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I, Tonya (2017)
"I was loved... for a minute"
"I, Tonya" (2017 release; 121 min.) is a bio-pic about the life and times of (in)famous figure skater Tonya Harding. As the movie opens, we are reminded the movie is "based on irony-free, wildly contradicting and totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly". After some current-day interview excerpts of them and others, we then go back to "Portland, Oregon 40 Years Ago", where we get to know Tonya as a 4 year old, along with her all-too-soon absent father and her abusive mother, the latter pushing Tonya into figure skating. At this point we are 10 min. into the movie, but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself hoe it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the latest movie from director Craig Gillespie, who most recently brought us the excellent "Their Finest Hours". Here, in conjunction with Margot Robbie's production company, he brings the "truth" as to what "really" happened in 1994, when Nancy Kerrigan was whacked on the knee in the run-up of the upcoming nationals and then Olympics. But the movie is about so much more than that. Harding was "white trash", as was everyone around her. It breaks your heart to see her being abused, physically and psychologically, time and again, by the people around her, when all she really wants is some TLC. "I was loved... for a minute", laments Harding on more than one occasion. The movie's approach is wild, and wildly entertaining, where characters address the audience directly on numerous occasions. Margot Robbie is outstanding in the title role. Is that really Robbie in the skating sequences? If so, wow... But equally impressive is Allison Janney in the utterly unlikable role as Tonya's abusive mom. How can a mother end up so cruel as to her own daughter? It's a topic worth examining further in and of itself... The movie features a ton of great song placements, which only increase the viewing experience in the best possible way. "I, Tonya" is clearly inn line to do quite well in the upcoming awards season, and deservedly so (Janney already won a Golden Globe for her performance).
"I, Tonya" premiered at last Fall's Toronto International Film Festival to immediate critical acclaim, and is now finally getting a wider release. The Thursday evening screening where I saw this at was attended okay (for a weekday evening). I can only imagine that this movie will benefit from the sure positive word-of-mouth that audiences will give this. If you are in the mood for a wildly entertaining bio-pic about a controversial figure skater who never stood a chance, be it in figure skating or in life for that matter, you will not want to miss this. "I, Tonya" is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
The Commuter (2018)
"Non Stop" on rails: thoroughly familiar yet thoroughly enjoyable
"The Commuter" (2018 release; 103 min.) brings the story of Michael McCauley. As the movie opens, we get to know Micheal as he goes about his daily routine of waking up at 6 am and getting ready to take the commuter train in Manhattan, where he works at an insurance company. Then one day, out of the blue, Michael is fired from his job, for no apparent reason and just as he needs the money to pay for his son's expensive college. Afterwards he commiserates with a buddy (and that's when we find out Michael used to be a NYC cop). On his commute train ride home, Michael gets approached by a mysterious woman who makes him an offer: identify the person who doesn't belong on the train, and get $100,000 in return. She tells him there is a $25,000 upfront payment in the bathroom. When Michael goes to check there, he can't believe it but yes, there's the money. He decides to take it. It's not long before strange things start to happen... At this point we're less than 15 min. into the movie, but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is, if I'm counting right, the 4th collaboration between Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra and lead actor Liam Neeson, after "Unknown", "Non Stop", and "Run All Night". (Collet-Serra also directed the excellent shark-drama "The Shallows".) Just looking at these prior films, you know EXACTLY what you are signing up for if you decide to check out "The Commuter". In fact, this movie could be called "Non Stop on Rails". Just like that earlier movie playing out on the one air flight, much of "The Commuter" plays out on the one commuter train ride back to suburban NYC. If this sounds like like a negative, you might be wrong, as I was on the edge of my seat trying to figure out what the heck was going on (in the best possible way). One-time 'serious' actor Liam Neeson's transformation into one of the best and most reliable action movie stars is absolutely remarkable. He brings a certain weight and charisma into these roles that not a lot of action movie stars have. Keep an eye out for an all-too-rare sighting of Elizabeth McGovern (as Neeson'swife). Sam Neil has a small role as the Police Captain. Vera Farmiga is her usual great in the small role of the mysterious woman. But in the end, this is of course the Liam Neeson show all the way.
"The Commuter" opened wide this weekend. The Friday early evening screening where I saw this at was not attended very well, and surely the inclement weather here in Cincinnati was a large factor in that. I was in the mood for something to entertain me, and "The Commuter" was just what the doctor ordered: thoroughly familiar, yet thoroughly enjoyable too. If you are a fan of Liam Neeson's action movies, you cannot go wrong with this one. "The Commuter" is a WINNER.
Insidious: The Last Key (2018)
The franchise has run out of ideas and has grown tiresome
"Insidious: The Last Key" (2018 release; 103 min.) is the 4th installment in the "Insidious" franchise. As the movie opens, we are told it's "Five Keys, NM, 1953" where we see a young girl (whom we learn is young Elise) being brutalized by her dad for seeing ghosts. We then go to "California, 2010" and we catch up with Elise, as she gets a call from a man in Five Keys, NM, who is calling for her assistance in dealing with ghosts or demons in his house, As Elise writes down the street address, she realizes it is the house she grew up in. Elise decides to help the man, and before we know it, the gang (Elise with sidekicks Tucker and Specs) is on their way to New Mexico. What exactly is happening at Elise's childhood house? At this point we're 15 min. into the movie but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this movie is a sequel to Insidious 3, which itself was a prequel to the first two. So yes, a sequel to the prequel. All the expected players are here, first and foremost Leigh Whannell, who has written all 4 movies, and returns as Elise's sidekick Specs, but of course also Lin Shaye as Elise. You may recall that when the first Insidious came out in 2010, it was received well by both critics and audiences alike for offering something different in the horror genre, Now 3 movies later, it is very clear that Whannell, and hence the franchise, has run out of fresh ideas. The "new angle" being played is that we get insights as to Elise's childhood, but that only gets you so far. There isn't a single "scary" moment as such in the film, as what unfolds on the big screen has been done before in the earlier Insidious movies. The proof is in the Rotten Tomatoes pudding: whereas the first Insidious has a very respectable 66 Fresh rating, "The Last Key" gets a punishing 25 Fresh rating. There comes a point when it is clear that the movie makers are simply squeezing this for every last nickel they can get, and I can tell you that this for sure is my last time going to see an "Insidious" movie. (Not that this will stop a Chapter 5, as in the closing scene of "The Last Key", Elise accepts yet another new case...)
"Insidious: The Last Key" opened wide this weekend. The Friday evening screening where I saw this at was attended very nicely, most by kids in their teens and twenties. The audience seemed to like it okay, although there was plenty of hooting and hollering during the so-called "scary" scenes. If you love the "Insidious" franchise, keep your expectations low and maybe, just maybe, you'll enjoy this. Of course I encourage you to check it out, be it in the theater, on VOD, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusion.
