Film Review: “Family”

FAMILY
Starring: Taylor Schilling, Brian Tyree Henry, Kate McKinnon, Allison Tolman, Bryn Vale
Directed by: Laura Steinel
Rated: R
Running time: 85 mins
The Film Arcade

At the start of Laura Steinel’s Family, we find hedge fund manager Kate (Taylor Schilling) getting beaned in the head with a bottle of orange soda at the Gathering of the Juggalos. It’s an ambitious and fitting start for a film whose primary appeal is celebrating outcasts. As it turns out, Kate is hunting for her niece, Maddie (Bryn Vale), a middle school oddball who was entrusted with her aunt for the week while her parents dealt with grandma’s hospice care. Overworked city-dweller Kate is not the least suited for childcare but winds up being the kind of outside perspective that Maddie needs in her life while her hover-parents are distracted. Though it strays unnecessarily at times, at its best moments Family works as a well meaning tribute to letting your freak flag fly.

Kate is some sort of financial guru who’s climbed the corporate ladder by presumably shirking personal attachments and steadily getting drunk with important clients. It’s the kind of movie where office drones scramble over gaining or losing “THE IMPORTANT SOUNDING NAME ACCOUNT!” but you never know what they’re actually doing because it doesn’t matter. If that set up makes you roll your eyes, I get it, I’m really reluctant when it comes to the “cold career woman softens up with a kid” trope. That said, Schilling does well by leaning into how honest and awkward Kate can be. She says what’s on her mind without the finesse demanded by social mores and even if she’s right–and she sometimes is!–her coworkers ostracize her. I sympathized with Kate despite some of her callousness because Schilling can be so funny and charming and it rings absolutely true that a woman in this environment can more easily fall off the tightrope that is the line between “speaking your mind” and being pegged as a bitch. Her work life is interrupted when her brother calls on her for babysitting duties and she’s saddled with 14 year old Maddie. Kate is supposed to be picking her niece up from ballet but finds her instead in an adjacent karate studio where she’s been secretly studying under sensei Pete (Brian Tyree Henry, just one of a number of strong supporting cast here) for weeks. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the disconnect between how Maddie’s parents are raising her and where her actual interests lie.

Kate and Maddie’s relationship is definitely the strong point of the film. Bryn Vale brings a frankness to Maddie that allows Kate to open up to her. Maddie knows who she is, she knows why the other kids mock her and while she might avoid them, she is not even attempting to conform to them. Instead, Maddie takes a shine to fellow weirdos at a convenience store who introduce her to the Insane Clown Posse despite Kate trying to shoo them away. An ill-fated attempt at a makeover from Aunt Kate is a standout sequence. There’s also something very endearing about this awkward niece looking at Kate hopefully when in actuality she’s falling apart inside her business-attired exterior. The trouble comes when Steinel’s script attempts to go off on tangents with Kate–a random meetup with her father in rehab, a tacked on subplot with a nosy neighbor (Kate McKinnon)–when she should have stuck with the Maddie-Kate relationship. It’s as if Kate has to make amends with literally everyone in her life before the credits roll instead of allowing her to simply have her heroic juggalo transformation for the love of her niece.

Film Review: “The Aftermath”

THE AFTERMATH
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke
Directed by: James Kent
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
Fox Searchlight

I can still vividly recall the first art-house film I reviewed professionally – the 2000 British drama/comedy “Topsy-Turvy” at the Tivoli Cinemas in the Westport area of Kansas City, MO. Sadly, the Tivoli, an arthouse institution in our fair city for nearly 40 years, has permanently closed its doors. So, it was poetic that the last film I reviewed there would be another period British drama, “The Aftermath.” While it has its share of flaws, “The Aftermath” proved to be a decent swan song before the proverbial final curtain came down at the Tivoli.

Directed by James Kent (“Testament of Youth”) and based upon the 2013 novel of the same name by Welsh author Rhidian Brook, “The Aftermath” is set in Germany just months after the end of World War II. With the ruins of Hamburg as a backdrop, where an estimated 40,000 civilians died in a firestorm created by ten days of heavy Allied bombardment, Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives at a train station to meet her husband, British Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke). It’s a subdued meeting at best and we can instantly tell that something is amiss between the two.

