Sunday, February 11, 2018

THE DARKEST HOUR, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI, THE PARIS OPERA, MOLLY'S GAME, PHANTOM THREAD, PETER RABBIT, THE FLORIDA PROJECT, THE POST, THE SHAPE OF WATER, TOM OF FINLAND

Just about caught up on the Oscar nominees except for the shorts, documentaries and a few that aren't playing currently (I missed Denzel Washington's turn in his nominated ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. role from earlier this year, and so far it has not come back into town.  In the mean time, here's what I've seen this new year so far.

Here's a film that I didn't want to end:  the excellently produced and directed and acted historical drama THE DARKEST HOUR with a remarkable Gary Oldman giving the performance of his life as Winston Churchill, and numerous others in fine support including Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane and others.  Stylishly directed by Joe Wright (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE 2005,  ATONEMENT 2007, ANNA KARENINA 2012--and these three all starred the compelling Keira Knightley), this film builds much tension out of history that many might know already, but keeps it compelling and new.  The film ends with the go ahead to send small private boats to pick up stranded British military troops from the beaches of Dunkirk.  THE DARKEST HOUR would make an outstanding double bill with this summer's fine film which continues the story called DUNKIRK.  Oscar nominations for picture, actor, cinematography, production design, make up. DUNKIRK recieved Oscar nominations for picture, director and many technical categories.                      GRADE-------------------A

I saw THE PARIS OPERA at SIFF this past spring, and it had a brief run in Seattle recently, and it is a wonderful impressionistic view of what it takes to run the many facets of THE PARIS OPERA.  Some amazing sequences include the surprised young Russian opera singer winning a coveted lead in a new opera--and he doesn't know any English or French!  Another production must include a  dangerously frisky bull brought onto the stage with a live audience, and still another sequence tries to whip a group of young child musicians into their first live experience.  All the while, the heads of the various Opera departments argue and maneuver through the politics of money vs art.  This is a documentary, with no logical stream of plot, put rather it puts you squarely into the milieu.  This is a must for any one interested in Paris, music, opera or art.   BRAVO!              GRADE----------------------A

After nearly a dozen STAR WARS films, what more can one say about them--either you're a fan or not.  STAR WARS : THE LAST JEDI  is as good an episode as any I've seen--and certainly better than the last two by a few hairs.  There were laughs, thrills, fights, tears, tensions, betrayals, philosophical discussions, close calls--you name it, there is was.   And I got to spend $15 per person to have (loud ear splitting) Dolby sound and a neck wrenching gigantic screen that felt too big even though we were sitting near the back of the auditorium.  But the important thing was that I enjoyed myself immensely.        GRADE------------------A-

Whether the film is good or bad or dull or distasteful, if Jessica Chastain is in it, she will probably be the best thing about it.  When I first saw her in her first film, JOLENE 2008 I was thunderstruck.  With her vivid red hair and the closeups of her pale freckled skin, she fascinated me-- a someone to watch. even though the film was rather lurid.  Since then she's appeared in nearly 20 films, and is often the most watchable.  Here in MOLLY'S GAME she is helped by a sharp, tasty (adapted) script by TV writer Aaron Sorkin (an Oscar nominee) who also directed her fireball turn as a self made poker game "madame" trying to stay out of jail.  (Just two years ago she starred, grippingly, as a lawyer trying to take on the NRA in MISS SLOANE, and very nearly succeeding.  As an abused white trash character in THE HELP, she received an Oscar nomination.)  For first class writing and acting, MOLLY'S GAME can't be beat.                 GRADE------------A- 

I loved the natural mixture of animation and live action in the new film based on the children's story of PETER RABBIT.  The film reminded me of BABE where animal and human interact, and the characters are given clever, witty dialogue, and it helps that  PETER RABBIT is voiced by James Corden, who gives a sarcastic, self righteous inflection to his reading as the naughty bunny who causes a lot of trouble to himself and his siblings.  The film has been "updated" with some pop music, and there is a distinct violent theme with different characters smacking into each other, electrocutions, traps catching different body parts and explosions, but I laughed myself silly at most of them, although some have objected to the exploiting of an allergy to impose pain on a main character.  Well, times have certainly changed, and I felt that the film becomes more sophisticated and accessible with these changes.  Here's a film that adults can enjoy as much as older children.                   GRADE---------B+

An elegant looking film, PHANTOM THREAD features  classy performances by Daniel Day-Lewis, who claims this will be his last, and Lesley Manville, a fine British actor who has appeared in a number of Mike Leigh films.  They play siblings who run a posh designer clothing company that deals with important women (actresses, government wives, etc).   He falls in love with one of his models, and a strange relationship ensues.  The film has moments of romantic Hitchcock like NOTORIOUS or REBECCA, and portends to be a romance tale, but there are also moments of GASLIGHT, and there is rarely any humor.  The siblings are both so humorless, in fact, and dry that it becomes hard to feel much for them at all, and the film, although lovely to watch, becomes rather unsatisfying.  The film has received Oscar nominations for the two leads, best director Paul Thomas Anderson, picture, music and costumes.              GRADE--------------B

The low budget film, made near Disney World, called THE FLORIDA PROJECT depicts a sad world of mostly unaccompanied children who run around a lower class hotel (there are many near Disney World) entertaining themselves as best they can, and causing trouble for the kind hearted manager (Willem Dafoe) who looks after them, trying to keep danger away.  One young girl lives with her loving but drugged out mother, who sells stolen perfume and gifts for profits, and turns tricks for extra money.  The most loving relationships for the children come from the manager, and each other.  When one of the kids has a horrible break down, another takes her to the "happiest place on earth."  The film has a shocking, but moving finale, hopeful but depressing nonetheless.  The film has received an Oscar nomination for Dafoe in the supporting actor category.              GRADE----------------B

Any film featuring Meryl Streep is a worthy watch, and in THE POST add to that project co star Tom Hanks, director Steven Spielberg and the political thriller of the Pentagon papers that Nixon was trying to keep secret during the 1970's.  The film is paced fast, the dialogue is quick and sharp, and because there are a lot of characters, it is important to listen carefully to completely follow the action.  Still, if you know nothing about that scandal, you know that a great deal is at stake simply by watching the agony and concern that Streep must be going through--she is the new owner after her husband's death of the Washington Post, and when the New York Times is prohibited from printing the truth about the Vietnam War and it's unwinability, she must put her paper on the line to continue to defy Nixon.  She is nominated for her thoughtful performance.                   GRADE----------B

This perfectly charming remake of dozens of science fiction thrillers from the 1950s-1960, THE SHAPE OF WATER suffers mostly from  being a too familiar redo of the creature features from that time.   Smart sea monster is captured by government agents who want to study/kill it.  Lovesick woman falls for monster and tries to save it.  Guns are drawn, friends are threatened, people are killed.  This old chestnut of a plot has holes that trucks can drive through.  That's not to say that there are some nice, charming moments.  Sally Hawkins is more emotive than many other lead actresses even portraying a non speaking mute, and the supporting cast is very game.  The set design is evocative of the mid century period, and there is a mysterious feel to the film as a whole.  But best picture???  The film has 13 Oscar nominations in total including best actress, director, script, supporting actors (2), music, and several other technical nods.
GRADE--------------B-

Here's a Finnish biographical film about a gay artist who felt very oppressed after returning from action in WWII, and begins to sketch and paint portraits of hyper sexualized muscle men, selling them "under the table"--and ultimately becoming quite successful.  In later years he becomes symbolically the father of the modern gay liberation movement.  His professional name becomes TOM OF FINLAND, but the film, while handsomely made, becomes, ironically, dull because of the restraint shown by the film makers.  For a film about sexual liberation, this film has no passion or titillation, and becomes a drag--no pun intended.               GRADE----------C+




__________________________

Movies viewed on TV/DVD



THE PRODUCERS 1967--A masterwork of comic characterization (Zero Mostel and a young Gene Wilder are priceless), witty dialogue and tasteless lines, pratfalls and slapstick, touching friendships and Springtime for Hitler!, anyone!  The film received mixed reviews at the time but actually won the best original script Oscar to Mel Brooks, and has since become one of the top laugh out loud comedies of all time.  I laugh loudly every time I see it.        GRADE--------A 