Molly's Game (2017)
Fast paced true (if unlikely) story benefits from the "Aaron Sorkin treatment"
"Molly's Game" (2017 release; 140 min.) brings the story of Molly Bloom. As the movie opens, we watch Molly compete in the Salt Lake Olympic trials for freestyle skiing, seemingly poised to make the team, only to see her hopes dashed resulting from an improbable twig on the course. We then go to "12 Years Later, West Hollywood", where we find Molly being woken up by FBI agents who are at her apartment's door. Molly is arrested for running an illegal gambling operation. We then go back in time, as we see Molly arriving in LA after the Olympic trials, figuring out what she wants to do with her life. How did Molly get involved in illegal gambling? At this point we're 10 min. into the movie, but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the highly anticipated directing debut from writer Aaron Sorkin, whose previous script work includes "The Social Network" (for which he won an Oscar), "Moneyball" and "Steve Jobs", just to name those. Here he adapts Molly Bloom's memoir "Molly's Game" for the big screen. I read the memoir when it came out in 2014, and it was as unlikely a story as it was fascinating and entertaining. That Sorkin ends up writing/directing this movie makes perfect sense, as it feels entirely in line with some of his earlier work. The movie's frantic pace is nothing short of dizzying at times, and I was concerned that it would be unsustainable. But after that initial wave, the movie does slow down just enough that we settle in for what I can only term as a wild, wild ride. It blows the mind that all of this in fact did happen in real life. Jessica Chastain is masterful in the title role. Idris Elba as her (initially reluctant) lawyer is also quite good. Kevin Costner plays her dad (and psychologist), in a smaller role that cries out for more details but with a running time of well over 2 hours already, there apparently was no room to dig deeper into that. "The addiction is having power over powerful men", Costner's character tells Molly. Bottom line is that "Molly's Game" is a wickedly entertaining and fast-moving film that will at times overwhelm you. Just buckle up and enjoy!
"Molly's Game" opened in select theaters this weekend. The early evening screening on New Year's Day where I saw this at was absolutely packed to the rafters, somewhat to my surprise. The audience gave a spontaneous applause when the movie's end titles started to roll. This movie surely will generate positive word of mouth. If you are in the mood for a true story that is stranger than fiction, featuring some stellar acting performances, and all served up in the usual "Aaron Sorkin way", you cannot go wrong with this, and I encourage you to check it out, be it in the theater, on VOD or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray.
All the Money in the World (2017)
"We look like you, but we're nothing like you"
"All The Money In the World" (2017 release; 132 min.) is "inspired by true events", we are reminded at the beginning. As the movie opens, we are told it is "Rome, 1973", where we see the 16 yr. old Paul Getty (whose grandfather J. Paul Getty is the richest man in the world's history) is wandering the streets of Rome late one night, only to be abducted. Soon thereafter the abductors demand a ransom of $17 million (about $99 million in today's money). When Paul's mom approaches the elder Getty, he refuses to pay. The voice over by Paul reminds us: "We look just like you but are nothing like you..." The movie then gives us the nutshell version of how J Paul Getty made his fortune, taking us to "Saudi Arabia 1948" and the "Toulon, France Shipyard, 1958". At this point we're 10 min. into the movie but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the latest movie from director Ridley Scott, now a crisp 80 years young if you can believe it. Here he recounts the events surrounding the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty's grandson.. I hope for your enjoyment's sake that, as was the case for me, you don't know how this ends up, I don't want to say much more than that, other than to hold on to your chairs... You have have heard that, resulting from the sexual assault allegations, the movie makers decided to reshoot his scenes... after the movie had been completed and with less than 5 weeks to go before its release. Scott apparently relished the challenge, and Christopher Plummer was recast at J Paul Getty. Not only did the film makers pull it off, but I have to say that Plummer is so outstanding in this role, that I cannot imagine Spacey for this role. Plummer casts a long shadow (in the best possible way) over this movie, almost at the expense of Michelle Williams (as Paul's mother). Mark Wahlberg plays Chase, a former CIA operative and designated by Getty as the negotiator to try and get Paul released. Bottom line: this is a great real life crime drama that also looks at the isolating effect of being so rich that you never know whether anyone around you is sincere or simply in it for the money.
"All The Money In the World" opened wide today. While I wanted to see it, it was actually my grown-up kids who choose this for our annual Christmas Day movie. The early evening screening where we saw this at here in Cincinnati was completely sold out down to the last seat, Given the positive buzz and word-of-mouth this movie will likely create, this movie may have surprisingly long legs at the box office, even more so if high profile award nominations continue to come in (it already did quite well with 4 Golden Globe nominations). In any event, I encourage you to check out "All the Money in the World", be it in the theater, on Amazon Instant Video or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusions.
Darkest Hour (2017)
"You are wise because you have doubts"
"Darkest Hour" (2017 release; 125 min.) is a movie about Winston's Churchill's initial month in office. As the movie opens. we are reminded it is "9 May 1940", with the Nazi's about to run over Holland and Belgium, and the UK looking for a new leader following Chamberlain. We get to know Churchill: working from his bed, with a stiff drink, and almost scaring away his new secretary (because she typed single-spaced). While certainly not revered by his colleagues (and oven less by King George), Winston Churchill nevertheless get his lifelong dream fulfilled and is named Prime Minister on May 10th. At this point we are 10 min. into the movie but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the latest movie from British director Joe Wright, whose previous work includes the fine 2012 remake of "Anna Karenina". Here, working from a script by Anthony McCarten, we get a close look at Churchill in his early days as Prime Minister. The movie covers the period of May 9-28, 1940, so this by no means meant as a definitive bio-pick f the life and times of Winston Churchill, who had an amazing and long political career, spanning 5 decades. If you hope to learn anything about Churchill's personal life, then this movie is definitely not for you (his wife Clementine appears in some scenes, and their grown-up kids in exactly 1 scene). If on the other hand you are curious how Churchill ran his War Cabinet or how Churchill dealt with King George, then this movie is very much for you. I have no idea whether all of what we see on the big screen actually happened or not (did Churchill really take that subway ride to be "among the British people"?), but the narrative is certainly there. And there there is Gary Oldman, in the role of his life as Winston Churchill. Oldman is virtually unrecognizable under all of the heavy makeup, and instead it is as if we see Churchill in the flesh. A role like this in a movie like this, is sure to generate a LOT of nominations in the upcoming awards season (Oldman was already nominated for the Golden Globes). Comments Churchill's wife at one point: "You are wise because you have doubts", and that about sums it up. It's apparently very lonely at the top, and riddled ith doubts. WHat a job Churchill did under the most demanding of circumstances. Last but certainly not least, as I was watching this movie, it feels like the other side of the coin to "Dunkirk", a very different movie obviously, but covering some of the same historical ground and facts. "Darkest Hour" is also far better than the weak "Churchill" movie from earlier this year (starring Brian Cox).
"Darkest Hours" opened on 4 screens this weekend here in Cincinnati. The Saturday early evening screening where I saw this at (in a fairly large theater) was absolutely jam-packed to the rafters, much to my surprise. Looks like there is a large appetite for this type of historical drama. I encourage you to check out "Darkest Hour", be it in the theater, on VOD or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusion.
