The Lost City of Z (***1/2) is a document of disappointment

lost-city-z.jpgThe Lost City of Z – 2016

Written and Directed by James Gray
Based on the book by David Grann
Starring  Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Angus Macfadyen, Ian McDiarmid, Franco Nero

“Praised by the critics” is often a nice way of putting that although it is a good film technically, it’s not likely to stir anyone out of their inertial existence and make them head to the theaters. Never has it been more the case than in The Lost City of Z.

The film covers its subject faithfully. From what I have been able to ascertain, it’s reasonably accurate. The subject is an interesting one, in theory. Who doesn’t want to know if there is a lost ancient civilization somewhere down the Amazon river?

Perhaps if the journey was taken once in a film, it would be a fascinating portrayal. When a man makes 3 trips through the same terrain, each with doomed results, one has to wonder why both he and the viewer couldn’t just guess what’s coming around the bend and bring a boat with some better protection.

Percy Fawcett (Hunnam) is a young British officer in 1905 when he agrees to embark on a survey of the border of Bolivia and Brazil. In the process, he begins a journey that will become an obsession for him over the next 20 years. His companion for his earlier journeys is Corporal Henry Costin (Pattinson), who provides stalwart support and a level mind to compliment his own. By the time he gets to his third journey, his oldest son Jack (Holland) is able to join him. All the while, his wife provides Fawcett with love, support and a belief that Fawcett will succeed.

The missions and their telling by Fawcett provided a fascinating subject for many, including America, where they became an obsession in the early part of the 20th century. His drive is documented faithfully, and it is clear that there is definitely a story here.

The problem for the viewer is that in telling it so faithfully, we see essentially the same disappointment in three parts. Kind of like a Groundhog Day for lost explorers.

Hunnam, and particularly Pattison are excellent here. One gets the feeling of a prim and proper British soldier and his more awkward Garth Hudson-like back up, who is as good at survival as the old wise keyboardist is at being the “music teacher” for The Band. Macfadyen is also quite memorable for his multifaceted performance.

If you watch this film, I believe that you will not be disappointed in its premise, execution or in any of the performances. They are all handled expertly. It’s the same true story repeated thrice that gives one pause before deciding to jump in for another go round.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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Table 19 (***1/2) is sweet and funny

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Table 19 – 2017

Written and Directed by Jeffrey Blitz
Starring Anna Kendrick, Craig Robinson, Jeffrey Blitz, June Squibb, Lisa Kudrow, Stephen Merchant, Tony Revelori, Wyatt Russell, Amanda Crew

Having rented this because I knew Anna Kendrick and Craig Robinson were in it, I felt like turning it off once I saw the Duplass brothers in the opening credits. I have seen enough of their crap to know that they are in the business to just about break even making movies people in cities will like to discuss while drinking coffee at corporate coffee houses. Nothing they do is ever all that original, and almost always depressing as hell. Well, not the Mindy Kaling Project. That’s just brilliant because of her. Their names stop after Story credit, though. And it is writer and director Blitz won an Emmy for his work in The Office. I kept watching, and I am glad I did.

The story covers the persons who are located in the table of odds and ends to the Wedding of the best friend of Eloise (Kendrick). These seats, according to the former maid of honor and ex-girlfriend of the bride’s brother, Teddy (Russell) are ‘for the guests who were only reluctantly invited and whom the hosts hoped would not attend.’ It does not take long for all of the guests to realize the nature of their arrangement, which is a little longer than it takes for the viewer to know the entire story of why they are seated with Eloise.

Eloise had a real hard time deciding to go. The fact that she even sends in the RSVP in its condition is amusing. She has some hard feelings and tries to avoid showing them. This cannot last long, of course, because the story needs to move on.

The execution of the story is solid, and there are actually some really good lines thrown in throughout. The performances, especially Kendrick, Revolori, Robinson and Russell, are all good. The standout, though, is Squibb, who gently steals the movie, straightens its collar, gives it a hug and pushes it out in the world feeling much better about itself without any b.s. at all.

There are some glaring slow moments when everyone stares at each other which makes me think of…The Office. These moments are nicely countered by the acting and the neatly put together if entirely predictable script.

In all honesty, little was expected of this film and it delivers more than most comedies I have seen in the last few years. See it if you like any of the principals, or if you just want a sweet story that hits all of the satisfying notes without a thud.