Colonel Morgan has been assigned to command British forces in Hamburg who are tasked with keeping the peace and helping to rebuild the city. Similar to how the British Empire forced American colonists to house their soldiers, Colonel Morgan and Rachael commandeer the home of widower Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgrd), a former German architect with no love lost for the defeated Nazis. However, the British see all Germans as the enemy just as much as Stephen’s teenage daughter sees all Brits as villains. Colonel Morgan, much to the dismay of Rachael, invites the Luberts to remain in the upper story of their home to avoid sending them to a tent camp in the middle of winter.

Rachael is desperate to have her husband again, but he remains mostly stoic despite the pain he carries with him. In addition to his emotional distance, Colonel Morgan is often called away to deal with Germans protesting over how little there is to eat and increasing guerrilla warfare violence carried by the SS’s, young Germans still devoted to Hitler’s cause. Increasingly starved for affection, the two wounded souls belonging to Rachael and Stephen become drawn to one another despite their differences. The question then becomes can Colonel Morgan save his marriage before Rachael runs away with Stephen.

In a partially successful effort to create suspense, and to give Colonel Morgan something to do besides having awkward conversations with Rachael, the script presents the aforementioned side story of young German men, presumably former members of the Hitler Youth, brandishing the number 88 burned into their arms. “The Aftermath” never goes too in-depth about it, but these 88s are an allusion to a real-life military organization the Nazi hierarchy tried to create towards the end of World War II with a program called “Werewolf.” While the goal was for trained soldiers to commit acts of sabotage behind Allied lines during the war, and to keep up the fight even after it was over, the Werewolf never amounted to anything more than just a lot of propaganda. The members of Werewolf were improperly supplied and more importantly, had little stomach to continue fighting once Nazi Germany had officially surrendered.

The dramatic presentation of the SS in “The Aftermath” murdering British soldiers in a last-ditch effort of defiance is a fallacy. While films do sometimes have to take dramatic license to make a story more entertaining for the masses, the mis-telling of history often leads to misperceptions of actual events and therefore can cause ignorance on a broad scale. I would make the argument that filmmakers who choose to play fast and loose with historical facts in order to liven up a story should state at the end of their creation that what the audience has seen is historical fiction. At least it would be more honest than giving lip service that it has been “inspired by/based upon true events.”

The overall performances are entertaining and there is solid chemistry between Knightley and Clarke. The latter delivers the most powerful scenes of the film playing a man sick of death and destruction. Kent’s pacing is a little choppy at times, but it all leads to a conclusion the audience can savor. “The Aftermath” deserves praise for at least exploring a time frame rarely done before as war movies are usually all about blood, guns and guts. For a refreshing change, we get a tale involving what happens in the aftermath.

Thank you, Tivoli Cinemas. It was a pleasure seeing art-house films there for the past 18+ years. Hopefully the aftermath of your ending won’t be as despairing.

Film Review: “Penguins”

PENGUINS
Narrated by: Ed Helms
Directed by: Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson
Rated: G
Running time: 1 hr 16 mins
Disney Nature

I don’t know what it is about penguins that make them so damn cute!  Is it the way they walk?  The fun they obviously have when they slide across the frozen tundra of the Arctic?  The excessive fuzziness of their young?  I really don’t know but I’m pretty sure they could do an all-penguin remake of THE EXORCIST, complete with projectile vomiting and self-gratification with a crucifix and people would go “awwwww.”   Which is exactly the sound I made many times during a recent screening of “Penguins.”

Steve is an Adelie penguin looking for love.  He and the other males in his colony are on a trek to find a mate.  But the road to love isn’t easy.  Especially when your pals are stealing parts of your nest in order to attract that special gal.  And what are you supposed to do when you finally meet her?

A beautifully shot (over an almost three year period) film that manages to be both heart-warming and thrilling, “Penguins” gives the audience the “birds-eye” view of life in Antarctica.  And it’s a pretty chilly one.  Whether it’s having to walk miles upon miles to find food or teaching your chicks how to play dead when a leopard seal tries to eat them, it’s a hard knock life.  Yet, it’s also one full of love and adventure. 

Like “March of the Penguins” before it, “Penguins” is a film the entire family can enjoy.  Kids will love it for the penguins; parents for the story.  Nature is on full display in this film and it’s one I highly recommend.