"I know there's something wrong with me", but what exactly?
"Thelma" (2017 release from Norway; 116 min.) brings the story of university student Thelma. As the movie opens, we see young Thelma and her dad walking in the snowy woods, and when they encounter a deer, dad aims his riffle first at the deer, then.... at Thelma. Whoa! We then go to today, as Thelma, just entering university in Oslo, has a difficult time finding her way. Then one day, as she is in the library/study hall, Thelma suffers a seizure. Following that incident, Anja, another student, reaches out to Thelma to see if she's okay. At this point we are 10 min. into the movie but to tell you more would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the latest from Norwegian writer-director director Joachim Trier, who previously gave us the excellent "Louder Than Bombs" (2015) and before that the even better "Oslo, August 31st" (2011). Here he goes a very different direction. Trier brings us Thelma, an 18 yr. old who grew up in a very conservative/religious/rural setting but now finds freedom in the big city and, while feeling guilty about it, is nevertheless quite eager to explore this newly found freedom. The movie is paced quite slowly, and I mean that as a compliment, as Trier takes his time to explore and provide full characters. After the first seizure, Thelma gets scared and confesses "I know there's something wrong with me", but what exactly? And what causes thee seizures? All is revealed in the second hour of the movie... I shan't say more! Eili Harboe is outstanding in the title role, and I can only imagine that she will soon be making her debut in US movies. In fact, I could easily see how "Thelma" is one of those movies that Hollywood wants to remake--Hollywood style of course. Let's hope I am dead wrong on this one. "Thelma" is 180 degrees away from Hollywood mainstream, and it should stay that way,
"Thelma" opened without any fanfare or advertising at my local art-house theater here in Cincinnati this weekend, and seeing that this was directed by Joachim Trier was good enough for me to check it out. So glad I did. The Friday early evening screening where I saw this at was attended so-so at best (6 people including myself), and that leads me to think this won't play long in the theater... If you are in the mood for a top-notch foreign psychological drama with hints of the supernatural, I readily recommend that you check out "Thelma", be it in the theater (while you still can), on VOD, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray. "Thelma" is a WINNER.
Documentary starts off slowly, but the second half is riveting
"Agnelli" (2017 release; 105 min.) is a documentary about the life and times of Italian business executive extraordinaire Gianni Agnelli, best known for his role as Chairman of Fiat. As the movie opens, we are in 1976 and Agnelli is giving a TV interview in which he expresses his deep concern for the rising Italian Communist Party, and the turmoil in Italian society in general. The movie then steps back and gives an introduction to his family background and upbringing in Turin, home of Fiat (and Juventus FC), eventually leading to Agnelli's becoming Fiat Chairman in 1966.
Couple of comments: this is the second documentary from director Nick Hooker, who just last year brought us the entertaining "Everything Is Copy" (about the life and times of Nora Ephron). Here he goes a very different direction, and tackles the flamboyant, if brilliant, Italian business executive, and the movie is divided into 5 chapters. Due to how the man lived his life (which kept him from fully functioning as a business man until his 40s), the first part of the movie focuses more on the playboy side of Agnelli. I mean, do I really care he had countless lovers (including apparently Jackie Kennedy, just to name that name)? The movie truly finds its footing when we get to "Part III: The Years of Lead", which focuses on the enormous upheaval in the mid/late 70s to early 80s when the Red Brigades terrorized Italian society (even kidnapping and killing Italy's Prime Minister in 1978) and how close the system came to a complete collapse. The "lead" to in the chapter title refers not just to bullets killing people but that the overall atmosphere was "very, very heavy", one of the talking heads explains. Hooker interviews tons of Agnelli family members, friends, business associates and others (including the guy who for 10 (!) years (1975-85) was the Communist mayor of Torino). It keeps the film moving forward quite nicely. But the very best part of the movie remains the chilling archive footage of the 60s, 70s and even 80s, as Fiat's business fortunes mirror a roller coaster.
"Agnelli" premiered recently as part of HBO's Documentary series, and I caught it just the other day on HBO on Demand. Despite a tentative start, which focuses too much on the personal side of Agnelli, I ended up very much enjoying this film, for reasons explained earlier, and would recommend that you check it out when you get the chance.
"Leia sent me here with hope", but will Skywalker return the favor?
"Star Wars - The Last Jedi" (2017 release; 152 min.) brings the continuing saga of the "next generation" of Star Wars heroes. The movie opens with a bang, literally. The First Order reigns supreme, and the Resistance is scrambling to escape their base. That results in a dazzling 15 min. sequence where there are ever more detailed and complex battle scenes. And did I mention it is loud? Meanwhile, while all this is happening (and picking up directly where "The Force Awakens" left off), Rey is trying to convince Luke Skywalker to rejoin the ranks of the Resistance. "Leia sent me here with hope", she tells Skywalker. Will he? At this point we're 15 min. into the movie, but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the latest movie from rapidly rising writer-director Rian Johnson, who a few years ago brought us the excellent sci-fi thriller "Looper". While he alone is credited as being the writer, I imagine that Executive Producer JJ Abrams (who returns as director for Star Wars IX) had a lot of input as well in the overall story arch. As the years go by, and technology becomes yet more sophisticated, it is bewildering at time (in a good way) to take in all that we see on the big screen. Apparently this Star Wars movie is quite divisive among the Star Wars aficionados, and I really don't understand why. I was 17 when "A New Hope" came out, and 20 when "The Empire Strikes Back" was released. Now 4 decades later, much needed new life has been brought in this franchise, washing away the bad taste that Episodes I, II and III left us with now 20 years ago. The renewed Star Wars brings a nice mix of the new stuff along with some elements of the old stuff (Episodes IV, V and VI). In fact, I was struck by the parallels between this mpvoe and "The Empire Strikes Back" on a number of occasions. The original score by John Williams once again plays an important role in the overall enjoyment. My main criticism of "The Last Jedi" is that the movie is unnecessarily long at 2 hr. 32 min. Tighter editing could've cut a good 15-20 min. without missing any core aspects of the story. Last but certainly not least, it was with sadness that I watched Carrie Fischer in her last role ever. She was due to return for Episode IX. She will be missed by everyone in the Star Wars universe and fandom.
I was not able to score tickets for the opening weekend, but did manage (just barely) to get tickets for last night (Tuesday evening). That screening here in Cincinnati was completely sold out. Even more remarkable for me was that a sizable portion of the audience were young kids, I'm talking 6-7-8 years old, and I didn't see any of them getting restless, despite the movie's long running time. Amazing. While of course you can watch this on Amazon Instant Video and eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, a movie like this just BEGS to be experienced on the big screen, along with other fans. "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" is a WINNER.