If you see this film expecting a nice romantic comedy, you will not leave disappointed.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Spider-Man Homecoming (*****) is alive and waiting

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Spider-Man Homecoming – 2017

Director Jon Watts
Screenplay Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna
Starring Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jacob Batalon

Before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way. Marvel is set for at least another 10 films all because of the decision to inject Spider-Man into their Cinematic Universe (MCU) in this way and at this time.  This decision has been a trend, to be sure, since the 2nd Avengers film, we’ve seen many new supers mid-career, ditching the origin story as a crutch and just having them jump in feet first. Even Ant-Man is not the original, and the first one had been a member of S.H.I.E.L.D. if not an outright Avenger. Not only is this a more interesting plot device for whatever movie they join, it ditches so much useless exposition, there is considerably more meat to the overall arc of the universe.

The story takes form at the immediate aftermath of the battle of New York. Adrian Toomes is the owner of a salvaging company dealt a raw deal after he over commits to the job of cleaning up the damage. Taking advantage of the situation, he begins an operation of profiteering from parts that he lifts from that and other events, like Sokovia.

Fast forward 8 years to the point of Civil War and just after. Peter is enamored with the opportunity that Stark gives him, and he wants more. He turns this into a crusade to become worthy of a return phone call from Stark or Happy Hogan, and the hope becoming an Avenger in full.

Spending more and more of his time in his “Internship” with Tony, he stumbles across Toomes operation, well after they’ve become a powerful entity that could cost Parker everything.

This is the best Spider-Man movie for so many reasons.

  1. They give us the youngest Peter yet, with the most backstory. Thankfully, we aren’t punished by seeing it all again. Thank God Uncle Ben is already dead. The Amazing…series died the moment they chose to relive that tired plot. They didn’t even give us a break from the Green Goblin.
  2. The bad guy is not trying to conquer the world. He just wants to make some money on the scraps. What an inventive plot to step back from megalomania.
  3. The Vulture is perfectly played by Keaton. The man is a master at understatement, and he’s not giving it away here. His focus is narrow and his logic is sound. This performance is more menacing than either of his Batman turns and, frankly better than any of his adversaries in those films.
  4. A love story that isn’t besotted with smarmy adult stuff, like we had in the original series and to a lesser extent later. Peter’s a kid with a crush. This girl is not his final destination. The casting of Zendaya makes the next movie interesting. If they are smart, they will wait until the third.
  5. Peter is good at heroism, but doesn’t know how good he is. We spend much of the film finding out not only the power Stark has given him, but we find out more of what he is made.
  6. The guy in the chair. What a relief to have a normal looking kid as Peter’s best friend and essential normalizer, Ned. And Ned (Batalon) is interesting, smart and a general asset in that seat. We get a vision of Peter’s life as a less extreme version of the nerd we’ve seen in the past. He’s a nerd in transition.
  7. Speaking of transition, Peter’s on his way out of school for most of the film. Giving up on the genius he has for his sure shot at fame as an Avenger. This journey away from the righteous path is handled not as a morality play, but rather a real trap for Peter.
  8. Stark / Happy Hogan as a father figure. This is a remarkable win for the characters and the series. Stark does not change who he is with Peter. He is distinctly not Peter’s father, and he doesn’t try to be. He’s interested in the bottom line, not teaching lessons. He does feel responsibility for Peter, but not to the point where he gives step by step instructions. Happy is an excellent shadow figure in the relationship, for reasons I will let the viewer discover for themselves.
  9. Peter has a true superhero journey. The moment he discovers himself is the time of his greatest need. It’s an excellent, moving scene that ranks up there with anything I have seen since Superman II. Holland nails every aspect of his character with the virtues and flaws for which we love Spider-Man. He is the most believable Spidey yet.
  10. This is Spider-Man’s world. There are no cities, countries or planets destroyed. Maybe a couple of buildings on his block are rearranged. The explosions are kept to a minimum and the damage is has consequences, if seen. So many movies have fallen into the trap of bigger being necessary, even if it’s well known that it could never be better at this point.

This film has so many red flags, I really had my doubts when I initially heard about the enterprise. I thought it had the potential to bring down the MCU a peg or two. The fact that they have a half-dozen writer credits didn’t make it feel any better. There was some hope after seeing Holland steal his scenes in Civil War. This film should bring us all of the way over to Kevin Feige’s conversion of the power of Producer as the overall visionary. The MCU is a gift that is ever-changing and it just keeps producing.

Jon Watts is yet another young director handed the reigns and given some, but not all of the control. Like most of the others, he excelled in this position so far. I look forward to seeing what he does in the future, because he wove together a deceptively simple story and made everything seem light and crucially important at once. I give him most of the credit for the greatness of this film. I give Feige credit for the Universe.