Film Review: “The Haunting of Sharon Tate”

THE HAUNTING OF SHARON TATE
Starring: Hillary Duff, Jonathan Bennett, Lydia Hearst
Directed by: Daniel Farrands
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 34 mins
Saban Films

As a child of the 60’s, I grew up in a time full of tragedies.  Some of these events (among them, the assassinations of JFK and RFK) intrigued me to the point of learning everything I could about them.  Another were the murders of Sharon Tate and her friends at her home in August 1969.  Which really made me want to see the new film, “The Haunting of Sharon Tate.”

In 1969, Sharon Tate was on her way to becoming a movie star.  With roles in films like “The Fearless Vampire Hunters,” where she was directed by her future husband, Roman Polanski, and “Valley of the Dolls” she proved to be a very beautiful woman whom the camera loved.  A year earlier, during an interview, Sharon Tate spoke of a premonition she had of her death, one that was very disturbing. 

After a brief clip from the aforementioned interview, the film picks up in August 1969, when Sharon Tate (Duff) returns from London, where she is visiting her husband while he prepares for his next film.  8 ½ months pregnant, Sharon is happy to be home, surrounded by her best friend, Abigail Folger (Hearst), Folger’s boyfriend, Wojceich Frykowski (Pawei Szadja) and family friend (and Sharon’s former lover) hair stylist Jay Sebring (Bennett).  One day a knock on the door reveals a small, bearded man asking to speak to “Terry.”  Despite being told that Terry no longer lives there, the man drops off a package and leaves.  Sharon is told that the man and his friends has been coming by constantly, looking for the former owner of the home, record producer Terry Melcher.  That night, Sharon has a vision of a very violent encounter with the mystery man, one that continues to grow in violence and intensity.

I’m completely torn in how to review this film.

On the plus sign, I give much credit to writer/director Daniel Farrands, who has done an incredible amount of research and ensured that everything noted in the film, from the red mailbox at 10050 Cielo Drive to the name of Sharon’s dog (Dr. Sapesrstein) is faithful.  There were a few factual errors but, creative license being what it is, I’m not going to quibble.  The performances are also strong.  Though Hillary Duff looks nothing like Sharon Tate (while Ms. Duff is certainly attractive, I can honestly say that, at the end of the 1960s, Sharon Tate was one of the most beautiful women in the world), she gives a fine performance of a woman slowly descending into a nightmare she cannot prevent.  The supporting cast is also well cast and deliver good work. 

On the negative side, the film is horribly violent.  A quick intro using actual news and crime scene footage opens the film, and the murder scene including Sharon Tate’s body is shown, though her body has been retracted from the image.  However, as Sharon’s vision continue to grow, so too does the violence.  In the real attacks, Ms. Folger was stabbed almost 30 times…Mr. Frykowski over 50…and you get to witness almost every one of them.  That and the fact that Ms. Tate was pregnant make the violence horrific to watch.  Eventually you become numb to the violence being inflicted, taking away from the horror of the situation.

So I’ll leave it up to you, the reader.  If you’re looking for an interesting take on a very familiar story, you might want to check this film out.  If you’re not a fan of multiple murders, repeatedly depicted, you may not.  Or, like me, you’re just waiting for Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming take on the story, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

Film Review: “The Mustang”


THE MUSTANG
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruce Dern
Directed by: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 1 hr 36 mins
Focus Features
 
Robert Redford is no stranger to being involved with projects that explore the American West (“The Horse Whisperer,” “Jeremiah Johnson”) or the hardships of prison life (“Brubaker,” “The Last Castle”). It’s no wonder then that the Hollywood icon, under the title of “executive producer,” is prominently featured for the new prison drama, “The Mustang.” It makes perfect sense as a means to market the film, but this occasionally emotional story proves to have legs strong enough, thanks to its lead actor, to not need Redford’s name as a carrot.
 
In a powerful, career-defining performance, Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts (“Far from the Madding Crowd”) plays Roman Coleman, a convict in a rural Nevada prison who prefers solitary confinement over being with the general population. Roman admittedly does not play well with others as his inner rage often gets the best of him. A caring psychologist (a drastically underused Connie Britton) sees him as a challenge and decides to give him a second chance, whether he likes it or not, by providing him a rare opportunity to rehabilitate.
 
