HAPPY FLEET - My Review of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (5 Stars)
Bleak, grim,… MoreHAPPY FLEET - My Review of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (5 Stars)
Bleak, grim, pummeling, infuriating, exhausting, and too loud, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, despite those negatives, is an undeniable visceral, thrilling, relentlessly inventive and exciting masterpiece within the action genre. George Miller's 1981 film, THE ROAD WARRIOR, the second part of his Max Rockatansky story, has been, and still remains, my favorite action film of all time, but FURY ROAD feels like the film in which technology has finally caught up with what has been in Miller's head all these years in between.
Replacing Mel Gibson in the title role, Tom Hardy barely utters a word yet brings a crazed but soulful tone to the table. Like its predecessor, the film is set in a post apocalyptic desert where the sword is definitely mightier than the pen. With gasoline and water precious commodities, Max is captured by goons who bring him back to their tyrannical leader, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe's vertical kingdom enslaves the masses and doles out water here and there to provide a glimmer of hope.
Joe keeps a bevy of beautiful women at his disposal for breeding, but everything goes wrong when Imperator Furiosa (Charleze Theron) veers off from a gas run with the women stashed away in her rig. A chase ensues pretty much for the rest of the film's running time, where Max, who is being used as a human hood ornament and blood bag, joins forces with Furiosa to escape to Furiosa's childhood home, "the Green Place" and/or destroy Joe and his gang.
Despite Max being heavily involved with most of the action, this feels more like Theron's film, and she carries it magnificently. Completely understanding Miller's brand of existential dread, Theron glowers with conviction, and with her mechanical arm and crazy fighting skills, she joins ALIEN's Ripley in the pantheon of great female action heroes. Joining Max and Furiosa on their journey is Nux (an unrecognizable Nicholas Hoult), one of Joe's warriors who may or may not prove to be a useful ally to our heroes. It's a manic, out-there, exciting performance and fits perfectly into Miller's universe.
And what a vision it is. Cinematographer John Seale, no stranger to desert landscapes with his stunning Oscar-winning work on THE ENGLISH PATIENT, surpasses himself here with mastery in every single shot. Messing with frame rates and color saturation, this is a jaw-dropping spectacle. The camera seems to be in the right and most dynamic place at all times, maximizing the overall impact of the film. Margaret Sixel's sharp editing, Jenny Beavan's wild and glorious costume design, and the death-defying stunt work all contribute to Miller's singular vision. Green screens and cables or not, the sight of those War Boys flying around on those bendable poles is indelible.
The MAD MAX world is all about kinetics and the desperation of survival. It's a tough, unforgiving existence, one that may not appeal to moviegoers expecting a retread of Miller's HAPPY FEET or BABE. Long before those hits, Miller staked his claim as a singular auteur of action films. You felt every grunt, every effort, every troubled soul trying to stay alive as they seek out a happier place while careening out of control in their souped-up vehicles.
FURY ROAD at times feels like a Monster Truck Rally, complete with a crazy guitarist strapped to the hood of a rig providing a noisy soundtrack above the already ear-splitting din. If you're not a fan of this type of assault, this isn't for you. For everyone else, and I suspect that's a large cross-section of the world, FURY ROAD is an electric jolt. It's prologue alone garnered huge applause from the typically unimpressed Writers Guild audience. One can easily relate to the feel of this movie, what with ISIS brutally carving a medieval swath across the Middle East or with Kim Jong Un and his thugs torturing and starving his own people in a mercilessly enforced Cult of Personality regime. All of these themes were present in the original films, but current events make FURY ROAD resonate that much more. I left this film exhausted yet thrilled by its ability to sustain such an awe-inspiring pace from start to finish.
MY CUP SONG RUNNETH OVER - My Review of PITCH PERFECT 2 (3 1/2 Stars)… MoreMY CUP SONG RUNNETH OVER - My Review of PITCH PERFECT 2 (3 1/2 Stars)
Further proving that people will turn out in droves to see a female-centric film, PITCH PERFECT 2 has been a surprising box office blockbuster, earning more in its opening weekend than its predecessor's entire domestic run. I enjoyed the first one, and this sequel feels almost identical, although thankfully missing a gross-out set piece. Yet, I enjoyed it more.