(***** out of *****)

 

Baby Driver (****1/2) – Now This is Movie Making

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Baby Driver – 2017

Written and Directed by Edgar Wright
Starring  Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Bernthal, Eiza González, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx

Every once in a while you see a film and it opens up a spot in your psyche. This spot is forever inhabited with images from the film and becomes part of what makes you whole. Baby Driver, while not a perfect film, is now part of the tapestry of my movie soul.

The premise and many aspects of the film are deceptively simple. Imagine a young guy who needs the right song to drive a car fast and without regard to the danger he and others are in. And he does it better than everyone else. And its his job. It’s every teenager’s dream.

The getaway driver, nicknamed Baby (Elgort) has a tragic past. His mother and father died in the front seat while arguing. He was in the back seat, listening to his iPod. Now he has tinnitus and in order to drown out the ringing, he plays music in his ears at all times. He can read lips, and he can sign. He takes care of his elderly foster-father, Joseph (Jones), who is deaf and in a wheel chair. He puts his tiny stacks of 100’s that he earns from each heist away for another day. He’s doing alright.

His boss, Doc, teams his driver with different robbers at all times. He mixes and matches to keep them from getting too close, or even used to one another. He always uses the same driver, though. Baby is his good luck charm.

Then Baby meets Debora (James), a young waitress at the local diner that he’s eaten at for many, many years. When Debora responds to Baby’s affections, things just couldn’t be better. That’s the way the first act has to end, for a tragedy to be complete.

The mix of crooks Baby needs to associate with gives him an interesting mix of issues. Some manageable, some not. Some obvious, others not so much.

The details within every frame of the story are to an extent where it should be impossible not to know what is coming, but the skill Wright has as a writer keeps us in suspense almost to the end. The scene building is unlike anything I have experienced since seeing Goodfellas for the first time.

The casting is top of the line. Finally someone figured out how to use Jon Hamm in a cinematic setting. His work in this film is extraordinary in its subtle hints and range. I don’t think he should ever work with anyone else, if he wants to have a movie career.

Similarly, this is the best work Jamie Foxx has ever done. Including the Oscar nominated stuff. The skill he exhibits in dominating each scene he is in is exquisitely horrific. One spends each moment dreading what decision he might make next and how it will affect the lives of people on and off-screen. Not sure if this will interrupt his scheduled work for any more sequels to average films, but one can hope.

No one plays heartless boss like Spacey, and this role may be a walk in the park for him, but it doesn’t mean that his performance doesn’t work perfectly. After all, Goodfellas wasn’t exactly a stretch for DeNiro, but where would that film have been without him.

A key role in the film is that of Jones’ father figure, Joseph. There is a kindness in his eyes that says more than 1000 words could. And when you see the chemistry between he and Elgort, one can’t help but feel a love for both of them. I have not seen Jones enough in film, but lets hope this ushers in a wave of appearances.

Lily James has all of the makings of a star and this performance hits every note that is needed for the young, life affirming love interest. She has the face, form, heart and accent of which dreams are made. One look at her smile and we perfectly understand Baby’s motivations.

For Ansel Elgort, this is the kind of performance of which careers are made. His command of every scene, even when he’s not the dominant force, is astounding. We always know where he is and how he feels. We don’t necessarily know what his plans. His presence has not been felt this profoundly on celluloid to this point. He is so subtle and earnest, one can’t help but want to know Baby more.

Edgar Wright is as frustrating as he is talented. Shaun of the Dead is one of the best films I have ever seen, and despite all the good will in the world, the other 2/3 of the Cornetto trilogy just didn’t live up to the standard he set. Scott Pilgrim is remarkable, if a little flawed.  Ant-Man is fantastic, but where he ends and his replacement Peyton Reed begins is a question.

The work he does here shows his skill is increasing and it feels like its time for him to take on more substantial work. So far, it looks like he is his best provider.

What is amazing is in a film with 2 good and 1 great car chase scene, the best choreographed scene occurs on foot. It is here that the direction and remarkable soundtrack are at their peak. It’s all magic.

The film only lets down in the last few scenes with the antagonists. One shot of Halloween masks early in the film provides for a laugh, but later on the irony is thick when the bad guy just won’t die. It’s silly enough to take you out of the moment. But it certainly isn’t enough to take away from the thrill of the other 90% of the movie.

See this if you want to add to your list of great cinematic memories.