Roman finds himself thrust into a program in which wild mustangs are saddle broke and then sold, something that’s currently done in real life at several prisons throughout the West. A grizzled horse trainer named Myles (“shockingly” played with grit by Bruce Dern) offers Roman a deal to move up from being a manure shoveler to a trainer. The catch is that Roman must stay in the ring with a mustang that’s as seemingly untamable as Roman. It’s a tall order yet the outcome is predictable.
 
Despite guidance from a veteran, horse training prisoner (Jason Mitchell, “Straight Outta Compton”), Roman’s achievement is short-lived as his temper rears its ugly head and he treats his mustang as a punching bag. Back to solitary Roman goes while at the same time his estranged, pregnant daughter is trying to get him to sign over some property so she can use it to start a new life. A storm as fierce as Roman and his mustang unexpectedly rolls in, giving Roman a second chance at redemption, but as expected, nothing comes easy in this tale.
 
As the first, feature-length film by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (“Rabbit”), “The Mustang” captures the essence of the Western landscape and the power, and even grace of the wild horses who populate it. It also presents an all-too brief glimpse at a prison system that in general has no intention of rehabilitating criminals. It’s only rare exceptions like the mustang program that a chance is given, but those seem to be skating on thin ice as they are poorly funded and snickered at.
 
Schoenaerts is a revelation. His performance is fueled with tangible fury against the world and himself. It covers a pain he gradually comes to face and Schoenaerts fleshes it out with nothing short of perfection. However, Clermont-Tonnerre beats us over the head with the whole, Roman-and-the-horse-are-reflections-of-each-other thing. Events within the story are also often foreseeable so don’t expect any genuine surprises or originality where that’s concerned.
 
In the end, “The Mustang” is worth the ride because of Schoenaerts’s performance alone.

Film Review: “Shazam!”

Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong and Asher Angel
Directed By: David F. Sandberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 132 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

While I have yet to watch “Aquaman” at the time of this review, it’s safe to say that “Shazam!” is the most endearing and feel-good of the new batch of DC films, known as the DC Extended Universe. Instead of brooding, cries of pain, and mothers named ‘Martha,’ all it took was a little heart, humor and family for “Shazam!” to solidify itself as a top tier superhero film. Not only is it a solid origin story, it also manages to remain serious despite being light in tone, and keeps things simple while building a fresh new DC world around its title character.

When we meet Billy Batson (Angel), he’s been arrested and sent to child services after committing a petty crime. He’s been in and out of foster homes dozens of times ever since he was separated from his mom at a carnival. While most adults who encounter him view him as a wasted youth, those who see past his troubled past see a compassionate orphan who’s afraid of being abandoned and hurt again. One day he finds himself transported to the Rock of Eternity where a wizard, played by Djimon Hounsou, crowns him as a new champion of good, Shazam (Levi).

The film doesn’t begin with his origin story though; it begins with the villain’s origin story. An adolescent Thadeus Sivana in 1975 (Ethan Pugiotto) is offered a chance at becoming Shazam, but instead shows the wizard that his heart can be easily corrupted. Statues of the Seven Deadly Sins, perched nearby at the Rock of Eternity, tempt him. When Thadeus is banished back to reality, he’s resentful that he wasn’t given the ultimate power. Now as an adult, Thadeus (Strong) doesn’t specifically seek the powers of Shazam, but the powers of those seven deadly sins who once whispered promises of vengeance in his young ears.

The juxtaposition of Billy and Thadeus isn’t lost on the audience. Both deal with their own childhood traumas. Billy is lost in the worst possible way by his mother and Thadeus is emotionally and verbally ridiculed by his uncaring father. In two tales of abandonment, we see how two different circumstances can lead to two different outcomes. In that regard, “Shazam!” speaks more about the human condition than nearly any other contemporary DC film, save for “Wonder Woman.” Not everything is peachy about “Shazam!” though.

It’s not that it’s too long, but it’s just that some of the middle of the film sags a bit as opposed to the beginning and end. There’s a lot of odd editing and set changes, along with some odd choices on how exactly Billy learns about the true meaning of being a superhero. There are also some stylistic choices that I could have done without, like the handful of horror scenes that don’t quite mesh with the family friendly tone of the film. These are just some nitpicky things, in an otherwise wholesome movie that’s sorely needed.