The Shape of Water (2017)
"Life is but the shipwreck of our plans"
"The Shape of Water" (2017 release; 123 min.) brings the story of Elisa. As the movie opens, we see Elisa getting ready for work. She and her friend Zelda work as janitors at a restricted government research facility. Along the way, we learn that Elisa is mute. Then one day, a new "asset " is delivered to the research facility. Mysterious at first, we learn quickly that it is some sort of amphibious creature. Elisa is immediately drawn to it. But the guy running the research project, a no-good scientist named Colonel Strickland, and his boss General Hoyt, have other ideas... What will happen to the creature? At this point we're 10 min. into the movie but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the latest fantasy story, if not fairy tale, from Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth"). Here he brings us a story that in its essence is a variation of "Beauty and the Beast", or even "Creature from the Black Lagoon" and the original (1932 and 1976) "King Kong". The movie is set in the late 50s or early 60s (at one point, on of the kids asks if he can watch Bonanza), and in fact the overall feeling of the movie is as it it was made in that era, rather than today. The Location of Elisa's apartment, above the Orpheum movie theater where "The Story of Ruth" and "Mardi Grass" are playing, only increases that overall late 50s/early 60s feel. The set productions is first rate all the way. The way del Toro directs the movie reminded me more than once of Steven Spielberg. Sally Hawkins is outstanding as Elisa. That makes two noteworthy movies this year for her: earlier this year she was equally stellar in "Maudie", but watch her pile up the nominations for this film come the awards season (she already picked up a Golden Globe nomination). Last but certainly not least, there is a wonderful orchestral score composed by Oscar-winner Alexandre Desplat, and I'm going on record that he will score another Best Movie Score Oscar nomination for this.
"The Shape of Water" opened up this weekend at my local art-house theater on not one but two screens, a rarity. The Sunday early evening screening where I saw this at was attended very nicely, I'm happy to report. Given the overall quality of the movie and the nice counter-programming to the inevitable blockbuster that is "The Last Jedi", I can see this having long legs at the art-house theater circuit. Every day Elisa picks up a "thought of the day" from her wall calendar, and on a certain day the thought is "Life is but the shipwreck of our plans", and that certainly also seems to be the case for this movie, but in the best possible way. "The Shape of Water" is a WINNER.
Wonder Wheel (2017)
Coney Island memories gone horribly stale... One of Woody Allen's poorest movies
"Wonder Wheel" (2017 release; 101 min.) brings the story of Ginny. As the movie opens, the voice-over from Mickey, a lifeguard, reminds us that we are at Coney Island in the 1950s. A young lady, Carolina, arrives on the scene looking for her dad. She meets Ginny, her dad's new wife, and Ginny is rather startled at the appearance of Carolina. Carolina apparently left her husband Frankie, a mobster, and she fears for her life. When Carolina's dad (and Ginny's husband) Humpty arrives home, he is incredulous that Carolina has come back, given their years-long silence. Meanwhile, we learn from Mickey that he has an affair with Ginny... At this point we are 15 min, into the movie but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: there are a couple of certainties in life: death, taxes, and like clockwork once a year a new movie from writer-director Woody Allen, In his latest romantic (?) caper, Allen revisits his summers of youth at Coney Island. Let's start with the positive: Coney Island looks gorgeous, thanks to long-standing Woody Allen collaborator and photographer Vittorio Storaro. But after that, boy oh boy... When Humpty arrives on the scene early on, he blows up in anger and shouts "I need a drink!" at Ginny. It all feels incredibly staged and contrived, and that early scene unfortunately sets the stage for the entire movie. As the movie rolls on, we should care for these characters in one way or another. I felt utterly unmoved by it all, and kept thinking how staged and unauthentic everything looked and felt. Kate Winslet as Ginny gives it her best, but neither she nor any of the other three leads (Justin Timberlake as Mickey, Juno Temple as Carolina, and least of all Jim Belushi, horribly miscast at Humpty) can save this wreck of a film, surely one of Woody Allen's weakest in his long career. Here an exchange between Carolina and Mickey: "You've been all over the world!" (Carolina to Mickey) "Yea, but you've been around the block" (Mickey to Carolina), wow, just wow. I was ready to walk out after an hour, but my friend wanted to see how it'd finish so we stayed. "Well, that wasn't worth it" remarked my friend as the end titles started rolling. 'Nuff said.
"Wonder Wheel" premiered at the recent New York Film Festival to so-so buzz. It opened this weekend at my local art-house theater here in Cincinnati (among a handful of other theaters). The Friday evening screening where I saw this at was attended poorly (11 people in total, to be exact) and I don't see a long life in the theaters for this movie. It's simply too stale and too staged for that. But of course I encourage you to check it out, be it in the theater, on Amazon Instant Video (where it opened at the same time, it is an Amazon Studios release after all), or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusion.
Baltimore Rising (2017)
Fairly nuanced look at the fall-out from the 2015 Baltimore riots and looting
"Baltimore Rising" (2017 release; 95 min.) is a documentary about the rioting and looting which shook Baltimore following the arrest and subsequent death of Freddy Gray in curious/suspect conditions, and how the city tries to move beyond this. As the movie opens, we are introduced to a blighted neighborhood: "it's not the riots that caused this, it's the condition of the community that caused the riots", comments a Baltimore city council member. We then revisit the event of April, 2015.
Couple of comments: this is the latest film from actor-director Sonja Sohn (herself African-American). The initial part of the documentary, focusing on the events in April-May of 2015, are the hardest to watch, as there is so much senseless violence and pent-up anger and frustration in the African-American community, you can;t help but shake your head as you are watching it. Also, did you know that 3 of the 6 accused police officers are African-American? The movie finds its best footing in the aftermath. The Baltimore police reaches out to various leaders in the African-American community as the city awaits the trials of the police officers involved in the Freddy Gray events and the new police chief is desperate to avoid further rioting and looting, no matter what the outcome of the trials. A picture emerges of a segment in the African-American community that is eager to move forward and hence prepared to work with the police. "What can I do for you?", the police chief asks. "Jobs, bring us jobs", is the unanimous answer. Then there is another segment with the African-American community that will never be happy with anything, and instead looks at the rioting and looting as their "right" to protest. There are some startling moments in the film. Let me give you one example: at a certain point one of the social activists hands up a banner that reads 'BALTIMORE RISING" and one of the cops comes up and says "you have to take that banner down". When the activist asks: what law does this banner break", the cop is stumped and eventually mumbles "I don't know" (but the banner is still coming down), wow.
"Baltimore Rising" recently premiered as part of the HBO Documentary series, and I caught it the other day at HBO on Demand. While this documentary certainly isn't without flaws (it rambles a bit too much for its own good), I learned a thing or two from watching this documentary, and that's always a good thing. "Baltimore Rising" is worth checking out.