Directed by co-star Elizabeth Banks from a script by Kay Cannon, who also wrote the original, PITCH PERFECT 2 has a bouncy snap to it almost throughout its entire running time. Starting with a hilarious site gag involving Rebel Wilson's Fat Amy and classic color commentary by John Michael Higgins and Banks, once again serving up their best "Best In Show" homage, the film quickly sets up its premise. The Bellas have been sidelined by their university and have to win an international competition in order to earn reinstatement. It's the type of low stakes premise in which this comedy thrives. We're more worried that someone may lose their voice as opposed to losing their lives.
Anna Kendrick returns as Beca, and sadly, as adorable as she is, she kind of phones it in. While all of her co-stars have their shining moments, Kendrick kind of meanders around the edges of the story, half-assing her way towards achieving her goals and not really having any storyline involving her boyfriend Jesse (a sadly underused Skylar Astin). She spends most of the film as an intern for a tyrannical record executive, a funny Keegan Michael Key, who challenges her to write original music instead of the mashup producing at which she excels. One would expect her to rise to the occasion instead of basically "ordering in". Meanwhile Wilson is given a bigger arc, fun new developments in her love storyline with the game Adam DeVine, including a hilariously campy yet touching use of Pat Benatar's "We Belong". Brittany Snow once again excels as the tightly wound Tracy-Flick-in-training, Chloe. Hailee Steinfeld (TRUE GRIT) perfectly meshes with the cast as a nervous freshman hellbent on joining the Bellas.
Banks keeps everything moving with swooping, stylish finesse, but it's her sharp comic timing as an actor which best informs her directorial decisions. This is fun, spirited filmmaking. The big moment here, albeit a slight retread from the original, is the expected sing-off battle midway through. Here, however, the extra ingredients add a surreal pop to the proceedings. Those are the scene-stealing additions of a German troupe, appropriately named Das Sound Machine, who go all agro-Sprockets on every sharp, Teutonic number, and David Cross, the host of the battle and a truly ill-tempered, Scooter-riding weirdo.
As expected, the musical numbers steal the show, particularly "Flashlight", which made me want to wave my Candle App in the theatre. Sure, it's all highly reminiscent of GLEE, but the in-your-face girl power edge make this dopey, silly film, dare I say it, sing bolder and louder.
BROADCAST BLUES - My Review of WELCOME TO ME (3 1/2 Stars)
After 9… MoreBROADCAST BLUES - My Review of WELCOME TO ME (3 1/2 Stars)
After 9 years of playing delightful weirdos on SNL, Kristen Wiig has launched into a movie career with a similar ferocity, yet striving to more deeply mine the dark underbellies of her oddball creations. In BRIDESMAIDS, she took a variation of her needy Penelope character but added layers of warmth and a slightly tamped-down normalcy. She's always come across as slightly tentative yet capable of crazy outbursts made all the more delicious because of that inherent shyness.
In her latest film, WELCOME TO ME, Wiig plays Alice Klieg, a woman with borderline personality disorder who wins $87 million in the lottery, goes off her psych meds and buys her way into a small, desert cable station to produce her own talk show. Unlike her idol, Oprah Winfrey, Alice doesn't so much as want to help people as she wants to use her time to exorcise her inner demons and simply talk about herself. Directed by Shira Piven (Jeremy's sister) and written by first-timer Eliot Laurence, who previously wrote for THE BIG GAY SKETCH SHOW, WELCOME TO ME has all the makings of a brilliant satire along the lines of ELECTION, but chooses instead to be a dark character piece.
At a time when anyone can live out Andy Warhol's astute prophecy and become famous for literally 15 minutes, Alice's motivations appear to be unsurprisingly narcissistic. Perhaps she's seeking TV stardom as the ultimate therapy or perhaps it's the need to be heard. It's never made exactly clear. The film seems to indicate that it will use this setup for hyper-farcical humor. The people who make up the TV station certainly feel that way. Co-owners and brothers, Gabe and Rich, deftly played by Wes Bentley and James Marsden, need Alice's money to stay afloat, so they're determined to do whatever she wants. She wants to enter the stage in a swan boat? Sure. Neuter dogs? Bake a meatloaf cake? Re-enact traumatic moments from your past? Why not?