(****1/2 out of *****)

Sorry, I just can’t hate Transformers: The Last Knight (***)

Transformers-The-Last-Knight-Poster

Transformers: The Last Knight – 2017

Director Michael Bay
Screenplay  Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, Ken Nolan
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Josh Duhamel, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Hopkins, Laura Haddock, John Turturro (with the voices of Peter Cullen, John Goodman, Erik Aadahl, Ken Watanabe, Jim Carter, Frank Welker, Steve Buscemi, Gemma Chan)

There was a point a decade or so ago when Anthony Hopkins still had a sterling reputation. He decided to retire, presumably to avoid having to reduce himself to less impactful roles. Stanley Tucci has never had the height of critical stature from which to be reduced. It is almost certain Michael Bay is sitting there, behind the camera, saying something like “just put more Tucci into it!” John Turturro, my Lord, he can be in anything good or bad. There will always be something along the lines of The Night Of for him to look forward.

There is a feeling of hanging around the savanna’s watering hole as it begins the process of drying when seeing the likes of these three in a Michael Bay film. With nothing to do but keep feeding on the animals approaching the ever decreasing water, they don’t need to lie in wait or put any skill into the hiunt. Instead, they just pick off the distracted animals, one by one, like moviegoers heading into a googleplex. Meanwhile the smell about the swamp attracts all sorts of pestilence.  It is hard to smell, much less respect.

Is this trash?  Yes. Is it congruent in any way with how humans (much less award winning thespians) act? Well, no.  But look!  They’re destroying the Pyramids again! And Sir Anthony is looking cool shooting Megatron with a cane!

That said, despite every column inch of negative press regarding this film and how uselessly complicated (and just plain useless) it is, I still can’t bring myself to dislike it. The film is the same as each of the others in terms of plot devices, MacGuffins and General Sharp / Morshower. This time though, they actually took the time to build on the half-ass ending they had in Age of Extinction with a somewhat decent first half of the film.

The biggest advantage the film has early on is the general absence of Optimus Prime, who is back on the Cybertron being bitch slapped by a floating sorceress (Chan) and then charmed with stories of their home planet’s once and future greatness. Not slowly and without subtlety, Prime is won over to the side of whatever causes humans the most damage.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, we have a chance to actually get to know some of the other Transformers. This is a great opportunity that has largely been wasted in previous films. We are usually stuck listening to the boring leader of the Autobots opine about virtue and never again losing trust in humans while Megatron plans and schemes to be that one extra bad guy in the end who gets destroyed as a prelude to the big finish.

The point this time is to see, hear and feel the interaction with the other characters who have not had opportunities for forming anything more than thumbnail generalities previously. Bumblebee is the big winner here. Likewise, Carter’s Cogman, who exhibits a feeling of dedicated servant coupled with unhinged sociopath that is warily fun.

Less fun is the precocious little girl who acts as though she is a protector of Autobots. The little kid was focused in an ill advised early round of commercials which I think significantly diminished this film’s already waning appeal. No one liked Scooby Doo once they added Scrappy.

If one can get past the historical hogwash of King Arthur’s court, the Nazis and other points that directly contradict at least the first two films.  And if you can look past the fact that yet another large mass is coming to our orbit and trying to destroy us without affecting things like, say, our gravitational field. And if you can just accept that character A has to get to point B in the first act, then character C is the only person that can help with situation D. And if you get around the idea that for all but the first one of these films, Bay has not bothered with concepts like gravity, space or coherent editing…you should be just fine.

Do I understand if someone hates this film? Sure. It’s not that good at all. But is it too complicated and silly at the same time as it has been accused? If anything, this plot has been the most straightforward of them all.

The bots benefit from more screentime, and become more like-able, just like the film itself. I never disliked Optimus Prime, but in no way did I realize that boring Peter Cullen would have 90% of the dialogue for all of the Transformers up to now. I don’t mind looking at Prime. I just want to hear someone, anyone, else.

Here’s a general rule when evaluating this film: if you didn’t enjoy any of the previous movies, then move along. This one won’t change your mind. If you think that somehow Bay took a dip in skill, energy or just plain continuity this time around, you picked the wrong reviewer to follow. I have a hard time writing reviews on films as if they should suck and just saying they are just too complicated to explain. When it gets down to it, there are plenty of nonsense reviewers out there that just took this film off. Bay has not gotten any better in these 5 films, but he certainly hasn’t gotten any worse.

(*** out of *****)

The Belko Experiment(***1/2): Your life is not your own

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The Belko Experiment – 2017

Director Greg McLean
Written by James Gunn
Starring  John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Josh Brener, Michael Rooker, Sean Gunn, James Earl

This has to be something people think about once in their working lives. At least once. The concept a simple look into the human void. What if everyone that you work with and are friendly with on a daily basis all of the sudden are induced into a forced version of survival of the fittest? Who steps up, who resists and who is obliterated?