Meth Storm (2017)
Brutally honest documentary that is at times hard to watch
"Meth Storm" (2017 release; 95 min.) is a documentary about the devastating effects of cheap and potent meth coming in from Mexico to overwhelm rural America. As the movie opens, we are reminded that meth production in the US has all but shut down, and that Mexican cartels were all too happy to fill in the gap. We then are in the midst of a high-speed car chase, as Arkansas DEA agents are on the heels of a drug dealer. Then we get to know a family in Van Buren County, AR, led by Veronica, now 43 and a meth addict. We witness her shooting up and it's not long before we get to know her two sons who are also addicts. Finally, we are introduced to Johnny, a local DEA guy who is part of Operation ICE Storm, a large effort to combat drug dealers. At this point we're 10 min, into the documentary.
Couple of comments: this is the latest from documentarians Brent and Craig Renaud, who have tackled similar issues before ("Dope Sick Love", "Little Rock High: 50 Years Later"). The documentary picks up in 2014, when Operation ICE Storm develops, and covers the next 18-24 months. What we witness is hard to grasp and at times even hard to watch. Entire communities (mostly consisting of what one might call "white trash") seem engulfed in the meth storm. At one point Veronica's 26 yr. old son Teddy is released from yet another drug related stint in jail. They hug, drive home and immediately proceed to shooting up together, YES, right after his release! It blows the mind, and it made me cringe on more than one occasion. When Johnny (the DEA guy) reviews the list of people who are arrested at one point during Operation ICE Storm, he knows most of them personally, as he laments that he cannot stop the meth wave. At one point we get to know Teddy's 2 young daughters, I'm guessing 6 or 7 years old, and you can't help but feel very sorry for them. I just shook my head...
"Meth Storm" premiered recently as part of HBO's documentary series, and I caught it the other day at HBO on Demand. I wasn't really sure what to expect, but as this played out, I couldn't help but feel strangely removed from all this. I mean, is this really part of America? I don't pretend to know how to solve this issue (or, say, the opioid crisis that is so widespread), and I fear it will only gets worse before it gets better. Meanwhile, "Meth Storm" is a brutally honest documentary that is at times hard to watch but a eye-opener on so many levels.
Last Flag Flying (2017)
So(m)ber film is at times too obvious and too preachy
"Last Flag Flying" (2017 release; 125 min.) brings the story of 3 Vietnam War vets. As the movie opens, we are informed it is "December 2003", and we see a guy arriving at Sal's Bar & Grille. The bartender (and owner) Sal doesn't recognize the guy at first, but then realizes it's Doc, who served with Sal in Vietnam. After a drunken night, Doc suggests they go somewhere and Sal, not knowing what to expect, nevertheless agrees. Turns out Doc takes him to see Mueller, another Vietnam vet who now is the pastor at a Baptist church. After dinner at Mueller's house, Doc drops the bomb: his only son was killed 2 days ago in Bagdad and Doc wants Sal and Mueller to accompany him to retrieve his son's body and bury him. At this point we're not even 15 min. into the movie but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the latest from writer-director Richard Linklater, whose 2014 masterpiece "Boyhood" was my No. 1 movie of that year. Linklater is one of my favorite film makers, period. Here, he goes a very different direction from what he typically does, and brings an all-out sober, if not somber, account of how one guy deals with the death in combat of his son, and calling on two 'Nam buddies he hasn't seen in decades for moral and other support. And how exactly did his son die in Bagdad anyway? The war in Iraq is possibly the very worst presidential decision taken in the last 50 years, so I don't need to be told, again and again in this movie, what a lousy idea that was, so please stop the unabashed preachy tone of the movie already. Not to mention that certain moments simply feel contrived (the Dover AFB scene where Doc and Sal roll away the coffin; the TV footage of Saddam Hussein's capture, happening the very same day!, etc.). This film is the exact opposite of a feel-good movie. On the plus side, the performance of Bryan Cranston as the freewheeling Sal is spot on. I can't say the same thing for Steve Carell who as the grieving dad seems to try too hard to channel the grief and bewilderment. Bottom line: "Last Flag Flying" is not a bad film, certainly not, but the movie's message is at times too obvious and too preachy. I can't help but think back to that other recent movie "Thank You For Your Service", which didn't shout in your face how horrible the war in Iraq has been (or its aftermath for returning veterans), but instead lets the story do the talking without resorting to the obvious and the preaching. We get it.
"Last Flag Flying" opened recently at my art-house theater here in Cincinnati (and it being an Amazon Studios film, it simultaneously started streaming on Amazon). The Tuesday evening screening where I saw this at was attended okay but not great (about 10 people in all). I can't say that when I walked out from the theater I felt good about having seen this film. I certainly encourage you to check it out, be it in the theater, on VOD, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusion.
Mildly interesting documentary ahead of the new Spielberg film "The Post" (starring Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee)
"The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee" (2017 release; 90 min.) is a bio-documentary of Ben Bradlee, best known as the long-serving Executive Editor of the Washington Post. As the documentary opens, we are reminded that in 2994 Bradlee wrote his memoirs "A Good Life" and it is Bradlee himself who does the voice-over for much of this documentary (presumably taken from the audio-book version of that memoir), a little bit eerie to be honest (from beyond the grave so to speak--Bradlee passed away in 2014). We then go back in time, to Bradlee's Boston roots and upbringing, his college years at Harvard, "graduating by the skin of my teeth" (as we see his very mediocre grade card), his WWII service in the Navy, and his tentative start as a journalist.
Couple of comments: this is the latest from veteran documentarian John Maggio (best known for his work at PBS' American Experience). Here he takes a look at Ben Bradlee's life, and what a colorful like it is indeed. I wasn't aware as to the strong ties between JFK and Bradlee (and their wives), making a tight foursome (but that did not stop JFK from having an affair with the sister of Bradlee's wife). At the core of the documentary is of course Bradlee's tenure at the Washington Post, turning it from a "provincial, second-rate" newspaper into the national force to be reckoned with. We rehash once more the drama that were the "Pentagon Papers" episode in 1971, and then of course the Watergate scandal, of which Bradlee muses: In Nixon's darkest hour, he gave the press its finest hour". Some attention is devoted as well to Bradlee's at times volcanic personal life. But in the end, as he himself acknowledges, "I have few regrets" (others comment "Bradlee never had any regrets"), which to me is bit of a turn-off. We all do things at one point of another in our lives that cause us to have some regrets...
This is the latest release in the HBO Documentary series, and I caught it on HBO Demand a couple of days ago. In the end, this is mildly interesting at best. Nary a critical word is uttered about Bradlee, despite his oftentimes controversial approach to things. Surely the documentary is released at this particular time to take advantage of the buzz that is building for Steven Spielberg's latest movie "The Post", starring Tom Hanks as Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Post publisher Kay Graham (the movie will come out in 2 weeks). It's not that I regret seeing "The Newspaperman" but nor do I not see a compelling reason to seek this out again in repeat viewing.