NETWORK and BROADCAST NEWS took a hard, sharp look at the power money or good looks has in controlling content. WELCOME TO ME skirts right to the edge of this theme, but veers in a different direction by letting us feel Alice's worldview. It's more disturbing than funny, but Wiig is brilliantly up to the task. Besides, there's no reason to attempt a carbon copy of the classic predecessors.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast isn't given as much to do, and it's a shame when you have Joan Cusack essentially playing her hapless, scene-stealing character from BROADCAST NEWS 28 years later. Her reactions to Alice, as well as those by Jennifer Jason Leigh, are priceless and I would have loved to have seen more interactions between the TV staff and Wiig. Most of that heavy lifting is done by Bentley, an often icy performer who has never been warmer than here where he gives off an Adam Scott (PARKS AND RECREATION) vibe. Linda Cardellini plays Alice's best friend, someone who has most likely suffered the most at her troubled friend's hand, and she carries that weight well. It's also refreshing to see her looking so young in modern clothing after her years looking so much older on MAD MEN. The early 60s man, where everyone looked 50. These and everyone else on board are exceptional actors, and all are given moments to shine, but this is not really an ensemble film. It's not called WELCOME TO US, and its actually title clues you in to whom it's all about.
I left the film more unsettled than entertained. I'm not sure I really wanted to be as immersed in Alice as I was, and the somewhat morose pacing matches her mindset. Technical credits create a believable world, with Eric Alan Edwards' cinematography and Clayton Hartley's production design perfectly inhabiting this world. Both have resumes littered with big budget, high concept comedies, so it's refreshing to see them stretch with this small, character-driven film. Whether it's breaking down while recording her theme song or oddly interrupting people to tell her horrible life stories, Wiig makes WELCOME TO ME worth seeing, but you'll likely need a shower and a strong therapist's shoulder to cry on afterwards.
5 SNAPS UP - My Review of 5 Flights Up (3 1/2 Legendary Stars)
The… More5 SNAPS UP - My Review of 5 Flights Up (3 1/2 Legendary Stars)
The recent success of the new Netflix series, GRACIE AND FRANK, speaks to the pleasures of watching two legendary actors clearly enjoying themselves despite the less-than-inspired packaging. The same can be said for 5 FLIGHTS UP, a hugely enjoyable if slight drama starring Oscar winners Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman as an aging married couple who decide to sell their walk-up Brooklyn apartment before they get too old to take the stairs.
Directed by Richard Loncrane (WIMBLEDON, BRIMSTONE AND TREACLE) and adapted by Charlie Peters from Jill Ciment's novel, HEROIC MEASURES, the film doesn't break new ground, but is a joy to behold due to the wonderful chemistry between its two leads. Additionally, the arduous process of buying and selling property in New York is portrayed with such fine attention to detail, that it almost plays as a ticking clock thriller. Cynthia Nixon is perfect as Keaton's niece and high-strung real estate agent. Her character drives the narrative and provides much of the humor. Although painted slightly as a villain, it's easy to identify with her in such a cutthroat climate.
The film features an odd subplot involving a terrorist suspect whose actions directly affect the asking prices of the apartments at play, but ultimately, its reason for being is more about how it reflects on our main characters. Freeman seems so relaxed and filled with humor as a man old enough to no longer care what people think about him. He and Keaton easily embody a decades-old romance, creating a totally believable relationship, complete with thorniness and unconditional devotion to each other. Truthfully, I could watch these two ask Siri questions for two hours and be completely satisfied, but they give so much more to these roles.
Brief flashbacks fill in the origins of their romance, setting up a sexual tension between the two that carries through to their elderly counterparts. Corey Jackson and Claire van der Boom not only have the cadences down of Freeman and Keaton, but they also match their chemistry in such an unfussy manner.
Granted, this is a low stakes drama, with ailing dogs and bidding wars replacing the usual explosions seen in most multiplexes. My quibbles with this film are minor. David Newman's score feels too much like Michael Gore's TERMS OF ENDEARMENT theme, and I'm convinced it was used as temp music and a soundalike was born. It's still hummable and matches the warm visuals provided by GAME OF THRONES cinematographer, Jonathan Freeman.
A big plus is the work of Production Designer Brian Morris, who won the Oscar for EVITA. His sets are credible for Brooklyn and Manhattan, never feeling too big, and filled with details that show a long life lived together. Whereas most films with well-heeled, elderly leads would have glossy, shiny sets, Morris revels in the clutter and messiness.