UNDER CAPRICORN 1949--Here's one of a small handful of Alfred Hitchcock films that I'd never seen--there are very few of his films that are not widely available on DVD, and this has been one.  The costume/drama film is in color, but it would be nice to see a superior reproduction of it.  This is not Hitchcock's best film by any means, but the strong cast including Joseph Cotton, an ex con from Ireland, who has married a lady Ingrid Bergman. She's become an alcoholic and seems on the brink of madness, and into their new lives in Australia in the 1830's comes an old friend from Ireland, keen on rekindling his friendship of Bergman, played by Michael Wilding.  There is obviously some romantic tension, and a possessive house matron (Margaret Leighton) reminds us of Mrs. Danvers from REBECCA, and there are some twists in the plot.  Bergman is spectacular at times in a very difficult role.  Hitchcock's direction is smooth and visually effective, and I look forward to viewing it again in a few months, since even modest Hitchcock is better than much of the drivel out there these days.             GRADE---------B 

3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR 1975--Smart, paranoid thriller where Robert Redford finds all his fellow office CIA workers murdered when he returns from a lunch run one day, and soon discovers that they wanted to get him too.  He soon realizes he has no one to trust.  Max Van Sydow is effective as an assassin, and Faye Dunaway is good as a woman forced to help him.       GRADE------B

ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS: THE MOVIE 2016--Based on a British series that I've never seen before, I found myself laughing at the silly, slapstick situations that these vain women get them selves involved in.  Major guilty pleasure.            GRADE----------B-

APRIL FOOLS 1969--The likeable Jack Lemmon and gorgeous  Catherine Deneuve are the leads in this light comedy romance.  Two strangers, both in loveless marriages, discover they want to leave their spouses in one night and move to Paris.  Myrna Loy and Charles Boyer lend some amusing support, and character actor Jack Weston has one of his funniest roles as a drunken neighbor to Lemmon.  Pleasant but very minor.         GRADE---------C+



COMING END OF FEBRUARY-----TOP FILMS OF 2017---and Oscar countdown.   Of the OSCAR nominated films, here are some of my favorites:

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD
COCO
DARKEST HOUR
DUNKIRK
MOLLY'S GAME
STAR WARS: LAST JEDI
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI 
plus a dozen more......







Saturday, January 6, 2018

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI, COCO, ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, MUDBOUND (on Netflix), DOWNSIZING, I TANYA, LOVING VINCENT, THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, plus some older Christmas chestnuts on DVD.

December slipped by so quickly I realized I hadn't posted for the month until this past week, so here goes.

I love a good, tough, smart script, and when it is headlined by one of the greatest living actors working today, an intensely angry, Oscar-worthy Frances McDormand, up pops  THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI.  Here is basically a revenge, character study thriller with lots of wicked humor to soften the edges, as McDormand plays an angry mother frustrated that the local police have not caught the man responsible for the rape and murder and burning of her teen age daughter.  Woody Harrelson is the police chief, and he too is annoyed that he cannot find the killer, and horrified when McDormand purchases three old billboards to criticize the police for their lack of results.  His racist, idiot deputy, played just this side of cariciture, is inhabited by the excellent character actor Sam Rockwell, who should get a well deserved supporting actor nomination for this role.  Don't expect a tidy ending to this thriller, but there are quite a number of hilarious, outrageous, twistedly moving scenes along the way.                   GRADE-------------------A-

Disney's Pixar unit for animated films manages to top themselves with nearly each consecutive film, and the newest called COCO is again a marvel of animation, story, characters, music and color.  My only objection would be that the ambitious plot and themes may tend to overwhelm the less sophisticated of audiences.   In a small Mexican village, a young boy dreams of becoming a singer and guitar player, but his family actively prohibits this.  Through some magical process during the Day of the Dead activities, he crosses a bridge to the Land of the Dead to find his singing ancestor and seek permission to play and sing, but finds that if he doesn't return before sunrise, he will join the Dead.  Most of the animation is realistic and at times colorfully and beautifully surreal.  The music is mostly charming, if a little old fashioned, and there's a lot of intriguing themes about death, life, dying, remembrances, customs and honor.  In some ways    COCO  is the most challenging "family" film I've ever seen, in that it may be more enjoyable for adults than for some kids.                  GRADE-------------A-

When the sex scandals exploded across society this fall, the director Ridley Scott of the new thriller ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD decided to cut out of the finished film an accused actor Kevin Spacey, who played the major role of John Paul Getty, and replace him with Christopher Plummer.  There were about 20 some scenes that had to be reshot to include Plummer, and I can report that they are seamlessly inserted into this engrossing, based on a true story thriller.  Michelle Williams has the major role of Getty's son's divorced wife, Gail, as she tries to get back her kidnapped son.  When the elder Getty refuses to pay the 17 million dollar ransom, she tries to negotiate with her ex-father in law, and ends up working through one of Getty's money men,  played by a mellow Mark Wahlberg.  In spite of the fascinating and effective story line, the film manages to also be a strong character study of a stingy, rich old man with only half a soul, and of a passionate, determined mother who was not afraid to stand up to wealth and power.                                  GRADE-----------------B+ 

I saw this at VIFF in October, but the pleasures of the photography, music, actors and script have lingered in my mind more vividly than most any other film I've seen this year.  CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is a lushly romantic "first love" story set in 1983 in Northern Italy, written by James Ivory (one of the best directors in the 1980's and 1990's for, among others----REMAINS OF THE DAY, HOWARD'S END, MAURICE,  ROOM WITH A VIEW etc) that features a talented and mature teen age boy who becomes infatuated with an older (8 years) man during a dreamy summer in Italy.  It's a simple story, but the direction by Luca Guadagnino, who also directed A BIGGER SPLASH last year, and I AM LOVE 2010 has engulfed this story in sunshine, mystery, intelligence, eroticism, innocence, longing and love.  In spite of three previous Oscar nominations, I see an Oscar win for James Ivory's script coming soon.                        GRADE--------B+

It's playing in theatres in larger cities, but you can also catch this new  film MUDBOUND on Netflix if you belong.  This film about two poor families living on the same southern farm just after WW2 shows the different lives of a black veteran and a white veteran who have both just returned from war.  Their war experiences have bound them together as friends, but the rest of the family members still struggle with prejudice and hatred, in spite of having more in common than you'd imagine.  A large cast is perfectly in tune to the times, and the director expertly crosses their paths to compelling effect, and because of the frequent rain showers throughout the year, the film is called MUDBOUND, which is also symbolic of their struggles.                    GRADE------------------B+

Director Alexander Payne and writer Jim Taylor are nothing if not ambitious, and their new film DOWNSIZING is chock full of many fascinating ideas.  Matt Damon plays a struggling middle class man who allows himself to be downsized--shrunk to just 5 inches tall, in order to live large on planet earth, which is quickly becoming over populated and polluted.  There are however, no silly sight gags or looming cats chasing him around.  Instead, the serious film shows us that the grass is not always greener, and Damon becomes dissatisfied with his new life, until he meets a political dissident from Vietnam who was forcibly shrunken, and realizes that her new life of human service is the life that is now attractive to him.  Hong Chau plays this new woman, and she is the most humane character in the film, setting him on new adventures and life pursuits.  The trailer stresses the comedy in the film, but the film raises some disturbing issues of trust, loyalty, politics and love.  Some may be disappointed that the humor was not amplified, but let's leave that for another type of fantasy film.
            GRADE---------------------B

This new film cannot decide whether or not it is a drama, thriller, comedy, satire, or docudrama--sometimes it is all the above.  Based on the true story, I, TONYA tells of the events before and after the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in the year 1994 leading up to and after the Olympic Games.  The film is funny one scene, and then the next scene shows Harding as being shockingly abused by her husband (played well by Sebastian Stan) or tormented by her cruel mother (an extraordinarily effective and disturbing Alison Janney in fervor mode.)  The plot is so weird as to be unbelievable.  Harding is played fiercely by Margot Robbie, who may not look exactly like Harding, but captures the angry, hautie pout that this so called "trailer trash" girl exhibited.  I did not enjoy watching some of this film, especially because  of the cruelty, violence and abuse that she had to put up with, and because the audience feels uncertain how they are supposed to feel toward her, but I can safely say that I was not bored, either.      GRADE--------------B