Stunning debut is among this year's best films
"Novitiate" (2017 release; 123 min.) brings the story of Kathleen. As the movie opens, we are told it is "1964" and we get to know Kathleen as she is in a nuns' convent. "I was 17 when I entered the convent, 18 when I started the novitiate. We are all women in love." Wow. We then go to "Ten Years Earlier", as we get to know young Kathleen and her mother, and how Kathleen becomes interested in Catholic school, then the Catholic faith, and eventually the Catholic church. At this point we are 10 min, into to movie but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the feature length debut of writer-director Maggie Betts, And what a debut it is! Betts takes a close look at what the road is like towards becoming a nun, with a 6 months postulate and then the 18 months novitiate. These are all young women with an idealistic view of the Catholic church. In a parallel story, Betts also examines the consequences of the Vatican II reforms. The Reverend Mother who runs the convent is entirely opposed to any ref0rms. "Isn't the church just perfect as it is?", she retorts when a younger nun questions her. As one might expect, the pace of the movie is quite slow and deliberate, so this isn't for anyone in a hurry. At times it almost feels like a documentary. I was bowled over by it all, to be honest, and felt deeply invested into these characters. There are a number of scenes in the movie that will break your heart (the disbelief of Kathleen's mother upon learning what Kathleen intends to do with her life; the "chapel of faults"--I shan't say more...). As it plays out, one can't help but be reminded of "The Nun's Story" starring Audrey Hepburn (when asked why she decided to become a nun, one of the young ladies refers to that movie). The movie is helped enormously by several towering performances: Melissa Leo as the Reverend Mother is outstanding, but even better is Margaret Qualley as Kathleen (in one of her first movie roles--she is best known for her recurring role in HBO's The Leftovers). Qualley reminded me physically immediately of a younger Kirsten Stewart. The range of emotions that Qualley is able to convey on the big screen makes it very clear to me that this is a major up-and-coming talent, the last of which we surely haven't seen. Same can be said of writer-director Maggie Betts. If it sounds like I am gushing about this movie, you bet I am. This movie is for me one of the best I have seen this year.
"Novitiate" premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival to immediate critical acclaim. No idea why it's taken so long to reach my local art-house theater here in Cincinnati, but better late than never. The Saturday evening screening where I saw this at was attended very nicely. You could hear a pin drop, as the theater was enraptured by this film. If you are in the mood for a probing psychological drama that poses some serious questions about religion and faith and features several stunning acting performances, you cannot go wrong with this, be it in the theater, on VOD or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray. "Novitiate" is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
The Disaster Artist (2017)
"I Do Not Choose To Be a Common Man"
"The Disaster Artist" (2017 release; 103 min.) brings the real-life story of how the 2003 cult movie "The Room" got made. As the movie opens, a number of current day movie stars, including Kirsten Bell, Adam Scott. J.J. Abrams and others gush about the virtues of this "so bad, that it's so good" movie. We then shift to "San Francisco, July 13, 1998" when Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero meet at an acting class and strike up a friendship. Later that year, they decide on w him to move to Los Angeles, where Tommy somehow has kept an apartment. Tommy and Greg pursue their dream of becoming an actor (inspired by James Dean, among others), but when it's becoming clear that nobody wants to do anything with them, they decide to make their own film... At this point, we are 15 min. into the movie, but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this movie is a labor of love primarily by James Franco, who directs, co-produces, and stars as Tommy. His brother Dave co-stars as Greg. The real life story is so beyond anything believable that if this were a work of fiction, it would immediately be dismissed as just that. Let me state upfront that I have not seen "The Room" (although I see it frequently listed as a midnight listing at my local art-house theater). From everything we witness in "The Disaster Artist", Tommy is so incredibly inapt yet convinced of his own talent, it reminds me of those American Idol auditions back in the day where certain contestants think they are super good yet they were horrible. Another similarity is the Meryl Streep movie "Florence Foster Jenkins" (about a real life wealthy NY socialite who thinks she sings well and nobody dares to contradict her, leading to a notorious Carnegie Hall concert). James Franco does an outstanding job in the lead role, and I'm going to predict that he will get a number of nominations in the upcoming awards season. It isn't until the very end of the movie (when scenes from the original "The Room" are played in parallel with the recreated scenes for "The Disaster Artist") that one gets a sense how incredibly meticulous Franco has been in recreating them down to the last detail. Absolutely amazing. Last but certainly not least, the movie features a bunch of other well-known performers, some of them in very noticeable roles (such as Seth Rogen and Alison Brie), and others in "blink and you'll miss it" roles (such as Sharon Stone, Zoey Deutch, Zac Efron, etc.). In an early scene of the movie, when Tommy and Greg become unlikely friends, they head over to Tommy's place, and Greg notices a prominent sign on the apartment's wall: "I Do Not Choose To Be a Common Man". Whatever you think of Tommy, he certainly is not your "common man"!
"The Disaster Artist" opened this weekend at my local art-house theater here in Cincinnati on not one, but two screens (a rarity). The Friday evening screening where i saw this at was attended very nicely, I;'m happy to report. The audience roared with laughter on many occasions. The positive word-of-mouth this movie surely will generate makes it likely to have long legs at the box office (at least within the art-house theater circuit). If you are in the mood for something truly different, I encourage you to check out "The Disaster Artist", be it in the theater, on VOD, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray.
Wanna-be important documentary falls short by a mile or two
"32 Pills: My Sister's Suicide" is a documentary directed by, and starring, Hope Litoff about her sister Ruth's suicide in 2008 at age 42. As the movie opens, we get to know Ruth and Hope, and not before too long we also get to know what it was like for the Litoff sisters to grow up.
Couple of comments: this is the directing debut of Hope Litoff, who previously was edited a number of TV movies and documentaries. Here she investigates the effects of Ruth's suicide on her life as we know it today. Through the extensive use of primarily the thousands of pictures that Ruth had taken during her life, but also the many journals she left behind (and which she apparently wanted to be found after her death), we get a pretty good picture as to her troubled (bi-polar) mind. Seems like Ruth lived on the edge of suicide for many years. Then there is Hope, 3 years younger than Ruth. Where to start? The documentary at first sight is about Ruth, until it shifts and becomes the Hope show... Hope shows up in virtually every frame of the movie, while she ostensibly suffers from Ruth's suicide. But I have to say, some if not much seems contrived, if not outright weird. Does she really fall off the wagon after 17 years sobriety--WHILE FILMING HERSELF? Then later, is her husband really following her around with a camera when Hope decides she needs another drink for no apparent reason? It just didn't make any sense, and it all felt very much self-centered and self-serving, as if Hope found a perfect vehicle (Ruth's suicide) to make a movie where Hope is the center of attention. If it was meant to stir up compassion for Hope's situation, I'm sorry to say that the movie simple didn't move me in that way. Bottom line: it may be well- intended, but ultimately this wanna-be important documentary should be called "My Sister's Suicide: A New HOPE" (pun intended).
This movie started playing on HBO as part of its documentary series, and that is where I caught it a few days ago. I have to say, I was really let down in the end. For a truly devastating look at the events surrounding a sister's suicide, I'd readily recommend the deeply moving and overall excellent 2015 memoir by Jill Bialosky called "History Of a Suicide" (about her 21 yr. old sister's suicide when the author herself was 30). Simply outstanding. "32 Pills: My Sister's Suicide"? not so much...
Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)
"I am tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful"
"Roman J. Israel, Esq." (2017 release; 129 min.) brings the fictional story of the title character. As the movie opens, it appears that Roman is preparing a legal filing, where he is both plaintiff and defendant! Huh? We then go back to "Three Weeks Earlier", and we get to know Roman, as his life's circumstances are about to change drastically. Having worked "like the man behind the curtains" in a 2 lawyer criminal defense law firm, Roman's law partner suffers a heart attack and Roman must now pick up the slack, and make court appearances. Rather than ask for continuations, Roman speaks his mind freely, with dire consequences... At this point we are 10 min, into the movie, but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the latest movie from writer-director Dan Gilroy, who previously gave us another character-specific vehicle ("Nightcrawler" for Jake Gyllenhaal). Here he creates a role specifically allowing Denzel Washington to shine, and shine Denzel does. In fact, the entire movie rests on his shoulders, playing what appears to be a morally straight-and-narrow criminal defense lawyer who then is presented with moral dilemmas. "I am tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful", remarks Roman. The movie is plot-heavy, and hence I shan't say more, although I will say that there are some plot holes the size of Manhattan, and it's up to you to accept those and move along, or to be bothered and essentially give up. I choose the former. Besides Denzel Washington, there are several other noteworthy performances: Colin Farrell is fine as the big-shot lawyer George Pierce, and even more so British actress Carmen Ejogo as the self-doubting social activist Maya. But in the end it's really the Denzel Washington show. Seems like he really enjoyed himself with this role. Like "Nightcrawler", this movie is ultra LA-centric, playing out mostly in downtown LA with its ritzy skyscrapers. Bottom line: I had my doubts about this movie, and certainly the ambiguous trailer didn't help. But I found myself strangely entertained by this, flaws and all, and these 2 hours flew by in no time.
"Roman J. Israel, Esq." is now into its second weekend in theaters everywhere. The Friday evening screening where I saw this at here in Cincinnati was attended okay but not great (about 15 people in a huge theater). If you enjoy a movie vehicle that allows Denzel Washington to once again shine and showcase his enormous talents, you could do worse that this. I encourage you to check out "Roman J. Israel, Esq.", be it in theaters, on VOD, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusion.
Exposing the ugly underbelly of a small Midwestern town
"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" (2017 release; 115 min.) brings the story of Mildred Hayes. As the movie opens, we see her driving by several unused dilapidated billboards near her house. She inquires with the Ebbing Advertising Agency (located across the street from the Police Department), and decides to put up three billboards. Combined, they read: Raped While Dying/And Still No Arrests"/How Come. Chief Willoughby? We learn that her daughter Angela was murdered 7 months ago, and that no suspects have been identified by the cops. OF course, this public shaming does not sit well with Chief Willoughby, and he decides to pay Mildred a visit (his first since the murder, Mildred remarks). At this point we're 10 min. into the movie but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the latest movie from writer-director Martin McDonagh, who previously gave us "In Bruges" and "Seven Psychopaths". While those movies were over the top in many ways, here McDonagh goes a more subtle yet still hard-hitting way in looking at how one strong-willed woman upsets the fabric of a little Missouri town and along the way exposes its ugly underbelly. If you have seen the movie's trailer (and it was hard to escape that in recent weeks), one might expect something very similar, at least in style, to McDonagh's earlier movies, rip-roaring from start to finish. But that is not the case at all. Yes, of course there are those moments, but there there are also many other scenes in the movie that are reflective and outright touching. As hard-boiled as Mildred seems to be, the real hurt and grieving she displays on occasion says a lot more about her than when she kicks some school kids in a place where it hurts (yes, she really does). McDonagh brings out wonderful performances, none more so than the one-of-a- kind Frances McDormand as Mildred. McDormand must at this point surely be considered the front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar early next year. But she gets plenty of help, including Sam Rockwell (as the sleazy and racist officer Dixon), and Woody Harrelson (as Chief Willoughby),
"Three Billboards" premiered this Fall to immediate critical acclaim, which for the most part is well deserved. (I personally felt a bit let down by the movie's concluding 15 min., which of course I will not spoil.) The Thanksgiving early evening screening where I saw this at in Ft. Myers FL, was attended nicely (about 15- 20 people) but nowhere near a sell-out. It will be interesting to see how the movie does at the box office as it gets a wider release in weeks to come. Martin McDonagh is certainly no ordinary writer- director and if you appreciate hiss off-kilter approach, you will welcome his latest. I encourage you to check out "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri", be it in the theater, on VOD, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusion.
Lady Bird (2017)
Character study that will be familiar to many of us
"Lady Bird" (2017 release; 93 min.) brings the story of Christine McPherson, a/k/a Lady Bird, "my given name since I gave to name to myself". As the movie opens, Lady Bird and her mom are driving back to Sacramento as they are listening to an audio tape of Grapes of Wrath. Lady Bird laments "I wish I could live through something" and then lets herself fall out of the car, breaking her wrist along the way. Now in a cast, we get to know Lady Bird's daily life as she enters her senior year in high school at the all-girls Immaculate Heart of Maria. Lady Bird also has to deal with her overbearing mom. It all makes her want to go to college on the East Coast... At this point we are 10 min. into the movie but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the directing debut of noted actress and writer Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, Mistress American, Maggie's Plan, and most recently sensational in 20th Century Women). Here Gerwig writes about something very familiar to her, as she grew up in Sacramento (but she refuses to call the film auto-biographical): the struggles of a teenager on the cusp of the liberating (?) years of going to college and setting out a life's journey more within her control. Even though the movie is just an hour and a half, it is jam-packed with non-stop plot developments, but the over-arching theme is clear. While billed as a comedy-drama, the movie is more drama than comedy, indeed the movie is bitter-sweet, but in the end more sweet than bitter. Gerwig provides outstanding direction to her two lead performers, Irish actress Saoirse Ronan (as Lady Bird) and Lauren Metcalf (as her tough-love mother). I can't help but feel that the movie is also Gerwig's love letter to her home town of Sacramento (a place I've never visited myself), making it look very warm and inviting. Bottom line: "Lady Bird" is a wonderful 'little' movie, and in that sense the complete opposite (and perfect counter- programming) for yet the latest salvo of superhero action movies from DC Comics ("Justice League") and Marvel Comics ("Thor Ragnarok"). To each their own, but I'll take "Lady Bird" any day.