The Belko Experiment dares to ask the question but doesn’t have the patience to stick it out through all of its twists and turns. What seems a normal day at an office in Bogota Columbia starts to turn weird when a couple employees recognize that all of the nationals were barred from entering the building. There are also several new security guards in the area that are unrecognizable to the usually solitary security guard (Earl).

Before COO Norris (Goldwyn) and employee Mike Milch (Gallagher, Jr.) can piece anything together, the voice comes over the loudspeaker and the metal shudders collapse over all possible entrances. The group of 80 employees are told that they need to kill 2 people within a period of time. If they don’t, then more people die. They don’t say how, but of course we discover how soon enough.

As the voice over the loudspeaker is revealed to not be bluffing and totally in control, the rest of the workers start to splinter. The fissures happen slowly at first, then in a rush.

This could be a recipe for hilarity, or absolute terror. It could also be a study in human psychology if given the time. Ain’t nobody got time for that, though.

The film works to steadily build tension in the first two acts. Such is the dedication to the craft that they cast Rooker against type. It works, too, up to the moment that the type A’s begin to coordinate their effort. Then it all steadily goes to hell in a bucket.

The standout moment occurs to the sound of California Dreamin’ sung in a mournful Spanish. So unsettling is it, that it is possible those who see it in this way may never experience the song in the same way.

This is all enjoyable, to be sure. Undoubtedly because the premise if filled with intrigue and asks questions of human nature. If they’ve done a film like this before, they certainly didn’t attempt it to this scale. The number of characters interacting would normally require a certain percentage of bland characterizations, but the acting and writing is better than that.

The principal antagonists Goldwyn and Gallagher, Jr., along with Ajorna provide a solid counter balance for the most part. John McGuinley is a Sergeant Shultz for the bad guys like usual. Sean Gunn’s pothead Marty leads an amusing mini-rebellion against all of the water jugs in the building.

If they could draw out the suspense with a couple more twists and turns through the last act, this film has a chance to be a classic. As it stands, it is a solid film that deserves to be seen by anyone looking for a plot that hasn’t been played out.

Now to see what they do with it.

(***1/2 out of *****)

 

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (***1/2), but the movies never stop

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – 2017

Directors Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg
Screenplay by Jeff Nathanson
Starring  Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Geoffrey Rush, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Orlando Bloom, Kiera Knightly

It’s been forever since they pumped one of these films out. Okay, well not that long ago. But since 2011 Depp’s star has fallen. Good thing I don’t care about that crap. For the most part, I have enjoyed his Pirates‘ movies. I saw none of the earlier films in the theater, but I bought them all. And watched them once. For some reason, I never felt have been able to want to watch them again over repeated viewings of Master and Commander. Okay, it’s because the Russell Crowe / Paul Bettany epic is one of my favorite films. I always was a little jealous that the first film took the wind from the sails of the clearly superior Peter Weir film. By now, when its clear that there will be no 2nd film for the Patrick O’Brien series, it’s all water under the bow.

I have learned to appreciate the films, first for their inclusion of Geoffrey Rush as the initial antagonist and eventual anti-hero. He was made to play Barbosa in every way possible. The only other character that I like better is his Walsingham from the classic Elizabeth films.  That the story is somewhat centered around Barbosa only helps, in my view.

The story is a tad convoluted, nonetheless. Will Turner is a bit too old to play the naive hunk by about a decade, so instead we have his son, played by Thwaites. The dutiful son is dedicated to bringing his father out of eternal curse of sailing the Flying Dutchman. In order to do this, he needs a MacGuffin held onto by Depp’s Jack Sparrow. That MacGuffin will lead to another MacGuffin which leads to…well, you get the point.

In his search for Sparrow, he comes across a new young babe (Scoldelario) who bases her life on the belief of science and stuff. I say stuff because some of this is based on the true tale of Poseidon’s Trident.

Meanwhile, Sparrow is being chased by Salazar, a former Pirate hunter who was obliterated by a curse at the hands of a young, digitally enhanced Sparrow. So now he’s some kind of ghost.  He is unleashed the moment that Jack Sparrow does something with one of the MacGuffins, but this is not the last time he’ll be set free. If you think that is good for him, you haven’t seen many of these movies.

The thing about this plot, it works real well with the effects and the effort feels halfway cohesive. Sparrow flits and farts through the film, using his super power of being too drunk to take any hit straight on, yet sure-footed enough to get the benefit of every bounce.

Will the plucky youths come out on top in the end? Will those who have died in a curse live to die again? Does Barbosa find a purpose after so much looting and plundering? Will that little ghost of a monkey be as adorable now as ever? Will we get to listen to Knightly speak or does she charge by the word?

One thing is for sure, Sparrow will remain unchanged, astern The Black Pearl by the end of the film. And the next one too.

There will be no preaching about this film one way or the other. I can tell you that as the series goes, this is one of the better efforts, if for no other reason the youngsters are different from in films 2 and 3. Why that matters is of personal taste. I just liked seeing the wheel turn to a new generation there as we view the constants of Sparrow and Barbosa in the center.

Bardem does a fine job of being disappointed in his efforts to ruin Jack’s day. His perverse speaking style has a fear of failure built-in along with his joy in killing whatever he deems to be bad.

All the peripheral Pirate characters you’ve grown used to but still don’t know the names of are all here, except for maybe a few that died in earlier films. I mean that died and weren’t re-signed for this film.

The best thing about the film, not one mention of a voodoo curse by someone speaking with a reggae infused accent. It’s almost makes up for the biggest disappointment of trading Keith Richards for Paul McCartney. No problem with Sir Paul, but he’s no Keef.

So I think I will finally go back and partake of the rest of this series. There is probably some fun to be had…again. If not, I am sure I will have another chance to see another sequel in a few years.

(***1/2 out of *****)

 

It Comes at Night (**1/2): And…?

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It Comes At Night – 2017

Written and Directed by Trey Edward Shults
Starring Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Riley Keogh, David Pendleton

It’s been a long time since I have been drawn into a film like this. The lens has a romance with the images portrayed to the extent that our eyes are drawn into every image, as though lives depend on it. Through the first hour, we are building up to something which lives beyond the confines of a beautiful boarded up house in the woods.

The dread starts with the opening image of It Comes At Night. Grandpa Bud (Pendleton), suffering from the throngs of an absolutely horrid disease is taken out into the woods and very kindly and crudely put out of his misery. By the time we get to see the first images of the haunted eyes of his teenage grandson, Travis (Harrison, Jr.), we are transfixed. So much misery at such a tender age cannot be distorted through the reflection of flames off of the gas mask he wears as a form of protection from what their world has become.

The family includes his father Paul (Edgerton), mother Sarah (Ejogo) and Grandpa’s dog Stanley. It’s quite obvious by the precautions taken that this family is significantly overcome by the events taking place around them. And although there is no real indication of what it is that brought the disease harming the world outside into Grandpa Bud, Paul is pretty sure he’s worked out a magic formula for keeping it out.

There is one entrance to the house, protected by two doors. This is much like an airlock might function in a spaceship. The outer door is locked carefully and only Paul has the key. If someone breaches that, there is another locked door painted red that might help keep whatever it is at bay until the family has a chance to do something about it.

What happened to the other sides of the house?  What is preventing someone from plucking off the boards for any room at ground level? These are questions that only come up later for the viewer. For Travis and his family, there is only this one door through which anything goes.

The story succeeds most when we experience it through Travis. He is a young man whose life and family look hopeful in pictures on the wall. We see him go routinely to an empty room upstairs from which he hears many things happening in the house. He lives there a lot, form the look of it. Travis also experiences the trepidation that any young man tall enough to look like an adult but clearly not ready for the move into that stage. He defers to his father, who is really just as lost to all of this as his son. He just goes first.

Then there are the nightmares. Travis’ fears come alive in them, and they push him along. What is causing these nightmares? Do they portend the future or something lurking in the present.

The introduction of other people into this equation doesn’t start out well. It’s clear that Paul was waiting for a cataclysm to arrive, even if it looks like he is unsure how to live in a world while raising a family when it does. Where his caution ends and the danger begins is the question. Meanwhile Travis, with his kind heart, competes with the strain of a teenage body and everything that would push one to feel and want to do.

Harrison, Jr. is an incredible actor caught in his prime by a director who is a devotee to Terrance Mallick in the best way possible. Every image of young Travis resonates in a way that brings feeling to the forefront. We want this boy to live in a world beyond what he is trapped in now, even though we are given plenty of hints that this world is not a good place.

I am leaving the other characters out of this review because if you have a chance at enjoying the movie, it will be best that you discover them for yourself. The story has a chance at greatness for much of its running time, and then it falls completely off of the cliff.

What is presented gives the feeling Shults is a writer and director who enjoyed much cinema in the post Easy Rider and pre-Star Wars era. Most of the acclaimed films of this period are low budget, pessimistic and dire. What is not evident is that he understands what it was that made the endings of those films work. If he does know it, he does not show it here. Somewhere in the third act, the film starts to fall apart. We get details that conflict or we are experiencing a mirage experienced by one or more of the characters. What happens to Stanley only makes sense if we can believe that Paul and Sarah’s typical hyper-vigilance took the night off.

The performances in this film are exceptional. Each plays their role exquisitely as the script will allow. Harrison, Jr. was completely transfixing to me for much of the film. I found it very easy to identify with Travis in the ways our paths through adolescence were different as much as the ways we were alike.

The camera work, especially early on and definitely in relation to Travis, is exceptional. This is not novice work. It’s someone who knows how powerful silence and images can be.

Shults is an incredible talent who needs to find a story editor. Several points in the discussion between the family and outsiders find it very difficult to believe either of the parties understand where it is that they live. Places are so vaguely described it is distracting. Then to have this carry over a span of 50 miles, presumably on foot? It’s a ridiculous plot hole that punches holes the feeling of being consumed by the rest of what his beautiful camera work is giving us.

The theater crowd I was with to a person described feelings of incredible disappointment at the film as the credits began to roll. I don’t recall ever being in a theater that had such a collective exhale of disappointment. So much did patrons match my sentiments about the ending particularly, I was so surprised by the notion that each of us experienced the story the same way that it overrode any feelings that presented itself in the last 30 minutes. The most succinct of these notions was expressed by a young man 3 rows in front of me as he got up, stretched and looked at his equally hapless girlfriend.

“I thought this was supposed to be scary.”

(**1/2 out of *****)

Wonder Woman (****1/2): It’s about what you believe

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Wonder Woman – 2017

Director Patty Jenkins
Screenplay by Allen Heinberg
Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Lucy Davis

It’s a miracle that it took 4 movies for the DC Extended Universe to finally find a gem upon which to place its foundation.  This is the film that should shape the rest of the series if they want to find their way out of the muck and mire of the previous entries. There has been much film making talent exhibited, but no one has told a half-way decent story until Patty Jenkins and Allen Heinberg shepherded the story of one of the archetypal heroes of the last 100 years into an approachably human tale of horror, frailty, heroism and the power that compels the best in all of us: love.

The story in brief is a flashback to the events in and around WWI, where a spy (Pine) is shot down over a mystical island sanctuary of Amazon warriors, lead by a Queen (Nielsen) and her supreme General sister (Wright). The Queen’s daughter, Diana, formed out of clay and given life by the dying light of Zeus, has been groomed as a defender of the planet by her aunt, and somewhat hidden by her mother. The presence of the spy changes everything, and sets Diana off on a mission to end the war to end all wars by taking on Aries, the God of War.

The strengths in this film are many. The casting of Gadot by team Snyder might be the best thing they’ve brought to the DCEU. She is one of the brightest lights of BvS, and this story allows us to find the motivation behind her mysterious debut in that film. We see every side of her here and Gadot hits every destination in the path on the super hero journey. She shows more range than most are allowed when they wear ridiculous outfits. Hers is a fully fleshed and feeling character that uses the emotions on her sleeve as a strength of her character. She acts as a passenger of the story when necessary, but when action is required, she literally steps onto the field and changes fate, rather than surrender to it.

This is a film I am glad I saw with my girls, because while I wanted to show them women could be heroes too. When I left, I realized that I had been duped. Instead of seeing a film in which a girl acted more powerful than men, we all saw a hero that did the things in ways and for reasons that only women would do. In the end, Gadot allows herself to learn lessons without condemning herself for what might be conceived as mistakes. Everything she does is with a soft nature that is simultaneously lethal. She is here to punish the punishers, but she’s also here to gaze with wonder at the beauty of living. This is such an intricate balance to achieve, I am astounded at the performance. It’s truly a star making role that in my estimation is worthy of a nomination for an Oscar as any comic based film ever has seen since Christopher Reeve’s Superman.

This says nothing about the exceptional physicality that Gadot expresses as the Wonder Woman of the title. It is obvious that her training as a member of the Israeli military. She is a physical specimen and is enjoyable to watch as a believable warrior. There are only a few times where they make her look goofy (long jumps especially). Her actions in going house to house saving the small town are delightful and epic as any super deserves.

Having the right kind of character to counter a super is essential. As Steve Trevor, Pine has found his second great role. He is a dedicated warrior and he plays as good a mentor for the human race as Diana of Themyscira could ever want. When he breaks through the mystical barrier (somewhat weakened by Diana’s discovery of her powers, presumably) he sets off a series of events that forever changes the future of the Amazon princess, and humanity. His dedication to mission parallel’s Diana’s own, even if they are not going after the same target. It’s the difference in target that allows his character to be more than Wonder Woman’s rib, to cross reference with the Bible. Along the way, they are somewhat equal but with different roles to play.

Pine has the right kind of assured persona to play a unique second fiddle. He is not a super power, but he’s got pluck and genuine feelings for Diana, that she learns to appreciate and reciprocate. Jenkins is a pro when it comes to the development of their relationship. We see it for a romance, not for a function of plot. It’s hard to disguise something you’ve seen 1000 times and make it feel fresh. And it takes a supreme confidence to make a passionate climax to said relationship and have it shown as a light in the window on a cold night.

Jenkins’ touch is exquisitely ornate. We get a real sense of the human tragedy in such a gruesome war with a minimal amount of blood and carnage. She shows herself  and cinematographer Matthew Jensen as masters of camera placement. There is no better example of this than when Diana rushes headlong into a town that has been bombed with poison gas. We get only the barest hint of the wasted lives but the full effect of horror just by watching the consuming grief on Gadot’s face. It’s a misery worthy of Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.

Just as effective is the sequence towards the end when we see what it means to sacrifice with no chance at escape. The effect of the decision of both leads could not have been more effectively exhibited or embraced by the camera.

The rest of the cast is as well-chosen as played. Robin Wright is never onscreen enough. I found myself as fascinated by her scar ridden beauty as I was Charlize Theron’s Aileen Wournos in Jenkins’ other masterpiece, Monster. Jenkins and Wright know as much about telling us the story that took place off-screen as the one that took place in front of us.

Where the heck has Neilsen been?  I am happy for her inclusion, as I thought we’d never stop seeing her after her breakthrough performance in Gladiator. Then we stopped seeing her. She did very little between 2006 through 2014, but she’s getting a lot of work lately. She will be in the upcoming Justice League film and hopefully subsequent Wonder Woman sequels.

Pine’s rag-tag United Nations team is interesting if for no other reason they provide things besides muscle and firepower. Giving one of them PTSD and how Diana helps the character find a use beyond it is a refreshing departure from the stereotype.

Danny Huston hits the right note as General Erich Ludendorff, a vile and despicable real life predecessor of the Nazi movement. His work with the fictional Isabel Maru (Anaya) succinctly represents the horror that emanates from that part of the world for the first half of the 20th Century. Huston is often the best thing in bad films. This time he is a good thing in a great film.

One of the big strengths of the film is the writing of Heinberg. He really understands the journey a hero has to take to be developed into an interesting character involves more than figuring out how the weapons and the outfit works. In blending the bad characters within the framework of actual events, he is able to give strength without having to go too far to find examples of how evil works its mechanations on us mere mortals. Giving us a devil hiding in plain sight as a whisperer is a stroke of genius. Too bad they didn’t let that impulse ride to a better showdown.

The film is nearly a masterpiece, were it not for some unfortunate computer animation choices towards the end. Making the final combat a collection of big, bigger and biggest strikes is a little too close to BvS territory, when a battle of wits would have more effectively matched the tone of seduction that was being applied. It’s almost someone in the producer’s office said “Yeah, that’s nice. But more explosions would be better.”

It’s not always better. In fact, it never is anymore. If we follow the feeling that Jenkins took time to formulate and sculpt in the future, this could show the redemptive force of a woman that comic book movies could really use.

(****1/2 out of *****)

A Cure For Wellness (**) – What do I have to feel?

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A Cure for Wellness – 2017

Director Gore Verbinski
Screenplay Justin Haythe
Starring Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Harry Groener, Celia Imrie, Tomas Norström, Angelina Häntsch

A tale as old as people trying to find a miracle cure, A Cure for Wellness finds a young and aggressive corporate shill (DeHaan)  in the unenviable task of tracking down the leader of their company (Groener). The process brings him into a trap: an institution where people go to improve their health where the opposite seems to be happening.

The film is slick and it looks as good as one would expect from Verbinski. It’s appeal is limited by its cast, location and that it not that original. What it does offer is a training wheels version of the creepy institution in the Swiss Alps with a dark and haunted past.

If you’ve never seen this type of film, this would be as good a place as any to start. It amounts to a giant telegraphed wave of images that says where the story is going with no amount of nuance. Some of the images will stick out.  The incident with the front tooth messes me up. The eels, not as much.

DeHaan does a good job looking startled, but the look on his face at the final shot actually creates more thought provocation than anything in the two plus hours before it. Goth looks haunted and starving, and who doesn’t know Isaacs is up to the worst things imagined?

Once you’ve seen a film like this, the rest kind of seem the same.

(** out of *****)