Not exactly animation, but a live action film where the film makers painted over every scene with oil based paints to make it all look like a van Gogh painting, LOVING VINCENT is an amazing visual experience to behold.  Dramatically, however, the plot is based on a possible mystery about Vincent van Gogh's death, possibly suicide or murder, and the plot never resolves itself, and we really don't get to understand much about Vincent's life.  Well worth seeing, especially for art and van Gogh fans, and those interested in visual creativity.         GRADE-----B

Set in the early 1900's, this film THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, based on the life of P.T. Barnam feels schizophrenic from the start.  The sets and costume design feel authentic, but this being a musical, every time someone opens their mouth to sing, the songs and choreography look and sound like music and movements from current pop culture today.  In addition, the film feels forced to appear BIG--big moments, big drama, big feelings.  There is very little subtlety in this film.  BUT, that is not all bad, because I enjoyed the music and most of the songs were good.  The cast, including the lead Hugh Jackman, preform with great conviction, and the small audience (10am on a Friday morning) I saw it with seemed to be really enjoying it.   I'd label this one a solid guilty pleasure.                    GRADE----------B-

Based on a short period of Charles Dickens life when was having trouble with writer's block, THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS is a modest but likable film set just before Dickens wrote and published A CHRISTMAS CAROLHe meets and is inspired by some of the characters that populate A CHRISTMAS CAROL--some from his family, his publishers, his neighbors, and random street people.  They in turn "hang around" in his mind while he struggles to write what some feel is his masterwork--a fiction that redefined the Christmas spirit.   The film pleases on a sophisticated level, and the fine British cast includes Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) as Dickens, Christopher Plummer as Scrooge as well as stalwarts Jonathan Pryce and Miriam Margolyes, among many others.                                       GRADE-----------------B-



MOVIES VIEWED ON DVD/TV-------------Mostly Christmas stuff!


SCROOGE (aka THE CHRISTMAS CAROL in the USA) 1951--Considered by many including myself that this is a superior version of the oft filmed THE CHRISTMAS CAROL, of which there are nearly a dozen versions.  The highlight here is the daffy, lovable Alistair Sims as Scrooge, who makes you believe in the spirits that he meets and mostly you enjoy his conversion more than many.                                            GRADE----------------A


LOVE ACTUALLY 2003--I've seen this film half a dozen times, and quite enjoy the large cast--in spite of the horrors that director Richard Curtis spent editing the huge plot and characters.  (The amazing cast includes Bill Nighy, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Martin Freeman, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Keira Knightly, Hugh Grant, Laura Linney, Rodrigo Santaro, Alan Richman, Rowan Atkinson, Billy Bob Thornton and dozens of others!!!!!!)  This time I realized just how sexist some of the story lines are--how smarmy and inappropriate some of the dialogue sounds--mostly because of the explosion of sexual harassment incidents in the media this fall.  There's also a lot of scenes that don't make a lot of sense, logically.  Still, because it is all set at Christmas, and there's a lot of music and comedy, this film is a guilty pleasure.                 GRADE---------B+

A CHRISTMAS MEMORY 1997--Based on a Truman Capote short story, this lovely film spends a great deal of screen time making and delivering 30 loaves of fruit cake to various friends and neighbors in the small southern town this story is set in.  Patty Duke, Piper Laurie and Jeffrey DeMunn are featured in this version (there are more than three other versions that I could find) and the moving story ends when the 10 year old boy (based on Capote's life) is sent away to a boys boarding school.                                   GRADE--------------B

CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT 1945--More than 30 years ago when I first saw this comedy screened as a Christmas special for the long defunct Seattle Film Society, I was underwhelmed, and at the time had not gained much insight into the sly and skillful Barbara Stanwyck style.  I've seen it 7 or 8 times since then, and I have come to adore the clever plotting, the growing love affair between her and a dashing Dennis Morgan, and the wonderful supporting cast who handle the story like they were in a Feydeau bedroom farce.  It's a wonderful Christmas movie treat.                         GRADE-----------B

REMEMBER THE NIGHT 1940--Featuring two strong leads Barbara Stanwyck and Fred McMurray just a couple of years before they made the classic DOUBLE INDEMNITY, they play a shoplifter and the lawyer who is trying to convict her.  The case is on hold until after the holidays, and McMurray ends up taking her with him to visit his family for Christmas.  There are many lovely scenes, especially at his mother's house, and the attraction to each other becomes pretty obvious to all concerned.  The rapid fire dialogue was written by soon to be director Preston Sturges, and the comedy film features fine turns by Beulah Bondi (as mother, natch) and Sterling Holloway.            GRADE------------B

A CHRISTMAS CAROL 1984--This version of the oft filmed Charles Dickens book features George C. Scott in the title role and features Frank Finley, Susannah York, David Warner and Roger Rees.  It looks good, and there were things I like about it, but it is inferior to the 1951 versions on several levels.                                       GRADE-----------------B-

NORA PRENTISS 1947--Ann Sheridan plays Nora, a night club singer who becomes involved with a married, straight laced doctor (Kent Smith) who loves her but cannot leave his wife and family.  When a patient's fluke death gives him a change to fake his own death and leave his family, he does so, but finds that the grass is not always greener, and he becomes a suspect of his own death.  Mildly entertaining, but predictable.               GRADE-----------C+ 



coming soon----top films from 2017........




















 








Tuesday, November 28, 2017

LADY BIRD, THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES/ New and Selected, GODS OWN COUNTRY, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, JUSTICE LEAGUE, THOR: RAGNORAK, WONDERSTRUCK, THE SQUARE, 120 BPM (BEATS PER MINUTE),

Quirky independent actress Greta Gerwig is now a triple threat film maker.  In her first effort, she has written and directed the most insightful comedy drama of the year, called LADY BIRD, and that film zooms to the top of the best films of the year.  Not only is this a possible best picture nominee, but she should be acknowledged for her direction and original script, and the film contains at least two actor nominees with the lead Saoirse Ronan (from BROOKLYN) and as her mother Laurie Metcalf (best known as  TV ROSEANNE's sister).  Ronan plays a high school teen trying to figure out her educational future, and she butts heads with her mother in a love/hate relationship that any mother/daughter can relate to.  The supporting cast is also superior--Lucas Hedges from last year's MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is her first love, Timothy Chalamet from the fine upcoming film CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is her second love and the always resourceful Tracy Letts plays her mild but wise father and there are another half dozen actors equally fine.  There are a lot of teen age coming of age films out there, but this one gives a fresh perspective to the material, and with such an excellent cast and direction (and great musical score and editing) pushes LADY BIRD to the top.        GRADE-----------------------A

Now playing on Netflix and in theatres in major large cities, is the new film by Noah Baumbach with the long title THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES/New and Selected.  The interesting actors include Adam Sandler--surprisingly effective,  Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Candice Bergen, Rebecca Miller, Elizabeth Marvel and many others.  The story is about a dysfunctional, New York Jewish family that gathers together to celebrate the elder father's (Hoffman) career as an artist, but it soon morphs into some surprising conflicts as the three children (from two different mothers) become embroiled in estate planning and secrets and health issues.  These are not necessilary lovable characters, but as things unfold, I found myself fascinated by the family dynamics and the way each member works at "fitting" into the family unit.  Other films directed by Baumbach include KICKING AND SCREAMING 1995, SQUID AND THE WHALE 2005, FRANCES HA 2012, WHILE WE'RE YOUNG 2014 and MISTRESS AMERICA 2015, and he has written the scripts for LIFE AQUATIC with STEVE ZISSOU 2004, MARGOT AT THE WEDDING 2007, GREENBERG 2010 and MADAGASCAR 3--2012.  Greta Gerwig has appeared in several of the above films, especially effective in FRANCES HA and MISTRESS AMERICA and they are now a couple.  Her new film LADY BIRD seems to have eclipsed his own impressive achievements.  See above.        GRADE-----------------A- 