"Lady Bird" received immediate critical acclaim upon its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this Fall, and surely will be receiving a number of Oscar nominations early next year. The movie went wide this past weekend. The Tuesday evening screening where I saw this at was attended poorly (exactly 4 people, including myself), but positive word of mouth will hopefully boost better attendance in the days and weeks to come. If you are in the mood for a character study that will feel very familiar to many of us, you cannot go wrong with this, be it in the theater, on VOD or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray. "Lady Bird" is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
The Square (2017)
More on the "human condition" from director Ruben Östlund
"The Square" (2017 release from Sweden; 142 min.) brings the story of Christian, the chief curator of a Swedish museum. As the movie opens, he is interviewed by Anna, an American journalist. Afterwards, as he is walking outside, a woman runs up to him screaming "help me! He's going to kill me". Christian and another bystander are bale to fend off the apparent enraged boyfriend. After the tumult, Christian realizes his wallet and mobile were stolen, but with the help of a staff member, he can track down the cell phone's location. Meanwhile the museum is starting an ambitious new project called The Square, a 12x12 ft. square meant to be a "sanctuary of trust and care". The museum staff is thinking of ways to publicize the new project. At this point we're 10 min. into the movie but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the latest film from writer-director Ruben Östlund, whose previous film, the outstanding "Force Majeure", was a major surprise in 2014 in the best possible way. Here the director again examines the human condition and how people react to situations they did not expect. In that sense, "The Square" is entirely in line with "Force Majeure", although it is also clear that for "The Square" the ambitions were put on steroids. One of the beauties of the film is that Östlund lets entire scenes play out without feeling the need to change camera angles or other editing tricks. Love it, love it, love it. Beware, there definitely are a number of scenes that may make you feel uncomfortable (as I'm sure the director intended to make you feel), but overall I felt bedazzled by it all. Danish actor Claes Bang (who keeps reminding me of Pierce Brosnan) plays the role of Christian with fervor, but in my book Terry Holland (playing the actor as the chimp, in the pivotal scene of the movie) steals the show. That scene alone is worth seeing the movie. Mustn't say more.
"The Square" premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival and promptly won the Palm d'Or, the festival's top price. It finally opened at my local art-house theater here in Cincinnati this weekend, and I couldn't wait to see it. The Friday evening screening where I saw this at was attended OK but not great (looked to be about 10-15 people in total), which is unfortunate. Maybe strong word-of-mouth will help improve attendance. If you are interested in the "human condition", or loved "Force Majeure", you are in for a treat. I encourage you to check out "The Square", be it in the theater, on Amazon Instant Video, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusion.
Dizzying edits in the worst possible way ruin the movie
"Black Sabbath: The End of The End" (2017 release; running time: 105 min.) is a documentary that focuses on the band's very last show ever, in February of 2017 in their home town of Birmingham, England. I recently stumbled onto this on Showtime while I was channel surfing. At that time the movie was about 15 minutes in, and I didn't think I was going to watch the whole thing, but somehow I did. I hadn't listened to their music in, literally, decades, and hence I was surprised how many of the songs I actually recognized.
Couple of comments: the music is for sure top notch, and it is amazing to see the three original members, each of them approaching 70 years now, perform at this high level, in particular Tony Iommi (who just recovered from blood cancer in 2016) is impressive, to say the least. Sadly, the movie is pretty much ruined by the incessant "chopping" edits. There are songs where, literally, every second if not more frequently than that, we jump to a different angle. Just sickening, and it it weren't for the strength of the music, I would've never finished watching this. Another annoyance is that oftentimes when Iommi goes into a guitar solo, we cut away from the concert footage (but the songs is still heard in the background) and jump to interviews with the original 3 members. A final note as to this film's running time: it is listed in IMDb as being 124 min. but the version I saw on SHO is nowhere near that, and ran just 1 hr. 45 min.
While I understand that die-hard Sabbath fans are gung-ho about this documentary, to rate this as being a 10 star movie (as in: the BEST EVER, of all times) is just plain silly. The shortcomings of this film are plenty and jump out at you. A missed opportunity, sadly.
Everything or Nothing (2012)
Mildly interesting James Bond documentary
"Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007" (2012 release; 98 min.) is a documentary about the James Bond movie franchise (which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012). After a 'classic' Bond opening, we quickly delve into Ian Fleming's background, and in particular how deeply affected he was by WWII (in which he served) and later the Cold War. It eventually leads him to create the James Bond character, and the first Bond novel "Casino Royal", which some refers to as Fleming's "autobiography of a dream", ha! After this promising start to the documentary, we quickly evolve into the complicated relationship between Albert "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.
Couple of comments: this documentary is directed by British film maker Steven Riley. Riley tries to walk a fine line between on the one hand all of the legal issues that have confronted the James Bond franchise over the years (and believe me, there are PLENTY), and giving an overview of how the Bond movies have evolved over the years. There are some tidbits here and there that I found interesting (such as: the budget for the first Bond Movie "Mr. NO" being $1 million--or about $8 million in today's dollars, can you imagine making a Bond movie for just $8 million?; and the interview with one-time Bond actor George Lazenby, on how he talked Broccoli and Saltzman into becoming the new Bond, only then to be kicked out of the Bond franchise after just one movie).
I recently stumbled on this while browsing the EPIX on Demand documentary section. When a 50th anniversary celebration movie like this one is put together, you can be assured that it stays on the lighter side when all is said and done, and that's fine. I'm sure one day someone (independent from the Bond film makers) will produce the definitive James Bond documentary.
DIsappointingly superficial look at LBJ (Don't call it a bio-pic)
"LBJ" (2016 release; 98 min.) is a movie about Lyndon B. Johnson. As the movie opens, we are in "Dallas, November 23, 1963" and after the initial scenes at the airport (where the crows adores the Kennedys and ignores the Johnsons), we then go back in time to 1959 when we see Bobby Kennedy asking LBJ whether he will run for president, and LBJ says no. The movie jumps back and forth between the events in Dallas and its immediate aftermath, and other episodes in the run up to 1963. Te to you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the latest movie from veteran Rob Reiner (I guess he's still making movies, huh?). The 36th president of this country is a fascinating yet deeply complex person. Not that you would know it from this movie. This feels strictly by-the-numbers, and why the movie choose to focus on just the period of 1959 to late 1963 is anyone's guess. It all feels disappointingly superficial and light weight. Woody Harrelson tries to make the best of it, and the movie's failure is certainly not on him. The roles of JFK, Jackie Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy are horribly miscast. The production set is one of the better aspects of the movie, and it's clear that no expense was spared in that regard. "Mistakes will be made but inaction won't be among them", promises LBJ to the American people. Sadly "inaction" could well be the fatal flaw of this movie, which manages to breeze through the whole thing in just over an hour-and-a-half. Think about it: your topic is LBJ and you manage just over 90 min. of film...
"LBJ" premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, to decidedly mixed reactions. It's a wonder this got a theatrical release at all, even albeit over a year later. "LBJ" opened last weekend in a handful of theaters here in Cincinnati. The Sunday early evening screening where I saw this at was attended so-so (about 15 people in a theater that probably hols 150 seats), most of them seniors I might add. I wish I could be more positive about "LBJ" but it feels like a big missed opportunity. I encourage you to check out "LBJ", be it in the theater, on VOD or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusions.