy's father.
This leads to a slightly heart-pulling scene where a benign motorcycle gang see what a jerk the father is to the kid at the delivery scene, a bar. The bikers are sincere, are drawn into what they think is an altercation. This is tough to watch. Luckily, immediately after this scene is the movie's funniest sequence at a juvenile beauty pageant. The reason this is so funny (I literally rocked in my seat) is because not much separates this celebration/exploitation of little kids from the second funniest scene at a male stripper bar (Only the grandpa enters the bar.) During the end credits, only the male stripper bar is allowed the outtakes and admission that they were making a movie; the pageant contestants, alas, were probably horribly offended.
I haven't seen Johnny Knoxville much, skipping "The Dukes of Hazard." Here, he proves he is a capable actor. Spike Jonze, the director, apparently appears as a woman. I mentioned the closing credits because it's pretty clear the actors and crew had a great time making this film. Something to be said for that.
12 Years a Slave - 11/8/13 **** There are about seven sunset shots in this movie that served two purposes: to let the audience breathe and to remind us of the natural beauty in a story like this. With that, and many other subtleties, Steve McQueen is becoming a great director, after "Shame." The writer, John Ridley, has covered many genres, from sci-fi in books to comedy ("Undercover Brother") to politics ("Three Kings"). Since John Badham and others have claimed film to be a director's medium, I'll credit McQueen for the slow tracking shots through the thick reeds at the beginning, up a brick wall to reveal a smoke-ridden city, and up a waterwheel on a riverboat. He's gradually revealing this story.
The other gradual revelation is in Chiwetel Ejiefor. He gives his most ranged, nuanced, and finally personable performance. There is a still moment where he, against swamp trees in the background, looks around before a final look into the camera. We feel that nothing here is a coincidence. It is a one-shot, with the face on the left side of the screen where many before had faces on the right. Another great British director, Alan Parker, suggested the top level of a performance is an actor revealing something about themselves. I don't know about Ejiefor's background, but he's successfully snuck up on our shores, from supporting roles ("Dirty Pretty Things," "Salt") to carrying a picture (David Mamet's "Redbelt") through a labyrinth, this time it's an emotional toll he half reveals and conceals. Another star in the film, Brad Pitt, almost upstages, and doesn't. He embodies his character and reminds us of a key consistency: none of these characters know better outside the world on the screen.
This is gut-wrenching, and I bet there were discussions on where the climax lies. You'll see, and it points to how senseless and random slavery acquisition and reclamation of slaves were. Michael Fassbender, as a plantation owner, also suggests much madness and half-restraint, half-nuttiness in confused white identity. He's a strong contender for Best Supporting Actor, and was recently on David Letterman talking only of this film and not "The Counselor." That's also not a coincidence.
Then, somehow, on my way to the car, I thought of the scene with Alfre Woodard, that arrives at the center of the film. Her scene pivots the entire progress of the story, and is, as storytellers say, suprising and inevitable. The Shakespearean dialogue stands out here, yet is inside the story; it never feels strained. The words are like Woodard, and many images McQueen shows us. She's a welcome sight, even twenty-one years after John Sayles's "Passion Fish" (1992). She should be around more.
The Counselor - 10/26/13 * Few times have I doubted a movie in the opening minutes. The last time I believe was the Jeff Golblum-Eddie Murphy comedy "Holy Man" from 1998, where editors cut away from jokes too quickly, and friends and I knew the filmmakers were unsure of their material. This time a motorcycle speeds along a highway among wind turbines and then a bedroom scene drags on too long with banal dialogue replete with innuendo. Then came the credits, which were nicely done. We give this picture the benefit of the doubt because, well, Ridley Scott directs from an original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, and he's working again with the veteran editor, Oscar-winner Pietro Scalia.
Things fall apart in patches. The actors look glad to be there, and the story...well, what can we say? About half the scenes don't go anywhere. The dialogue is terse. We don't understand everything in the plot, and that's likely the point. We are not shocked at the outbreak of violence, and think back to Scott handling the cross-border logistics in "American Gangster," but is this an ensemble picture? A love story? Are we mixing genres or swinging for the fences?
Seriously: I watched Javier Bardem give his all, and Michael Fassbender, a lawyer we eventually know how he landed on the U.S.-Mexican border, say "Jesus," fret, and break down multiple times. For good reason: he's the dumbest character in the picture, and quite possibly the dumbest lawyer put on screen in a movie in a long time. Then comes a checkpoint halfway through the movie, where a government agent sets a trap and we watch him go through the logistics. This minute of film is more interesting than many, many conversations the male characters have about women. Throw in McCarthy's philosophical musings about the world, reality, the price of ignorance, with grisly violence toward the end where we're not sure of the motives (these are in the closing scenes) and you have the worst film I've seen in the theater since that mentioned above. Certainly with this kind of talent.
I thought back to "No Country for Old Men." Why was that content tolerable? You liked Josh Brolin because of one little gesture: he took water to the dying man. Then there was Tommy Lee Jones's performance, which added humor, sanity, persistence, and a whole lot more than five minutes with anyone here. Bardem's Oscar-winning performance was the picture's weight and held the dramatic structure together. Watch thirty minutes of that and you've long surpassed this work. In fact, the more thought about this movie the worse the memory of it. The only thing the filmmakers did achieve was to mathematically divide up the screen time between the stars correctly. Or, maybe Scott is still learning and exploring through working; this goes back to my interview with John Badham and his quote of John Frankenheimer. That's the only saving grace I can find.
Gravity - 10/13/13 **** On the big screen, Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" from the opening shot, which is silent and immediately preceded by building music. This juxtaposition cinematically sets the tone. It's also the shot, I believe, that lasts the longest, and man does it pull us in. This isn't quite the all-out realistic space movie--Kubrick's 2001 explored that. This film stands on its own, and should be studied for filmmaking, and we don't notice it. When there are cuts, we at first notice them, but are so wrapped up in the story, that we move on with the movie.
A friend recently said he wasn't sure he could buy Sandra Bullock as an astronaut. My acceptance took no effort, even after seeing her on the screen for twenty years. It is her performance, or how Cuaron coaches her through the silences and monologues. George Clooney offsets Bullock's earnestness, and Cuaron (who co-wrote with Jonas Cuaron) achieve a yin and yang with their characters. Maybe that's their largest point; not the final lingering shot, but that we need each other. From "Y Tu Mama Tambien" to "Children of Men" to this, that appears to be their central theme. They reveal that and more, and are wise not to reveal everything. With bare-bones storytelling, "less is more" is a saying I'm fond of, and it holds true here.
The Family - 9/14/13 *1/2 Luc Besson made such a splash in the 1990s with "Le Femme Nikita," "The Professional/Leon"), and even "The Fifth Element," I so looked forward to his playful combination of character development, action, and wit. It's all here, except it's all been reduced and the action replaced with violence. Lots of it, and Luc shows us, whereas he showed just enough in the above three films.
There's something else missing here: consequences. When a teenager beats another senseless with a tennis racquet because the former sloppily, forwardly, made sexual advances toward the latter, yet there's no fallout anywhere in a small French town, you wonder. You wonder again when the mother (Michelle Pfeiffer, who I have to say has had a steady career) blows up a grocery store as locals don't talk nicely about her clumsy attempt to communicate. Does she understand them when they make snide remarks in French? We guess. She has some of the best lines, looks, and most believable arc in the film. The French town itself, not so much. We're not even sure how big this town is. In the book "Malavita" by the French author Tonino Benacquista, we got the feeling it was a small town of a few or several thousand with one square. The filmmakers subtly convey that here, but not distance. Hence, the showdown has several people hustling around between a train station to neighborhoods, the top of a church, and a town hall meeting, then they inexplicably arrive in time for action after being offscreen for what feels like minutes.
Outside of Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones's role (and reportedly a good friend of Besson's, who produced his wonderful "Three Burials of Melquillades Estrada") is probably handled best. His presence, the creases in his face, the terse delivery we all know, works, and he plays off Giovanni Manzoni (De Niro), not easy to do, and it's reciprocated in their two-shots. What doesn't play off, or faces a steep payoff, are the kids, who start promisingly and funnily at school, and then one almost commits suicide? And how does one character recognize people several stories below anyway in a key turning point? some things just don't add up, and then there's the violence as the family afflicts the small town, including a plumber who doesn't give Giovanni the answer he wants to hear. And Giovanni gets away with it. This movie has a good idea, a solid ensemble cast, afflicts too much violence, and could have gotten away with it.
Besson needs fewer characters. Even his last, "Angel-A," was whimsical as all get-out, but was also compelling, stuck to its themes, and we followed it all the way up to its slightly unsatisfying ending. That still had the music, photography, sound, closeups, and atmosphere of this and Besson's other films. It knew just how far to push us, probably because we were all invested in the characters and the world was clearly defined. Parts of the world in "The Family" are, others not so much.
The World's End - 8/31/13 ** Oh, those expectations. After the different, often-heralded "Shaun of the Dead" (2004) and "Hot Fuzz" (2007) which hit me and others at the right time and was huge hit in the U.K., this film comes six years after the latter. It's enjoyable start to finish, if about twenty minutes too long. The wit, scenes, and structure, written by Simon Pegg and the director, Edgar Wright, with improvisation I imagine, carry us for a while, yet we've seen this before. This story deals with the ageing male, from the days we graduate school (high school or college) to around forty, and we know these makers well enough that they won't delve into this theme too much before the maniacal, otherworldly plot kicks in. Then there's the fact that there are simply too many males in this story: Rosamund Pike is solid, well used in "Jack Reacher" last year; we see her giving herself over to other actors. The males don't quite reciprocate, as if we can see their fear of women. Then there's the corrupt small town story, which we've seen three times now. It works here again, and it's time for the makers to branch out. That's a compliment. I cannot recall who it was who said to take criticism as a compliment, as in, "you have better in you than you're showing here." These guys do. They can cut back and forth between people, setup and execute scenes, and know when to cut to a closeup. They need to let someone else in on their writing sessions. Or they can do similar variations for years and continue to find audiences. There's worse, and they can do better.
Blue Jasmine - 8/30/13 **** So many themes surface in Woody Allen's new movie, and he is so efficient in so many ways, that though this story has an ambiguous ending, on a few levels, we leave the theater more than satisfied. He is still a master of structure and pacing. Like Roman Polanski, each shot is plain, we note what's in front of us, and he moves us forward. This is the first time in a while he goes back and forth, telling parallel stories, one in flashback, until the present-day one surges with Jasmine's new life in San Francisco after her New York life disintegrates. Throughout her resurrection, and we are with Jasmine the majority of the time, much is revealed, and we are left wondering who's been dropped, whatever happens to them, and we move on to meet someone new.
Allen's characterizations might feel two-dimensional, yet they are people we know. Blanchett carries yet doesn't dominate the movie. Bobby Cannavale chimes in, fulfills impact on others from a life offscreen, then leaves. We see Louis C.K. meets Jasmine's sister at a party. We've all met the charmers, and when we meet another played by Peter Sarsgaard, who courts Jasmine aggressively, we're still not sure if we're headed for a happy ending. What we are moving towards is a film about people among income inequality and attached social values, evasive happiness somewhat dependent on whom we share companionship, and always our own outward projections on those closest to us. No matter how plain what is in the frame, no matter our faith in others, Allen states that we feel pain, and we conclude this story strangely heartened, because its real.
Pacific Rim - 7/18/13 *** At first glance, "Pacific Rim" definitely had the look of Transformers, or at least trying to piggyback on the latter's success. During the opening credits, we see the buildup to film's current predicament, and I feared they'd run out of story. The filmmakers don't run out of story, but in the spirit of Mark Twain, it sure does rhyme. After the credits, we meet the characters, most seen before on various stages and independent films. Idris Elba was in last year's "Prometheus," and with Charlie Hunnam, the Brits claim their stake in the title roles. Guillermo Del Toro, the director, enlists Rinko Kikuchi, one of Japan's few and biggest stars on the international stage. Americans, including Charlie Day who had a co-starring role in "Horrible Bosses," is the most prominent Yank. This movie may not play big in the U.S., but it has a broader appeal, especially with the canvas and story.
About the story, many-a-person has asked how come Transformers are so big, mobile, and versatile, why not just nuke 'em? I think Del Toro and his co-writer Travis Beacham took that into account, and employ nuclear weapons with these true behemoths that make the Transformers look like those Shogun Warrior dolls from the early '80s. Speaking of Shogun, I poked around online and the storyline of huge sea monsters rising to the surface from the ocean depths comes from Japan. This broader approach should capture some kind of global audience. The uber-quirky, amped-up characters little in the way of original dialogue has a distancing effect, albeit a good one: how would we act with these megaton critters crushing our cities like crackers? The camera often slowly pans up, creating our sense of awe, and this continues right to the end, where even if the ideas run familiar, and even if there's a touch of cliche and impossibility, the effects are so worthwhile that we reflect on the vastness, scope, and breadth of this journey. This should be more memorable, or maybe that's my age. I was the only one covering my ears during the action scenes.
The Lone Ranger - 7/11/13 ** Gore Verbinski of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise and "The Weather Man" knew how to start this movie. The editing, the panning camera that drops in on a carnival in San Francisco in 1933 had me and the other eight people in the theater glued to the screen. The story is told in flashback, familiar, and by Tonto who really is the star of this film.
I can see why this is not bringing in the box office this summer, but it might be hard for studio executives to pin down why. Perhaps the Native American conquests are to serious for summer-going fun. Or, The Lone Ranger, played by Armie Hammer in what I believe is his most screen time to date, is the least interesting character--maybe this movie needed a Jack Sparrow and a strong supporting cast. I kept thinking, believe it or not, of "Dick Tracy" when the lead is the least interesting character and you had Big Boy Caprice, Flat-top, 88 Keys, and Tess and her son. In that movie you had the production design and cinematography by two greats, and Al Pacino chewing the scenery and spitting it out. "The Lone Ranger" has the effects blow up the scenery, which we expect, and Westerns tend to be terse, but they can also be revealing, such as in "The Magnificent Seven."
So perhaps I'm too old, remembering staged shootouts of "The Wild Bunch." The five or six climaxes here many knew were coming, but the lead-up had me disoriented. The music, on the big screen and surround sound, made the finale. What the makers need more of are cohesive editing build a few more relations between the characters. This ended and I wasn't sure why Ranger passed up the fetching Rebecca to wander the land with Tonto for justice. His sense was there, stated, demonstrated, but to carry on like that was a bit much.
Despicable Me 2 - 7/9/13 *** Steve Carell carries "Despicable Me 2," yet the supporting cast fills in all the holes. The same guys who directed the first Despicable Me know just how to pull Gru in many directions: we can guess he'll be love-struck, a concerned dad, all the while not letting go of his villainy. Yet Lucy (Kristen Wiig), El Macho (a wonderful Benjamin Bratt), Miranda Cosgrove, and Steve Coogan play off of him like pinballs.
This comes in an era where animated sequels are surpassing the originals. I thought of "Kung Fu Panda 2," "Cars 2," and saw a preview of "Planes" which unabashedly says, "In the world of Cars..." Even if the first Despicable Me wasn't the box office titan friends thought i would be, at least some in Hollywood see that there's much material to be extracted from the original, and see potential. They hit a gold mine.
World War Z - 7/2/13 ** Entertaining, yes. Trite, yes. Mega-budget, yes. In fact, the last point goes back to that saying, they never stopped making B movies, they just gave them hundred-million-dollar budgets. Ebert wrote that about "Vertical Limit" thirteen years ago, and it holds true here. Eighteen years after "Seven" and nineteen years after "Legends of the Fall," Pitt still takes risks. Yet eleven years after "Monster's Ball," I fear Marc Forster, especially after "Quantum of Solace," may be a hired hand. I'm not sure we'll ever know who had final say on the final cut. Perhaps the chief makers won't know either. I expected more, then remembered it's summer, and in my forties, perhaps I ain't in the marketing cross-hairs. Still, a little wit, a few character flaws, some twists, especially toward the end, would've gone a long way.
Much Ado About Nothing - 7/1/13 **** Absolutely wonderful. Having not read or seen the play, black and white pictures like this come along and drop us into another world, which is what film does. This also shows Shakespeare's playfulness matched with wit, tragic feelings, which are half-suppressed, half-revealed. I barely read the guy and loved it.