It's rough windy sheep herding country where an isolated farm is run by an older man and his son--the lonely son goes to town regularly to binge drink and for violent sex.  When the old man becomes disabled, a younger Romanian worker is hired on, and slowly an intense friendship develops between the two young men that leads to some surprising changes in the young alcoholic's attitude toward life.  The film called GOD'S OWN COUNTRY, is one of the better love stories of the  year--sort of a BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN set in Yorkshire.      Beautiful scenery and strong acting help offset some hand held camera distractions.            GRADE--------------B+

Here's another version of Agatha Christie's classic (and astonishing!) murder mystery thriller MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS which features over 15 passengers and crew trapped in snow on a stranded train in the first class cabins when a murder is committed, and it's up to world class detective Hercule Poirot  to solve the mystery before the train can reach the next country.  There is the usual assortment of could be killers, all played by a large able cast, including Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Judy Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kenneth Branagh who plays Poirot with a ginormous mustache--he also directed this stylish production.  What makes this version so special, even if you know who done it (and if you don't know who done it, what are you waiting for?????), is that this case affects Poirot so deeply that the film, despite some amusing, clever moments, becomes a tragedy for him, and manages to move the audience more than any other of Christie's many stories.                GRADE------------B+

I never liked the first two THOR films much--to dark, too preposterous, too confusing with plot, etc....but the latest called THOR:RAGNORAK has a cheeky sensibility and a playful touch, and the characters don't take themselves too seriously, providing a lot of humor, and how can you go wrong with Cate Blanchet playing the delightfully evil Queen of Death (!), growing giant "horns" just before unleashing waves of death---to all her subjects!  How will she ever take over the universe when she kills all her warriors when she is displeased?   The reliable Mark Ruffalo has a big role as HULK, and Jeff Goldblum hams it up as the GRANDMASTER.   The director from New Zealand, Taika Waititi often takes on roles in a lot of his films--two of his most recent ones I liked are HUNT FOR WILDERPEOPLE  2016 and EAGLE VS SHARK 2007.           GRADE-----------B+  

Last year the dismal BATMAN VS SUPERMAN, which I felt was bombastic and dull and I couldn't buy into the premise that Batman would (or could) want to kill Superman was directed by Zach Snyder, and when I heard he was directing the followup superhero film JUSTICE LEAGUE I became concerned.  Just before finishing the filming, Snyder left the production due to a family tragedy, and Joss Whedon (AVENGERS 2012 and 2015, and new BATGIRL) was put in to finish it, and refilmed some major scenes.  This seems to have induced some humor, casualness and smartness to JUSTICE LEAGUE.  I also loved the new characters, especially Ezra Miller as Flash--who plays it like a cocky comedian.  Jason Momoa makes for a wild, beefy Aquaman.  The new character Cyborg doesn't get to make quite an impression due to having to share his scenes with his doctor/scientist father, but hopefully future films will give him more to do.  I look forward to the next installment, which apparently has a lot to do with the return of Lex Luther (yawn)......         GRADE---------B+

The best film winner at this year's Cannes Film Festival,  THE SQUARE, written and directed by  Swedish director Ruben Ostund (FORCE MAJUERE 2014) is a satiric comedy drama about a wealthy museum director who makes some poor choices when confronted with some right or wrong

options when dealing with human issues and  museum events.  Much like the opening segments of his last film FORCE MAJUERE, where the father figure grabs his phone and leaves the restaurant and his family to fend for themselves when it appears a large landslide will wipe out the outdoor seating--this museum director makes some questionable choices when he is robbed, presented with an easy sexual conquest, and tries to entertain his benefactors prior to the opening of a controversial new show--by insulting his guests.  I liked how the film makes you very uncomfortable, even when there is much humor and satire here.                    GRADE---------------B 

The new film by Todd Haynes and based on a popular novel is called WONDERSTRUCK, and it is problematic, to say the least.  Telling two different stories set decades apart, and working with two child actors and telling what at first appears to be unrelated stories, the film is ambitious in that a main theme--the difficulty of a non-hearing person in society and using a deaf youngster (a very distinctive Millicent Simmonds)--much of the dialogue is interpreted or put into subtitles or hand written on a tablet.  This manages to slow down (or nearly stop) the action of certain scenes, and despite many wonderful and magical sequences, the tone of the film feels uneven and viewers become impatient.  Julianne Moore is luminous in two key roles, and the speaking youngster who must later "play" deaf, played by Oakes Fegley, is admirable as well. I do recommend this unusual film especially for film buffs and those interested in hearing issues, even though it is often frustrating for a more casual viewer.                 GRADE----------B-

Another very ambitious film, from France, and based on a true story is the impressive but very overlong docu-drama 120 BPM (BEATS PER MINUTE) which tells the French version of the ACT-UP  political movement.  Set in Paris, this group of doctors, educators, AIDS patients, homosexuals, politicians, and concerned public members, met regularly to force their government to first of all acknowledge the AIDS crisis that most governments in the 1990s refused to deal with, and secondly to get doctors and scientists to find a cure for AIDS.  They took to the streets with parades, riots, protests, town halls and articles in public news papers.  The film zooms in on the relationship between two activists, and a highlight scene--nearly 10 minutes-- is a relatively explicit sex scene between the two, complete with explicit and informative "pillow" talk.  There are a number of excellent scenes, and a few turgid ones, including an overlong death finale.  I appreciated the honesty and straightforward efforts of the protests--much of what was also occurring in the USA in most major cities.                           GRADE-----------------B- 

A French film from 2014 but only now getting a minor release across the USA, THE PRICE OF FAME (LA RANCON DE LE GLOIRE)  tells the "based on a true story" of two friends who decide to steal the recently deceased body of actor Charles Chaplin and hold it for ransom.  The film is quite leisurely, and much of the dialogue feels a beat or two too slow, and the film drags because it tries to be as accurate as possible.  I saw this several years ago at SIFF and don't remember much about it that would be memorable.              GRADE---------C


VIEWED ON DVD/TV

UP THE RIVER 1930--Here's an early John Ford film about a man and woman who are trying to start a new life after prison, and the two convicts who try to help them.  Not bad.  A very young Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracey star.        GRADE-----------B-

EFFIE GRAY  2014--She was married to art critic John Ruskin for six years, but divorced him because the marriage was never consummated, and later married artist and Ruskin friend John Millais.  It should have been a juicy scandalous story, but the film is painfully austere and nearly uneventful, in spite of the writing and acting efforts of Emma Thompson.             GRADE--------------C






 



 


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

ONLY THE BRAVE, VICTORIA AND ABDUL, BATTLE OF THE SEXES, MARSHALL, AMERICAN MADE, OUR SOULS AT NIGHT, THE DEPARTURE, THE KING'S CHOICE plus PATERSON (2016)

October is movie month for me--I saw 15 new films at the Vancouver International Film Festival including advance screenings of CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, THE SQUARE, HAPPY ENDING, QUEEN OF SPAIN, BPM (BEATS PER MINUTE), A FANTASTIC WOMAN, VALLEY OF THE WOLVES--these were the best ones, plus a couple that I did not care for.  I will write about them as they open up around the country.  First up in opening is THE SQUARE, from the director of FORCE MAJEURE.  It won this years best picture at Cannes, and is now playing in New York.  The Seattle opening is in another month or so.  In the meantime, here are some of the current films now playing that I saw this month.