The demographic for this film definitely skews older, but any young hipster planning on acquiring property could learn how not to behave by watching this film. The open house scenes feel so well-observed, with self-absorption and rudeness being the main course for the batch of buyers. One couple hilariously bring in their dog, who they refuse anyone to touch since it's going through training. Another obnoxiously dismiss the "old lady" feel of the apartment right in front of its owners. Ahh New York, where at least they stab you in the front!
5 FLIGHTS UP doesn't reinvent cinema. It's a small, loving slice of life story made enormously satisfying by the strength of two actors who have spent decades making us all feel at home. It's not often you see two people relishing sparring together and pulling off such expertly-executed grace notes. Sometimes, that's enough.
SQUAWKING HEADS - My Review of MISERY LOVES COMEDY (2 Stars)
A number… MoreSQUAWKING HEADS - My Review of MISERY LOVES COMEDY (2 Stars)
A number of years ago, I found myself in the fortunate position of spending an entire day with a very successful comedic actress. We were helping a friend block scenes for a big network series and there was plenty of downtime. While very kind and engaging, there was a noticeable undercurrent of sadness I felt from her. In our many conversations, I asked her if she felt that the greatest comedy came from pain. Not only did she agree, but she told me a story that happened at her High School Reunion. While horribly bullied as a teenager, her subsequent success had people crawling out of the woodwork vying for her attention, including her tormentors. One in particular hit her up for a job, now that she was rich and famous, and her response was, "Just because years have passed, I have and never will forget how terrible you were to me. So no, I won't help you." I asked her, "Don't you think success is the best revenge?" "No," she said, "Revenge is the best revenge."
I'm relaying this because after seeing MISERY LOVES COMEDY, a documentary by actor Kevin Pollak, I realized I got more insight into the mind of a funny person in that short exchange than I did watching dozens of comics and actors prattle on in this brief yet interminable film. Literally a series of talking heads with an occasional archival photo thrown in to give the audience a break, this is a messy, sometimes unintelligible, sometimes funny, but always poorly made documentary.
The topic is rich. In the wake of Robin Williams' suicide, asking comics if their humor comes from trauma seems like a vital and fascinating subject. Police, however, seems to have assembled a bunch of his friends, mostly white males, many of whom have very tenuous connections to comedy. While talented, we gain very little by hearing Jon Favreau, Bobby Cannavale, and Jason Reitman talking about funny people. Sure, there are those who deliver funny lines, such as Jimmy Fallon and Amy Schumer, but we don't see them going about their lives. In the spirit of "Show don't tell", I would have loved to have seen more footage of comedians bombing, of them struggling in their daily lives, facing their insecurities. Instead, most tell funny stories, but not about their creative process. Often, one of the comics will tell a story that either makes no sense or is so inside, that I'm not sure if there's another person on earth who will comprehend it. The camera work is pretty bad, often shaky or utilizing unflattering angles, and there's very little substance. This isn't a documentary, it's just a long, self-serving conversation.
It's a shame, because there are attempts to go deeper. Freddie Prinze Jr. speaks of the pressures he felt to honor his father's legacy, a comic who sadly took his own life at the age of 22. While no comedian himself, Jr. has managed to carve out his own successful career, but his journey to overcome the pain would make an interesting documentary itself. A shame there isn't more of this. Also, bringing a dose of brutal honesty to what is mostly a puff piece, is Bobby Slayton, who candidly describes his financial woes at the age of 59. Again, a peek into his life would have elevated the material. I'd like to say Kevin Pollak killed, as a comedian with a great set will say, but Kevin Pollak killed....in the other sense.
WHAT'S YOUR DAMAGE, BATHSHEBA? - My Review of FAR FROM THE MADDING… MoreWHAT'S YOUR DAMAGE, BATHSHEBA? - My Review of FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (4 Stars)
Oh, my good God, swoon! I've never been a big fan of the corsets and tea genre, often finding them to be elitist first world problem tales. Maybe it's the inherent feminism or the fully alive direction, but Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, whose THE CELEBRATION was a fantastically subversive piece of psychodrama, and writer David Nicholls (ONE DAY), have adapted the Thomas Hardy classic and have infused it with a palpable sense of romantic longing.
From the start, cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen presents some lovely tableaus of the English countryside, and Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene enters on horseback and beautifully, deliriously lies down on her steed, looking up at the sky and the infinite possibilities of being a free woman in the world. It's an auspicious entrance for her character, who quickly proves herself to have a strong backbone, confidence, and a sense of who she is and what she wants out of life. Set in the late 19th century, when a woman became a man's property once married, Bathsheba wants none of it.
She meets her neighbor and landowner, Gabriel Oak, played by one of my favorite rising international stars, Matthias Shoenhaerts (RUST AND BONE, THE DROP), who instantly proposes marriage. Despite his obvious kindness, Bathsheba spurns his advances, setting in motion a series of events, including two other marriage proposals and constantly shifting loyalties. Her other two suitors are played by Michael Sheen, truly touching as the rich but aging William Boldwood, and Tom Sturridge, creepy yet complicated as Sergeant Francis Troy, a military officer with some pretty upsetting behavioral tics. All provide distinctive, well-wrought characterizations. Even the ostensible villain of the film, Francis, is given his understandable point of view. He behaves like a man of the times, preening and claiming women as his prize, but he also shows palpable moments of vulnerability. Also of note is Juno Temple, heartbreaking as Fanny, a woman whose fortunes turn on a dime.
At first, I was truly annoyed with Bathsheba when she refuses to marry Gabriel. She reminded me of every commitment-phobe I've had the displeasure of meeting my entire adult life! I wanted to go all HEATHERS on her and ask, "What's your damage?" But context is everything, and her need to prove to the world and more importantly, to herself, that she can make her own way, deserves to inspire every young woman (and man) who sees this film. STILL, did she really say no to Matthias Shoenhaerts???
Well, yes she did, because otherwise, this would have been a 10 minute short. In retrospect, I'm thrilled she denied him, because this is a saga about earning it. And earn it they do, as there is nothing stodgy about this film. It feels urgent and current, despite the period setting and costumes. There's a delicious majesty to the yearning here, because it's so often undercut with some hard edges, thanks to Mulligan's perfectly calibrated performance. I've never seen John Schlesinger's nearly 3 hour 1967 version starring Julie Christie and I've never read the novel, but the through line of passion, yearning and unrequited love felt so deeply resonant in this remake.
There's a scene in a hollow in which Sergeant Troy seduces Bathsheba with some fancy sword play. It's so slinky and startling, that the sexual undertones rose to the surface. Any time Gabriel and Bathsheba interact, you feel the connection and the stunning control in their acting. I've been a fan of Mulligan's since AN EDUCATION, but worried she would become too instantly anointed as that kind of actor who studios love to put in classic period pieces. Instead, she impressively chose some pretty diverse, edgy projects (DRIVE, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, SHAME, NEVER LET ME GO). So I went to this film with great trepidation, thinking she would finally succumb to the prim and proper gods. On the surface, she has, but her strong, self-possessed grasp on her character, the connections she builds with her fellow cast members, and the effortlessness in which she carries this movie, made me want to stand and cheer. This is lush storytelling, aided immeasurably by Craig Armstrong's hummable score, and if you decide to surrender to one chick flick this year, make it FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD.
ALL ABOUT ALEVE - My Review of CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (4 Stars)… MoreALL ABOUT ALEVE - My Review of CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (4 Stars)
Writer/Director Olivier Assayas, whose work on CARLOS I greatly admired, has returned with the quiet, meditative CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA. Featuring a trio of fantastic performances by Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloe Grace Moretz, this backstage showbiz drama takes on issues such as aging, identity, relevancy, honesty, feminism, agism, and the inevitability of change. Think of it as a modern day ALL ABOUT EVE, but with headier concerns.
The hushed tones of the film are not for everybody and are highly reminiscent of the late Eric Rohmer's work. Very talky and complex, with overt themes spelled out in nearly every conversation, the film tells the story of Maria Enders (Binoche), who accepts a part in a play revival which made her a star decades earlier. Now, however, she's been cast to play the older character, with her original role going to a Lindsay Lohan-esque actress Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz). For the bulk of the film, Maria holes up in the chalet of the late writer to better absorb the part and rehearse with her incredibly competent personal assistant, Valentine (Stewart).
Soon the lines get blurred between reality and the play they're picking apart, whose subject and circumstances seem to mirror what's right in front of them. The chalet is in the shadow of a Swiss Alpine weather phenomenon called the Maloja Snake, which also is the name of the play Binoche is in. Essentially a rolling fog/cloud formation that works its way through a mountain pass, the metaphor of its mystery and reliability to charge ahead will not be lost on the viewers of this film. That's because the script goes to great lengths to make sure you get it.
Regardless, this is is a truly engaging film, but not without its flaws. Nearly every male role in the film is awkwardly performed and somewhat thankless. There is a very strange interlude in the film in which Valentine takes a road trip that defines ambiguity and will lead to after-movie discussions. Same goes for a late-in-the-movie scene with Binoche and Stewart; the less said the better. Trust me, you'll be talking about it. Sometimes the dialogue is highly stilted, yet our two leads always find a way to ground it in reality with their considerable chemistry.
Stewart won the Cesar Award for Best Supporting Actress, the first American actress to ever win France's equivalent to the Oscars, and it's easy to see why. Stewart is assured, complicated, and so entirely present in her scenes. She and Binoche work up such a lovely rapport, prickly one moment and affectionate the next. It's by no means a showy role, bereft of that big scene actors chew on in order to win statuettes. Instead, Stewart is focused, presenting a highly accurate depiction of the assistant's life. This isn't a wisecracking Thelma Ritter performance. Valentine must be a jack of all trades, as proficient in rehearsing as she is in making travel plans, and Stewart invests herself so completely in this role. With her performance here and in STILL ALICE (and let's not forget she's done stellar work before in PANIC ROOM, INTO THE WILD, and ADVENTURELAND), she may just yet succeed in making me forget the TWILIGHT SAGA.
Binoche has always been great. I look back on an incredible career with her star-making turn in THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING and subsequent stellar performances (ok, we can pretend GODZILLA never happened!), and see that the role of Maria is a meta-critique of her own experiences. Everything that Maria experiences clearly has a counterpart in Binoche's own life, and her brave, tough-as-nails portrayal is a career highlight.
Moretz doesn't appear until very late in the film, but she leaves her mark as a character with impressive duality. One moment, she's the strung out starlet we're used to seeing stumbling panty-free out of limos on TMZ, and the next she's lucid, highly articulate,and pulled together. There's either scenes of scary ambition in her squinting eyes or no doubt a half bottle of Visine in others, and it begs the question, "Which one is the real Jo-Ann?" The fun of this role is finding out the answer, and her final scene with Binoche is a knockout.
Yorick Le Saux's cinematography is simple yet effective, but the real technical star here is Production Designer François-Renaud Labarthe, whose stage set for the play-within-the-movie alone is something he needs to put in his highlight reel for the remainder of his career. Contrasting so sharply with the nature photography that comes before it, the set is a jaw-dropping, highly imaginative realization of a modern office. If only the stage musical to 9 TO 5 had Labarthe on their team!
Again, this isn't a film for those who need action, loud soundtracks, or explanations. It's small, haunting charms, however, will resonate with moviegoers who have grown tired of the BOOM BOOM POW.
NYET WITHOUT MY DACHA - My Review of CHILD 44 (3 Stars)
As of this… MoreNYET WITHOUT MY DACHA - My Review of CHILD 44 (3 Stars)
As of this writing, CHILD 44 has only a 23% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so it was with great trepidation that I attended a screening. I'm so glad I did. Based on the bestselling Tom Rob Smith novel, the film, written by Richard Price (THE COLOR OF MONEY, SEA OF LOVE) and directed by the Swedish-born Daniel Espinosa (EASY MONEY, SAFE HOUSE), CHILD 44 is a sprawling story set in the waning years of Joseph Stalin's rule. A brutal, Soviet military police officer named Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) hunts a serial killer but faces the obstacle of a system which denies that murders can even exist in such a worker's paradise, thereby forcing him to question the regime itself.
Although set in the 1950s, the story is loosely based on Andrei Chikatilo, aka The Butcher of Rostov, who left a bloody trail across the U.S.S.R. between 1978 and 1990. I happened to find myself in Rostov in the 1980s, and like the Russian citizenry, was completely unaware that there was a madman on the prowl. As such, my interest in this story may be considerably higher than most casual moviegoers.
That's a huge caveat, because the film is very slow and moody. Its overstuffed plot could fill a multiplex and often ventures into pulpy territory. Not content to be only a hunt-for-the-killer procedural, we're treated to professional jealousy, marital strife, closeted gay men ratting on others, small town vs. big city police tactics, the plight of the orphans, a blind alley trip to Moscow, and more. This complexity, however, is the point. A system that required multiple levels of spying on your neighbors, routine torture, random executions, and political prisoners required a propaganda machine to convince the masses that they were living in heaven. North Korea's government uses such Stalinist tactics to this day.