The title is rather generic and the trailer seemed hokey and contrived, but ONLY THE BRAVE, based on the true tragic story of fire fighters who meet their Waterloo in an Arizona mountain wild fire is packed with naturalistic, likeable performances from Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connelly, Taylor Kistch and many others.  The film strives to enlighten viewers on the training each firefighter receives, the conditions they must work in, and gives some dramatic insight into their personal lives, and by carefully avoiding any sentimentality, delivers the most heartfelt tribute to a group of heroes that I've seen on screen in a long, long time.  I was pleasingly surprised and very moved throughout this excellent film.                 GRADE-----------------------A

Another film based on a true story, and one that I remembered from the early 1970's, was the silly challenge that sexist, desperate aging tennis player Bobby Riggs delivers to the professional top woman tennis player Billie Jean King, trying to drum up interest in a male vs female match for big bucks, and to prove that men are better than women in this growing sport. It's all there---the Virginia Slims cigarette tie ins, the Sugar Daddy candy spoofs, the Riggs struggle for a comeback, the King sexuality crisis--the film BATTLE OF THE SEXES is perhaps the most entertaining comedy-drama of the year, with Steve Carell and Emma Stone nailing their characterizations.            GRADE-----------------B+

The film is definitely pro-British in it's politics and social drama, and there's a nasty bias towards the Hindus that counters the charm and humor of seeing this relationship of an obese and elderly Queen Victoria as she gets to know her new Indian servant and teacher and opens her eyes to parts of the British empire that she had little knowledge of, but the film VICTORIA AND ABDUL gets a lot of mileage from the regal artistic presence of 82 years old Judi Dench and handsome newcomer Ali Fazal  that makes the film a diverting and thoughtful entertainment.  The well made film is another in the extraordinary canon of films from director Stephan Frears--just contemplate some of his greatest films:
FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS 2016, PHILOMENA 2013, THE QUEEN 2006, PRETTY DIRTY THINGS 2002, HIGH FIDELITY 2000, DANGEROUS LIAISONS 1988, THE GRIFTERS 1990, MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDERETTE 1985---and a dozen others!!!!!         GRADE---------------B+

A more than competent action director, Doug Liman made SWINGERS 1996, GO 1999, BOURNE IDENTITY 2002, MR AND MRS SMITH 2005 and EDGE OF TOMORROW 2014 among others.  His latest is AMERICAN MADE with Tom Cruise, based on a true story about a pilot who becomes entangled in nefarious dealing with gun running, drug and immigrant smuggling, and all at the direction of the FBI, CIA and other government officials.  At one point he has made so much cash money that it bulges out of boxes, bags and closets.  The film is engrossing in the way that life is stranger than fiction, and the Tom Cruise smirk is kept  in check because the plot gallops on before him.  My main complaint is that nearly half the film features that chaotic hand held camera look that some directors seem to think makes the picture cool, but mostly gives viewers a head ache.   I'd give AMERICAN MADE a higher grade if the photography were calmer.            GRADE----------B

Here's an effective, straightforward biography film on the early career of Thurgood MARSHALL, about the first major case that he won.  A wealthy white woman accuses her black chauffeur of rape, and the film is mostly a court room drama  with some back story scenes enacted.  Even though the film takes place in the early 1940's, and does not include the major achievements of MARSHALL's
life (including taking on school discrimination and other major wins, and he later becomes the first black man to become a Supreme Court Judge), the film clearly illustrates that times have not changed legally for black defendants today. Chadwick Boseman, who stars next in the new superhero film BLACK PANTHER gives a fine, low key portrayal, Gosh Gad plays his white Jewish assistant, Kate Hudson is the sympathetic, confused rich socialite, and Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens is the prosecutor, all very excellent.              GRADE--------------------B 

It played several international film festivals earlier this year, but you can see OUR SOULS AT NIGHT now on Netflix.  The main attraction of this modest romantic drama is the fourth reunion (THE CHASE 1966, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK 1967, ELECTRIC HORSEMAN 1979) of two stalwart actors:  the always effective team of Jane Fonda and Robert Redford.  They play neighbors, a widow and widower, who decide to try living together, and we find ourselves rooting for them in spite of this simple story line.                         GRADE---------------B   

Viewed earlier this month at the Vancouver International Film Festival, THE DEPARTURE had a brief run in Seattle last week, but it is certainly worth tracking down.  Filmed in Japan with subtitles, but produced and directed by Americans, this tells the story of a very modern Buddhist monk who rides a motorcycle, dances to electronic and techno music in clubs, and tries to dissuade his depressed clients from suicide.  This job is growing heavy on his mind, and when a health crisis occurs, he must  learn to swallow his own medicine.  This thoughtful, subtle and moving film deserves a wider audience.            GRADE----------B  

I saw this last June at SIFF, and it played at VIFF, and is currently opening around the country, and it has been a popular choice for foreign film audiences, but this engrossing true story about Norway's reaction to Nazi occupation during WWII, called THE KING'S CHOICE left me with a headache, because EVERY SINGLE SCENE IN THIS FILM (check out the trailer if you don't believe me) is hand held--sometimes excessively so.  (It didn't help that I was sitting in the third row looking up!)
If you can sit in the back and a jiggly camera doesn't bother you, there is an effective narrative and good acting and other pleasures to distract you, but I will never see this one again.            GRADE-------------------C+         (I would rate it higher if the photography was calmer.)




VIEWED ON TV/DVD 


PATERSON 2016--Here's a modest but effective gem--a small independent film by director Jim Jarmusch about a bus driver poet who lives in the small town of Paterson (and that's his name also) and systematically follows routine daily, all the while composing poems in his head and/or committing them to a notebook based on people he sees or the conversations he overhears.  He lives in nearly an altered state--his sweet loving wife is an artist of sorts--she decorates and paints the house in various versions of black and white.  Even her cupcakes are black and white.  DO NOT WATCH THIS FILM if you are tired and prone, as the pacing is slow and carefully drawn, and you might just slip off to sleep (guilty!) but I adjusted my seating and suddenly the film becomes curiously engrossing--it's a poetic and beautiful poem vision, and even though it's set in a modest (and rundown) part of Paterson NJ, the diverse characters are all portrayed as loving and thoughtful--the perfect utopia of humanity, something of a fantasy--an unusual departure from realism that makes you hopeful and happy.                    GRADE-------------A

PURGE: ELECTION YEAR 2016--I saw the first PURGE 2014 and thought it was an interesting idea to attempt----one night a year, any crime and murder  is legal, and the suspense comes when some family members get caught outside  their safe home when the chaos begins.  ELECTION YEAR is the second sequel, and a senator running for President wants to discontinue the purge because it discriminates against the poor and black neighborhoods, and decreases the need to help the disadvantaged people since their numbers are reduced  during that horrible night.  Of course, she is targeted by the politics of the purgers (a not so subtle political party made up of rich and white--Republicans!?! and much tension is created as she finds herself (with her security guard) out on the street at the mercy of the punkish killers and other enemies.  Although the film deals with some low brow violence, there are some interesting ideas and situations to make the film worthy of cult status.  I, so far, missed the first sequel (PURGE: ANARCHY) and just read that a fourth PURGE film will be a prequel, to show just how the PURGE situation came about.       GRADE-------B 

BROADCHURCH 2013--Just finished binging on the first season of this British TV murder mystery mini series (nearly 500 minutes!) and my main concern is that every hour long episode (there were 8 in the season) felt rather protracted about 15 minutes more than it needed to be. By the start of Episode 6 I became exasperated that the rather incompetent two main detectives on the case (an insecure first time woman and a sickly man who collapses on nearly every episode from a heart problem!)  never followed up on obvious clues that were introduced several episodes earlier.  By the start of Episode 7 my spouse and I  both decided who the murderer was (independently of each other) and unfortunately we both were correct, although the motive remained murky.  They even managed to make the last Episode 8 drag on for more than 30 minutes more than was needed.  Still (!!!!!!) I liked the setting (reminded me of a cross between GEORGE GENTLY which I've seen all of, and perhaps some VERA--also a favorite) and hopefully this series will grow on me in seasons 2 and 3.             GRADE--------B-

THIRTEEN FOR DINNER 1985--This made for TV movie features Peter Ustinov as famed Belgium detective Hercule Poiret, created in novels by Agatha Christie, and also featured  David Sachet, who shortly thereafter became the definitive Poiret on  several years worth of PBS shows about the famous detective.  I've seem most of the Christie productions, and thought this might be a new one, but 10 minutes into the film, which also features Faye Dunaway, I realized that I'd seen the Sachet version of this story called  LORD EDGWARE DIES.  Neither version is particularly memorable.            GRADE-----------C













        












Saturday, September 30, 2017

DUNKIRK (finally!), MOTHER!, STRONGER, UNKNOWN GIRL, BEACH RATS, CROWN HEIGHTS, plus PHILADELPHIA STORY, INHERENT VICE

September has been a slow movie watching month for me, mainly because there was a lot of biking to get ready for a week long 300 mile plus biking "vacation" but I did see a few films.

One of the best films so far this year is the widely praised DUNKIRK which more than lived up to my expectations.  I've waited (and I don't know why!) nearly two months to see it and it is well worth the wait.  Director Christopher Nolan expertly floats the action between air, sea and land stories--each intense with drama and suspense, the result is sometimes nerve wracking and finally exhausting, so that the finale culminates in what was for me a very moving and poeticly resolving (and tearful) 20 minutes.  Is it the best war film ever?  Certainly not, but in focusing on just the DUNKIRK situation that has hundreds of thousands of British (and French) soldiers cornered on a desolate beach during WWII, awaiting certain death from the German air force, this film captures the chaos, fear, patriotism and survival themes that every great war film offers.  There is no single actor that stands out, although all of them have their moments.  Biggest names are Kenneth Branagh (on land), Tom Hardy (in air) and Mark Rylance (on water.)  What is really effective, however, are so  many individual sequences--an early scene where the small town is peppered with propaganda leaflets promising certain doom,  soldiers waiting for the tide to lift their stranded boat off the mud, and being used as target practice by the Germans,  and full large boats with injured soldiers trying to set off for England only to be tragically bombarded, and exciting air battles with "you are there" visuals.  Each scene is filmed with an urgency and skill that only a mature, knowing director can bring, and is highlighted with a classical, memorable  musical score by the excellent Hans Zimmer.  This film is a highlight of a year which includes (so far) great films from SIFF including THE BIG SICK, AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL, THE NET,  I DANIEL BLAKE and WIND RIVER, and unlike those more intimate experiences, DUNKIRK demands to be seen on a large screen.               GRADE-----------A-

I've always been impressed with the willingness of director Darren Aronofsky to go over the top in some of his films in a way that represents extreme psychological stress and drama in such films as REQUIEM FOR  A DREAM,  BLACK SWAN and even NOAH, and in this newest film MOTHER! he really creates a horrific view of a mad, mad world out of control.  The film has divided the critics and the public into equally strong camps of "love it or hate it", but when I read the New York Times  interview with the director and actors of MOTHER! last week I knew I had to see it.  The main criticism  for the film is that most people have no idea what is going on in the movie--things seem to happen out of context and the symbolism seems out of control.  Half way through this long interview, the "explanation" of MOTHER! is presented, apparently against the wishes of Aronofsky.  In some ways I wish I hadn't read it before seeing it, but on the other hand, the film makes perfect and horrifying sense to me knowing what I was watching, and I was very stunned and impressed. ||| STOP READING HERE IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE DIRECTOR HAD IN MIND. |||   The film is an allegory of the book of Genesis.  The husband, played by Javier Bardem is a blocked poet whose creativity has hit the wall.  Jennifer Lawrence is his wife, who is obsessed with fixing up the dilapidated mansion in which they live.  Bardem is a God figure, open and receptive to all types of people.  Lawrence is a "mother earth"  character (the main point of view in the film) responsible for nurturing and growing their "garden of Eden" and the cast includes Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Jesus and the destruction of the earth by those who would pollute the earth with heathen worship and destructive violence, albeit a bit heavy handedly.  The film IS curious even knowing this format, and there is a dangerous theme of blood and death that adds to the feeling of dread that is created here.  Aronofsky creates a world that is evil and sad, although I wouldn't consider the film to be the typical "horror" film  it has sometimes been promoted as.  I wouldn't recommend this film to just any one, and certainly not without some explanation, but for film buffs like me, and for Bible readers with open minds, MOTHER! is the most audacious and creative film of the year.              GRADE--------B+

Led by a sympathetic yet unsaccharine performance by Jake Gyllenhaal and based on the true story of the Boston marathon bombs that destroyed both his legs, STRONGER is a satisfying drama that focuses not on the bombers, but on the recovery effort by real life character Jeff Bauman to deal with the adulation from fans that want to make a hero of him, when all he wants to do is heal his wounds.  Tatiana Maslany (ORPHAN BLACK) is excellent as his girlfriend who loves him when he has problems of loving himself, and Miranda Richardson is nearly unrecognizable as his alcoholic mother who doesn't want to lose him to his girlfriend.  The characters are gritty, gripping and involving all the way, lifting it about other true life stories with similar themes.                         GRADE--------B

French film by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne is one of their lessor efforts--a young doctor doesn't answer the clinic door late one night only to discover the ringer, a young girl was found murdered the next morning, and she spends several weeks trying to find out her name and where she was from and why she was murdered.  She persists with her inquiries against the advise of the local police and she is threatened by local gangsters.  THE UNKNOWN GIRL is in the usual laid back manner of the Dardenne brothers other films, and I had questions about why she would be so persistent when things were obviously so dangerous for her.  Also, the actress in the lead seemed so immature as to be miscast.  Frustrating but not so dull, the film maintains a low burn that might work for some viewers.       GRADE--------B-

A first time independent film by a new female French director,  BEACH RATS has a naturalistic, tense tone that kept me interested.  A young man is losing his father to cancer, while starting a new relationship with a local girl, yet seems obsessed with cruising the Internet to pick up older men for sexual encounters.  He's pretty confused about a lot of things, to say the least.  The film relies on too much hand held camera work, but there are a number of surprising scenes and it captures our sympathies with interesting characters.              GRADE-----------B-

When this film opened in Seattle several weeks ago, I thought I hadn't seen it, but reading the review for CROWN HEIGHTS I realized I had seen it at SIFF several months back.  This is based on a true story about a man accused and sentenced to prison for a murder he didn't commit--he didn't even know the victim, but because he was black, no one would believe him, except his close friend who spent nearly 20 years trying to clear his name.  It's an important story, but the film making is routine, and none of the actors really stand out, and I remember watching this film thinking it should have been better.  Unfortunately it is not very memorable.                       GRADE---------C+


VIEWED ON DVD---------------


PHILADELPHIA STORY 1940 --Amazingly, I had never seen this Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart film, despite having read several biographies about Hepburn and Grant, and I just finished reading one on Stewart (it won him his one and only Oscar for best actor.)   I've read so much about the film, the making of, and politics of and the history of the story turned play turned movie, I guess I felt like I'd already seen it.  The script is smartly written and there are some very funny moments, and Hepburn (who made something of a comeback after a series of flops) and Grant are pretty good.  But I was really intrigued by Stewart, who plays more of a very pivotal but supporting role in this film--he is amazingly good that he manages to steal the film from Hepburn and especially Grant.  He's got his usual ticks and mannerism, but his timing is super, and he was at a career peak at the time:  YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU 1938,  MADE FOR EACH OTHER 1939, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON 1939,  THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER 1940--Each of this films were critically very popular and many felt he should have won the Oscar for any one of them.  And he hadn't even appeared in the four classic Hitchcock films in the 1950's (ROPE, VERTIGO, REAR WINDOW, MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH) and the wonderful Anthony Mann westerns of the 1960's.                 GRADE--------------A-


REVIVAL-------------------

INHERENT VICE 2014--  Set in the psychedelic 1960's and based on a novel by Thomas Pynchon, this film by Paul Thomas Anderson is a curious comedy/drama about a detective (Joaquin Phoenix) trying to find a missing billionaire among an odd assortment of characters.  I saw this at the 70 mm festival at the Cinerama--the print was good, but I wondered why it needed to be seen in 70mm--nothing seemed to warrant that type of screening.  I had mixed feelings about the film--Anderson is always a challenging and intelligent director and I'm never bored,  but sometimes his films just don't connect with my sensibilities, as intrigingly made as they are.  BOOGIE NIGHTS 1997, MAGNOLIA 1999, PUNCH DRUNK LOVE 2003, THERE WILL BE BLOOD 2007, THE MASTER 2012.  What I liked most of the above films were the actors that were featured in them:  Mark Wahlberg (and Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Heather Graham and others, )  Tom Cruise, Adam Sandler, Daniel Day-Lewis, Philip Seymour Hoffman--respectively.                GRADE------B



COMING SOON:  A REPORT FROM VIFF (VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL........

   

 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

SLOW TIME FOR QUALITY FILMS IN AUGUST; WIND RIVER, ATOMIC BLONDE, BRIGSBY BEAR, DETROIT, MENASHE, WHOSE STREETS?, GIRL WITHOUT HANDS, LEMON, GIRL'S TRIP, plus IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD in 70MM at Cinerama!

August has been hot and busy with other activities like bike riding, hiking, camping and napping, but here are a few I managed to see this month, and a couple that I saw at SIFF that made brief appearances at theatres nation wide.

Top of any list this year is the new thriller WIND RIVER which was directed by the writer of last year's diamond HELL OR HIGH WATER. Jeremy Renner plays an animal big game tracker who is enlisted by novice FBI agent Elizabeth Olsen to find out what happened to a young girl found murdered in the snows of a Colorado Indian reservation.  The tense murder mystery has intriguing characters that keep you intrigued to the very end, and includes some clever scenes, one of which is borrowed from his film HELL OR HIGH WATER from last year, but it works just as well here.
GRADE---------------A-

Viewed at SIFF last June, BRIGSBY BEAR is a quirky, delightful comedy about a man child who was kidnapped as a young boy,  and has been living in a fantasy world all his life--a life that featured the make believe world of a giant fuzzy bear's adventuresWith the help of his new friends, he is determined to recreate this fantasy world in order to make a movie to complete the adventures.  The film works surprisingly well as it deals with issues of kidnapping, readjusting to society, reality vs fantasy and friendship.   It is also an adult film, aiming above the heads of only the most mature older children.  Featured actors include Kyle Mooney (SNL), Claire Danes and Mark Hamill.         GRADE-----------B+

If there is one film this year with a lot of style, it would be ATOMIC BLONDE, with trendy (from the 1980's) costumes, vivid looking set designs (in Berlin and East Germany) and expert camera work that keeps you very interested without shaking the camera around.  And there is the lead actor who can really kick butt in a brutal, tough manner--Charlize Theron makes her bruises very believable, and some of the extended fight scenes made me wince in a very uncomfortable manner.  The plot may not be the most sophisticated, but this spy drama delivers most of the thrills that we expect in a cold war story.                 GRADE----------B

A modest, character driven story, MENASHE tells of a single father living in a Jewish slum in New York City who struggles to work full time while raising his young teen son---and he's not very good at either.  He has one week to prove that his son should be living with him and not his brother's family, who are more well to do.           GRADE---------B

Here's a film nearly ruined by shaking hand held camera work:  this is a timely and true story called DETROIT which tells of three black men murdered during the Detroit riots of 1967, by a white, bigoted policeman.  When filmmakers (Katherine Bigelow who won Oscars for directing and producing THE HURT LOCKER 2010) are filming with a shaking camera and most of the film's scenes are held at night or in a dimly lit hotel room or hall way it is nearly impossible to discern who is who and what is happening to some of the main characters.  This is a powerful story that deserves to be told, but it was difficult to watch  (for a number of reasons) and I look forward to a better telling of this tragedy.           GRADE----C+

The documentary about black lives matter issues is a hodgepodge that starts with the Ferguson Mo. killing and includes other incidents that cause much anger on the streets.  Unfortunately, for all the passion demonstrated, WHOSE STREETS?  is not in any particular order, the facts are not often presented clearly and the film becomes a frustrating, unsatisfying experience.               GRADE-----------C+

This animated film THE GIRL WITHOUT HANDS, based on a Brothers Grimm story, certainly has an unusual look--the animation is very sparse, almost an avant garde look that is not easy to watch, with much of the drawings having a bare minimum look of the brush stroke used by Japanese masters.  Whether or not this suits the story may be debated.  I didn't care much for it, except if each image was framed.  The story is odd, violent, tragic, with very little humor or emotional pull.          GRADE-----------------C+

The very quirky comedy LEMON took a while to grow on me, but by 2/3 mark there is a splendid scene where a dysfunctional family sings a song about a million matzoh balls and I was finally hooked.  Still, noting the number of walk outs during the first half, this film is not for everyone.        GRADE-------------C

Seems like these days every R rated comedy tries to out gross  the last one, and GIRL'S TRIP includes some very vulgar activities, indeed.  In fact, I kept thinking that these women were out grossing Trump's bus episode with descriptions of sexual activities they were hoping would happen on their long weekend trip to New Orleans for the Essence weekend.  This was actually filmed during last year's Essence weekend, and they did a good job of  capturing the musical excitement of that event, complete with short shots of singers being integrated into the slim story line.  But for me the sex jokes became tiresome, and drinking became predictable and the story was boring.  This film was for me the epitome of a "chick flick" with a lot of sexual innuendo thrown in, and I just couldn't get that interested.  The cast was fine, with Queen Latifah, Jada Pinket Smith, Regina Hall well cast as college best friends reuniting after many years, but Tiffany Haddish seems so completely immature and silly that I found it hard to believe she was part of their social circle.  I ended looking each actress up and found that she was 10 years younger than the other three, and she wasn't able to hide that fact very well. If there is a sequel, I will not being seeing it.                              GRADE--------C




REVIVAL--------


IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD 1963--Seen on a giant Cinerama screen with a decent print in 70 MM with several hundred obvious fans, this giant film, mediocre for some, amusing for others, flew by (over 3 hours with intermission) and I had a giant grin on my face the whole time, even though I've seen this half a dozen times on TV in the last 50 years.  Spencer Tracey was drool, Ethel Merman was appropriately shrewish, Milton Berle was dryly amusing,  and Jonathan Winters nearly manages to steal the show (if he had had more to do)--in fact all the dozens of comedians have their great lines and good scenes.  There is an unofficial remake called RAT RACE 2001 which I recently saw and thought it was very funny--better than MAD WORLD in many ways.        GRADE-----B


Monday, July 31, 2017

I, DANIEL BLAKE, MAUDIE, A GHOST STORY, WONDER WOMAN, THE BIG SICK, WAR FOR PLANET OF THE APES, CITY OF GHOSTS, MOKA, SPIDERMAN: HOMECOMING, LANDLINE, BEATRIZ AT DINNER, LITTLE HOURS, WEDDING PLAN

A lot of SIFF films have opened for brief runs in Seattle in the last month and should be available soon on DVD or NETFLIX.  Here's a roundup of films from this past month that I've viewed and have finally opened commercially.

Finally, after viewing it last October in the Vancouver BC film festival, I, DANIEL BLAKE opened for a surprisingly brief run in the Seattle, probably due to the fact that not one but three art house theatres that would normally play such films have gone belly up in the last two months.  RIP to the 7 Gables and the two screened Guild 45, both which seem unlikely to reopen any time soon if at all.  The company says they will be remodeled, but that has been promised for the last 20 years, and they are both now dark.  Also, the multi screened Sundance cinemas in the University District has officially changed hands to AMC, which makes it unlikely to book specialty or foreign films.  This now only leaves the four screened SIFF Cinemas on Queen Anne near the Seattle Center, and the large screen Egyptian on First Hill to pick up a lot of slack, and the tiny Grand Illusion in the University District.  But getting back to the wonderful, humanistic I, DANIEL BLAKE, this is the latest from British director Ken Loach, and it's his best. I don't want to over sell this modest, incisive drama, but it has appeared on every top five list so far this year, including VIFF, SIFF,  Fool Serious, and  other festivals where it has been featured.                             GRADE-----------A

The audience award winner at VIFF last October (but I missed it then) is MAUDIE, the (mostly) two character drama about the life of Canadian artist Maud Smith, who suffered from  extreme juvenile rheumatoid arthritis--the effects lasting until she died, and the anti social man she married after responding to an ad for a house cleaner.  She started off painting small Christmas cards, eventually painting on every surface she could find, selling these paintings from her house next to the freeway in Nova Scoctia.  The actors Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke are both superb, and the film involves you deeply in their poverty stricken lives and struggles.  Her folk style reminded me of Grandma Moses, and now, decades after her death, her art sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars.             GRADE--------A-

An actor wearing a ghost sheet with black holes for eyes is the leading man in the unusual and moving A GHOST STORY, which takes the point of view of a ghost after the death of a man.  Filmed in a deliberately leisurely pace (think three to five minute takes for many single scenes) this film requires some patience, but about half way through the film it hits you about what is actually happening, and by the end the film brought many audience members to tears.        GRADE------A-

Based on a true story, a stand up comedian breaks with his girl friend, only to have second thoughts when she falls into a coma, and he meets her parents, in the comedy drama THE BIG SICK, a thoughtful rom/com which features Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.           GRADE--------B+

It's been a long wait for WONDER WOMAN the movie, but the film, based on the Marvel comic was worth the wait.  French actress Gal Godot makes a fine super hero, and the technical aspect are excellent.  Chris Pine is the worthy male foil, and the story that has been fashioned which includes the history of Wonder Woman and her emergence into World War I is fascinating.  My only complaint--the final 20 minutes seems disappointingly predictable--how many superheros must save the world by the end of their film?             GRADE-----------B+

I wasn't looking forward to another APE movie---I've seen all five of the 1970's versions, as well as the last two reboots, but the timing was on the side of the new WAR FOR PLANET OF THE APES, and I became engaged quickly into this story of a renegade human colonel played with macho gusto by Woody Harrelson in quasi Marlon Brando mode from APOCALYPSE NOW! ---there's even the bald head, the speeches about the love of killing, and the war helicopters over the sunrising horizon with operatic style music.  But for me the ace in the hole--the thing that makes this film a true stand out is the main ape Caesar, played with the greatest of subtlety and emotion by the astonishing actor Andy Serkis.  He was so excellent in the LORD OF THE RINGS films as Gollum, and as KING KONG a few years later, and this performance is the best of his outstanding career in portraying computer generated creatures.  He is putting more emotion into these parts than any human actor I've seen this year.  He captures our attention and sympathy like nothing I've seen him do before.             GRADE-------------B+

Anonymous activist journalists try to send out descriptions of ISIS atrocities in Raqqa, Syria in this very intense documentary, CITY OF GHOSTS which is as shocking and frightening as if you lived in the middle of that war.         GRADE-------------B+

In the Israeli film WEDDING PLAN, a young bride to be is jilted just one month before her wedding, but instead of calling off the ceremony, she believes God will find her a new groom in time for the wedding, in this comedy/drama about faith and trust.                   GRADE--------B

A bereaved mother seeks revenge on the person who killed her son during a hit and run accident while driving a MOKA colored car, but she has trouble finding the truth in this slow burn French thriller.              GRADE---------B

I've seen all the previous Spiderman movies (six or seven?) so I wasn't too keen on yet another film, but this new SPIDERMAN: HOMECOMING certainly has a fresh look and unique modern feel.  The story includes the immature (at times) 15 year old learning about this powers and how to control them, and with Iron Man as his mentor you know things will be just fine.  He has a single aunt as his guardian (the always welcome Marisa Tomei) and Michael Keaton is the bad guy.  A perfectly fine popcorn movie if you are in the mood.               GRADE----------B 

Selma Hayek shines as a simple healer/therapist who butts heads with a crude Trump-type capitalist (John Lithgow) in the provocative drama BEATRIZ AT DINNER.          GRADE----------B

Beautifully filmed version of Daphne du Maurier's novel MY COUSIN RACHEL is a skillful  PBS Masterpiece theatre --type--production, and features Rachel Weisz in an enticing mysterious role.
        GRADE------------B 

Based on a story from The Decameron, this ribald comedy has plenty of laughs if you are in the right sort of mood.  THE LITTLE HOURS tells the tale of a young man who hides from his master (after seducing his master's wife)--in a nunnery, where there are lot's of lovely, single women who want to seduce him.  The lively cast includes Audrey Plaza,  Dave Franco, John C. Riley, Molly Shannon, and many other amusing comedians.  Filmed on location in Italy.              GRADE------B

A grown daughter suspects her father of being unfaithful, while she herself is cheating on her fiance, in the comedy/drama LANDLINE, which is set in the 1990's before cell phones, although I don't know why that was important to the plot.  Comedian Jenny Slate, John Turturro, Edie Falco and others star in this film that tries to be like something Woody  Allen might have written, but not quite as sharp.              GRADE-----------B 

He's got a substantial mustache and a deep gravely voice, and he's made a lot of western films.  He is Sam Elliott, and he basically plays himself in the corny and predictable film THE HERO.  He is now an out of work actor with cancer looking to redeem himself with his family and find one last good movie role, and he has an affair with a woman more than half his age.   Yawn.        GRADE-------C


___________________Viewed on DVD or Netflix--TV_________________ 


MOVE OVER DARLING (1963)--This comedy remake of MY FAVORITE WIFE (1940) which starred Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, was originally planned as a 1961 film called SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE, the beleaguered film that Marilyn Monroe started with some sexy nude swimming pool scenes, but due to illnesses, she only filmed about 30 minutes of footage (which is available on DVD) before she was fired, and then finally rehired when co-star Dean Martin refused to work with another actress, but Monroe died of a drug overdose just a few weeks later, so the project was reworked as MOVE OVER DARLING with James Garner, Doris Day, Polly Bergen and Thelma RitterThe SOMETHING'S footage showed just how interesting Monroe's personality would have changed the feel of the film, but compared to Doris Day, which was interesting in a different way, it's like apples and oranges.  The film is a watchable little sex comedy (did the missing for 5 years wife, stranded on a deserted island with a hunk, have sex?)  but certainly not a classic.      GRADE----B

THE COMMITMENTS (1991)--Irish film directed by (not my favorite) Alan Parker, about a group of mostly young musicians who start a band trying to emulate the mostly black soul singers of America.  Fortunately, the music is decent and plentiful and the characters are mostly engaging if a bit obnoxious at times.              GRADE--------B- 

OKJA (2017)--This new fantasy film is currently playing at some theatres in larger cities, and also streaming on Netflix, and features an interesting cast including Jake Gyllenhaal (who overacts) and an odd Tilda Swinton, and Paul Dano.  The plot concerns a young girl who has raised a gentle giant of a pig--raised to provide massive amounts of pork for a world demanding more meat!  The plot is mostly for adults as discussions about commercialism and consumerism battle the rights of the individual to own what they have raised and bonded with.  The giant pig is a clever and witty special effect which gives lots of sympathy to the girl who raised him.  But overall, the film feels like a predictable, awkward blend of fantasy, politics and preachy-ness.         GRADE-------C+

PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN (1951)--Based on a myth of a man who will not die until he falls in love with a woman who will die for him (!), this lushly photographed color film is watchable mainly because the two actors are so beautiful.  James Mason and Ava Gardner are at their most alluring--watching them makes up for the leisurely dialogue and slow, creaky plot .                GRADE---C+

TRAPEZE (1956)---Directed by the great British director Carol Reed (OLIVER! 1968, ODD MAN OUT 1947, THIRD MAN 1949, and my favorite FALLEN IDOL 1948) this odd triangle love story set in a circus feels typical at first, but manages to engage us because the actors (Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigeda) are so committed to their roles, a(1946nd they apparently did most of their own stunts.              GRADE-----C+

NOBODY LOVES FOREVER ( 1946)--John Garfield is out of prison trying to go straight but needs one last big scam to set himself up.  He meets a rich widow and ends up falling in love with her, which raised conflict with his mob friends.  Geraldine Fitzgerald is excellent in her first major role, and Walter Brennan is his usual charming character.           GRADE-----C+

MR. LUCKY (1943)--Cary Grant is a gangster trying to scam money, but ends up falling for the head of a non profit raising money for the war effort in this modest drama notable mainly for Grant's effort at a New Jersey accent.                       GRADE-------C

THE GREAT MAN'S LADY--(1946)---Barbara Stanwyck plays a 100 year old woman (and not very convincingly) who tells the story of her long life in flashback.  Joel McCrea is the man she tried to love.  I watched this about 3 weeks ago and already I've forgotten most of the narrative.               GRADE-----C 


EXCELLENT FILMS OPENING SOON AROUND THE COUNTRY:
French film THE MIDWIFE with the wonderful Catherine Denueve
Single father tries to raise his son--MENASCH
Thriller from makers of  HELL AND HIGH WATER-----WIND RIVER
and delightful, quirky American comedy BRIGSBY BEAR