There just wasn't room for an officer to upset the apple cart with the truth, so CHILD 44 takes great pains to detail the amount of effort put into covering up the whole thing. In addition to Hardy, who despite a too-thick Russian accent, gives a powerful, towering performance of a man waking up for the first time, the cast does a terrific job of setting a believable tone.
Noomi Rapace plays Hardy's wife, Raisa, a woman who has her own share of secrets. In an early scene, she's fiercely intelligent yet strangely guarded as Hardy recounts to their friends how they first met. It's a sumptuous dinner scene, and from there Rapace deftly peels back the layers of her character to reveal the desperation and conflicting feelings at her core. I haven't been too fond of her English language performances until she worked with Hardy, both here and in THE DROP. With the right material, she's a staggering actor who wears layers of emotions so beautifully on her face.
Gary Oldman grounds the film as General Nesterov, a small town police officer who may be the only person sympathetic to Leo's cause. It's a quiet performance, but one in which the empathy of people living under severe oppression is given voice. On the complete other end of the spectrum is Joel Kinnaman as the sadistic officer Vasili. His power struggles with Leo frame the film, and despite the fact that Kinnaman is a world-class actor, he's more a bad guy of the twirling moustache variety. Despite this, he has one shining moment early in the film, when his reaction to an execution is simultaneously frightening and vulnerable. Vincent Cassel, Jason Clarke, and Paddy Considine also provide solid support. Cassel in particular is chilling as a government official who will stop at nothing to maintain his comparatively privileged lifestyle.
In addition to the cast, the cinematography by the great Oliver Wood and Production Design by Jan Roelfs goes a long way towards establishing just the right amount of melancholy and the perfect look and feel of Soviet living quarters, especially as Leo and Raisa's fortunes falter. Sure, this won't be everybody's samovar of tea, and yes, the 3rd act literally sinks in the mud, but I felt something here. While redemption stories are as old as time, I found CHILD 44 to be a moving experience through its perhaps too-complicated arc of a barbarous man quelling monsters, both external and from within.
HAMMY AND WRY - My Review of DELI MAN (4 Stars)
One of the most… MoreHAMMY AND WRY - My Review of DELI MAN (4 Stars)
One of the most startling facts to emerge from Erik Greenberg Anjou's thrillingly entertaining and surprisingly moving documentary, DELI MAN, is that in the early 20th century, there were thousands of delicatessens nationwide, but currently there remain less than 200. Sad as that is, it can't take away from the sheer joy of watching this film. The laughter starts in the first montage of interviews and continues for most of its running time, pausing momentarily for some serious lump in one's throat moments.
We're given some historical context for the delis, a phenomenon that started in New York City, where Jewish immigrants sought a fast food alternative to the cooking of their ancestors. When you think about it, Jews were creating fast food out of necessity long before the deli era. Multiple delis would line each block, providing quick sandwiches and pickles to the neighborhood. Delis soon became a communal home away from home, where a motherly swat on the head was as common as the huge piles of corned beef between two slices of rye bread. You came for the food, but you stayed for the insults!
This admittedly waning culture is wonderfully covered by an array of owners across the country, customers, and Catskills-style pundits such as Jerry Stiller and Fyvush Finkel. We learn how the skyrocketing cost of meat and the transport of it justifies the $14 sandwich costs. Not to mention, delis across the board are not profitable businesses anymore. While the WISE SONS deli in San Francisco's Mission District leaves it mark for mouth-watering Jewish Fusion items, the heart and soul of this film belongs to Ziggy Gruber and his Houston-based deli, Kenny & Ziggy's. Younger than most owners and classically trained in French cooking, Gruber touchingly chose to pursue the simpler, heartier fare as a way to preserve the culture. He also clearly relishes the familial feel of a deli, proudly working each table like a pro and ruling the kitchen with an iron fist, lest these Old World recipes go the way of the dinosaur. Overworked and overweight, it's Gruber's journey that touched me. He seeks to improve his health by seeking out acupuncture sessions, a personal trainer, and love in the most unexpected place. A late-in-the movie event brought me to tears as I felt such tremendous admiration for this man and his need to not only keep a tradition alive but to pay homage to those who have come before us.
Funny enough, it's Gruber's father, an elderly man who walks with a cane and can barely stay awake during his sit-down interviews, who has the more modern approach to life. He not only accepts change, but embraces it. This dichotomy between father and son concisely illustrates the larger themes at play in this film. Sure, you will laugh your head off at the various examples of demanding deli customers, and you'll definitely want to eat the entire menu of your local Jewish restaurant afterwards, but what will stick with you is this the sweet sentiment of those who wish to preserve history. What noble sacrifices these owners have made to give people the comforting atmosphere of no-nonsense Jewish parents, the aromas of an Eastern European kitchen, and hearty, artery-clogging delicacies. It's not a sappy film, however, as even during the touching moments, Gruber is schvitzing up a storm or barreling through his kitchen, micromanaging his staff. It all comes across as live theater with your blustering hero multi-tasking, speaking loudly, and owning the stage he's on. Oy vey, this movie is fun, fun, fun!
THE IMITATION OF LIFE GAME - My Review of EX MACHINA (4 Stars)
In… MoreTHE IMITATION OF LIFE GAME - My Review of EX MACHINA (4 Stars)
In this day and age of giant, 3-D science fiction bowdlerizing our multiplexes, it's downright refreshing to encounter what amounts to a small, haunting chamber piece of otherworldly charms in EX MACHINA, Alex Garland's (writer of 28 DAYS LATER, SUNSHINE and NEVER LET ME GO) directorial debut.
Derived from Greek and literally meaning, "God from the machine", a deus ex machina has come to represent a storytelling technique in which the writer has reached an impasse and to reach a resolution, an unexpected plot twist occurs. EX MACHINA plays with both meanings superbly. Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a programmer at a GOOGLE-esque company who in the economic opening scene wins a lottery to spend time with the company's CEO (the brilliant Oscar Issac plays Nathan). In a twist on Bring Your Child To Work Day, Caleb is whisked away via helicopter to Nathan's highly secluded, top secret estate to discover he will take part in a Turing Test with Ava (a perfectly cast Alicia Vikander), a robot of artificial intelligence. Essentially, Caleb will help determine if Ava truly has human qualities indistinguishable from the real thing.
I won't spoil any more plot, but this being sci-fi, I think it should come as no surprise that things are definitely not as they initially appear. This little film of grand ideas supplies such sleek mood and texture, as well as absorbing performances, to give us something closer to what I imagine the Stanley Kubrick would have done had he lived to direct A.I. Cinematographer Rob Hardy and Production Designer Mark Digby contribute wonderfully to this aesthetic, all such clean lines and stark compositions that I thought I was experiencing the movie equivalent of living in an Ian Schrager hotel.
Literally locked away from the world, Caleb comes to learn so much about humanity. These lessons not only come from Ava, but from Nathan, who Isaac plays as an ambiguous genius with a disarming sense of humor. One moment he's commiserating with Caleb about his drunken escapades or busting out some incredible dance moves, the next he's interrogating him for exploring off-limits sections of the compound. This push-pull creates a palpable sense of menace, and the beautifully calibrated way the stakes are raised here, moving from luxurious calm to life or death situations, makes for highly intelligent, nail biting storytelling.
Performances are good by our main trio, and this is basically a 4-hander, with one extra main character whose role is best kept quiet. Gleeson does a terrific job of being the audience surrogate, and Vikander, aided fantastically by clicks and air compression sounds, is that rarest of things, a machine with soul. The true accomplishment, however, is that of Oscar Isaac. Clearly an actor who refuses to repeat himself, or look the same from film to film, he is building a towering career. Fans of DRIVE, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, or A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, may have trouble recognizing him at first, but we're left with an actor who knows how to keep you on the edge of your seat wondering how he'll react. It's a gift.
EX MACHNA asks a lot of questions about what it means to be human. It's a common theme in science fiction, with such examples as BLADE RUNNER, UNDER THE SKIN, and CHAPPIE coming to mind. In such a crowded field, tone is everything. EX MACHINA acquits itself quite nicely, because of its memorable feel, the blank but haunted expressions on Ava's face, and a casualness with highly technical explanations.
Throughout the film, I kept trying to second guess what was happening. Who are the real robots? Is everyone a robot? Are such concepts as emotions, and thought exclusive to humans, and therefore something special? Do androids dream of electric sheep? Ok, that last question was written by Philip K. Dick, but it's a fair one to ask here. Regardless, this is less a film about shocking revelations, and more about the yearning for free will. It's an ache felt by organic and man-made creatures alike, if you drink this particular brand of Kool-Aid. I did, and I want some more!