The character of Shazam is a blend of childhood innocence, teenage curiosity, and the more G-Rated elements of other superheroes like Deadpool or the Guardians of the Galaxy. Even with those influences, Levi and Angel propel Shazam to another level, not only creating a physical superhero force that could physically go toe-to-toe with Superman, but also a relatable man-child that’s equally harmless and adorkable. It’s hard not to love Shazam as he becomes acclimated with his power, but it’s when the audience watches him mature and open up his heart that we as an audience welcome him into ours.

It’s safe to say that Warner Bros. and DC have officially washed their hands of the bleak, overly dark Zack Snyder comic book vision. Snyder’s name doesn’t even appear under the producing credits of this film. After a morose beginning to the DC Extended Universe, “Man of Steel,” “Batman V. Superman,” and half of the “Justice League” film, it appears that the secondary characters of this universe may end up salvaging it. It also might be a realization, especially after “Avengers: Infinity War,” that fans will only warm up to a dire and tragic storyline after years of sugary visual goodness and uplifting storylines.

Film Review: “The Wind”

Starring: Caitlin Gerard, Julia Goldani Telles and Miles Anderson
Directed By: Emma Tammi
Rated: R
Running Time: 86 minutes
IFC Midnight

When it comes to horror in the Old West, there aren’t a lot of great examples, or even average examples. That’s peculiar because of how isolated people were in those times, complimented by the fact that urban legends and tales of the unexplained permeated the landscape. That brings me to “The Wind,” a film that doesn’t take long to introduce the audience to Lizzy (Gerard), who’s alone and distant from any signs of civilization. She only has one neighbor and they’re several miles away, far enough away in fact that she can barely see their cabin dot the horizon. Compounding her isolation is the fact that her husband is constantly gone, weeks at a time. She also suspects she isn’t alone.

“The Wind” is told, sometimes wordlessly, in a nonlinear fashion, forcing the viewer to piece together a tragic sequence of events involving Lizzy’s failed pregnancy, failing marriage, and the possibility that her mental health is deteriorating. Or maybe there is something howling with the wind at night. The nonlinear storytelling choice can be confusing, even for astute viewers. The single setting and bland landscape sometimes fail to help highlight at what point in time we’re at in the story. Some of the only signs that we notice we’re in the past is when Lizzy is sporting a soon-to-be miscarriage. On top of that, the film leaves various breadcrumbs surrounding the supposed evil entity lurking in the empty prairie lands surrounding her cabin, as well as what exactly has transpired to where Lizzy has found herself in such a precarious situation. It’s difficult to reveal too much in a short film that builds towards a harrowing final few minutes.

Since actress Gerard is left alone in many scenes, just like Lizzy, it’s up to her to pull off a solo performance that’s not only captivating, but also keeps the plot moving forward, and she nails it. Gerard does a magnificent job at handling both the fear and frustration that Lizzy is surely enduring. Even though she is relatively alone and without a life preserver in the great unknown, Gerard never paints Lizzy as a damsel in distress or shows any signs of helplessness. Instead Gerard beefs up that steely reserve that Lizzy must muster to overcome whatever comes at her, supernatural or not.

There’s an underlying commentary about how women have been mistreated, and not just in the 19th century. Lizzy is constantly ignored and her concerns are mocked. Instead of lending an ear and/or investigating her claims of something sinister stalking her cabin at night, she’s told to be quiet and to keep up with her wifely duties. It’s also implied she’s treated worse after losing her child. While the written story doesn’t hit the right notes, the visual story on screen is masterful. Director Emma Tammi, in her feature film debut, shows a knack for building a dread-filled atmosphere through hair-raising cinematography. This is the kind of freshman outing that promises better films down the pipeline.

Film Review: “Dumbo”

Starring: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito
Directed By: Tim Burton
Rated: PG
Running Time: 112 minutes
Walt Disney Studios

My recollection of “Dumbo” is incredibly brief and simple, and may even be a false memory. I believe I watched the 1941 classic when I was four- or five-years-old. I’ve never had an interest in rewatching it even though it is a relatively short animated classic, clocking in at barely over an hour. That’s a lot easier to digest than this Burton-ized remake, which has ballooned to nearly two hours, relies heavily on green screen and CGI, and has removed the talking animals element. Instead the story of Dumbo is told with the help of the humans around him at the circus.

Ringmaster Max Medici (DeVito) has recently purchased a pregnant elephant, believing that a baby animal could draw curious eyes to his traveling circus which has currently set-up shop in Joplin, Missouri. Much to his dismay, the baby elephant is a “freak.” Max believes the oversized ears will draw laughs instead of affectionate, “Awhs,” and he’s not wrong. Believing in the blue-eyed baby elephant though is Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), the children of Holt (Farrell), a WWI veteran returning home without an appendage and attempting to adjust to his sad new life as a widow. Milly and Joe also know about Dumbo’s talent as a flying animal.

There’s actually a lot to like about “Dumbo,” but it fails at doing two vital things, connecting emotionally with the audience and telling a story about acceptance. The components are there, but they never come together. Since the animals can’t talk, we’ll never know what Dumbo is actually thinking, but Burton does an odd thing. He never really shows pain, frustration, or loneliness etched across Dumbo’s face once he’s separated from his mother. Instead he has the human actors state how they think Dumbo is feeling. There are a few moments between Dumbo and his mom, but nothing on the level of the original.

As for accepting others for their differences, it feels more like a theme that’s left to simmer on the film’s backburner. Instead of hammering that point home through allegory, the film feels more interesting in introducing ancillary characters and distracting viewers with visual effects. It’s an odd observation because director Tim Burton is known for allowing his weird to overtake his more normal productions, as he fights for the voice of the bullied or marginalized hero. This might be his least weird movie, settling for a cookie cutter style, instead of his usual gothic imagery juxtaposed against mainstream aesthetics.

But like I said, there’s a lot to like in this movie. Despite its PG rating, it’s perfectly safe for kids of all ages and there’s nothing really terrifying. The children at my screening appeared to adore it. It may be nearly two hours, but it never feels boring or dull. It never stoops down to an Illumination level of humor and has several legitimate jokes. The green screen is very impressive considering and every adult actor manages to gnaw on that green screen while the child actors are believable most of the time in their roles. I just don’t see children rewatching this over the years and eventually showing it to their kids one day.

There’s one interesting part of the movie that I really enjoyed and it even gave me pause as to where or not Disney executives watched the final product. I say this because Burton seems to take a subtle jab at the Disney media conglomerate through the film’s villain, V.A. Vandevere (Keaton). He’s an “entrepreneur” that buys up other unique entities so that he can expand his amusement park empire called Dreamland. He has several rides and attractions that feel very reminiscent of Disneyland/Disney World properties. It’s almost as if Burton isn’t just commenting on Disney’s recent purchases of Marvel, “Star Wars” and Fox, but also their current trajectory of buying popular brands to financially exploit instead of giving a voice to fresh, young animators and filmmakers. Or maybe Burton realized that he’s become Hollywood’s tolken weirdo for oddball franchises (“Alice in Wonderland” and “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”) and wanted to remark on what’s become of the film industry. The intentional/unintentional metaphor certainly won’t be lost on adults in theaters who’ve spent a pretty penny on Disney’s “reimagining” that falls short of living up to the original.

Originality is no longer valued at the Walt Disney Company. The last original movie was under their Pixar brand, the film “Coco.” That was November 22nd, 2017. The next original idea? That isn’t until March 2020, another Pixar film. So in between this two-and-a-half year amount of time, one of the largest companies in the world is going to throw out every sequel and remake they can think of at moviegoing audiences, because that’s all that can guarantee the company billions of dollars. Maybe I shouldn’t be voicing my frustration about that in this review of a children’s film, but I find it necessary for you to be prepared for my and other’s annoyance at the litany of live-action remakes and sequels that continue to pour out of the Disney factory like a river spilling over its banks. Back in 1941, the House of Mouse took a brave attempt at something new and unique. That’s no longer the case.

Film Review: “The Hummingbird Project”

THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT

Starring:  Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgard and Salma Hayek

Directed by:  Kim Nguyen

Rated: R

Running time:  1 hr 51 mins

The Orchard

There’s a great scene towards the beginning of “Something About Mary” which features Ben Stiller and Harlan Williams talking about William’s idea for a video entitled “7 Minute Abs.”  Stiller shoots down his idea by commenting that someone may try to better him with a video entitled “6 Minute Abs.”  The new film “The Hummingbird Project” offers the equivalent of “5 Minute Abs!”

Vincent Zeleski (an excellent Eisenberg) and his cousin, Anton (an equally good Skarsgard) are employees at a high tech communications firm, writing code and making the boss rich.  But they have come up with an idea.  One that will make them rich beyond their wildest dreams.  And all they have to do is dig a tunnel from Kansas to New Jersey.

A well written (by director Nguyen) and directed thriller, the film introduces us to the Zeleski cousins as they begin to hatch their scheme.  Their plan is to build an underground optical fiber system that can intercept stock buying and selling transactions on their way to New Jersey, allowing them to get their orders in first and profit off of their information.  Their goal is to have a signal that reaches the Garden State from the exchange in Kansas in less than 16 milliseconds.  17 is too slow. 

It is so nice to see Eisenberg in a role that he can inhabit.  While I thought he was OK as Lex Luthor in the recent “Justice League” themed films, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the “The Social Network” Eisenberg, one who deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.  Here he is the idea man…the fast talker who won’t take “no” for an answer.  As cousin Anton, Skarsgard is an odd bird with a good heart and a great mind.  He’s the kind of person who will tell you “it’s a secret” than draws up a hand-written non-disclosure form for you to sign because he just explained the entire project to you.  As the boss who feels hurt by her employee’s betrayal, Hayek is, as always, beautiful and firm.  And it’s so nice to see “Breaking Bad” star Michael Mando (Nacho) in a good role playing a genuinely good person.

Film Review: “Us”

  • US
  • Starring:  Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke and Elisabeth Moss
  • Directed by:  Jordan Peele
  • Rated: R
  • Running time:  1 hr 56 mins
  • Universal Pictures

It used to be that, when I thought of Jordan Peele, I thought of his character, Raffi, the baseball player who used to over congratulate his teammates by yelling “Slap Ass!” and whacking them on the backside.  Then he won an Oscar.  Which means when I sat down to watch Peele’s newest creation, “Us,” my expectations had been raised.  And, wow, was I not disappointed.  In this reviewer’s humble opinion, Peele has created a new horror masterpiece.

1986.  A time of movies on VHS tapes and Hands Across America (which I actually participated in).  It’s a beautiful night on the boardwalk as little Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry) and her parents take a stroll.  Her mother excuses herself, reminding her husband to watch the little girl.  He doesn’t and the little girl wanders down to the beach, where she enters a house of mirrors.

Not the best place to lose yourself.

There is so much I want to tell you about this film, but to do so would spoil one hell of a night at the movies.  Like his Oscar-winning debut film, “Get Out,” Peele has found a way to combine drama, humor and horror in such a perfect way that I found myself, literally, on the edge of my seat during the screening.  I haven’t done that since I was 16 and snuck into a re-issue of “The Exorcist.”

To even go into slight detail about the performances would be a major spoiler so I will just say that, like “Get Out,” Peele has assembled an amazing cast with much to do and many ways to do it.  Peele’s direction is fluid, keeping the story moving at an almost breakneck pace.  During the end credits he thanks many of the filmmakers he admires, including Steven Spielberg, whose work obviously influenced some of the shots in the film.  And, if I could, I’d give the film an extra star for dressing one of the characters in a JAWS shirt!

Don’t walk, run to the theatre to see “Us.”  And be prepared to run some more!

Film Review: “Birds of Passage”

 
BIRDS OF PASSAGE
Starring: Carmiña Martinez, José Acosta
Directed by: Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra
Rated: Unrated
Running Time: 125 minutes
The Orchard
 

Operating with dangerous impunity from roughly 1976-93, the infamous Medellín Cartel of Colombia was once among the most powerful and notorious drug trafficking organizations in the Western Hemisphere. While it is hard to tell how much is fact, or fiction, the Colombian entry in this year’s Academy Awards, “Birds of Passage,” which did not make the final cut of five, does take us back to the humble origins of the drug trade in the years just prior to the Medellín Cartel’s savage rise. From the late 1960s to the late 1970s, “Birds of Passage” paints an intriguing, although uninspired picture of the native Wayuu people and how a desire to pay for a dowry turned into a bloodbath heated by blind revenge.

If you have never heard of them, the Wayuu are a Native American people from the Guajira Peninsula, straddling northern Columbia and northwestern Venezuela. Unlike many other native groups, the Wayuu were never fully conquered by the Spanish thanks in large part to their adaptation of using guns and horses. Their indomitable spirit is still reflected in the matrilineal society we are introduced to in the late 1960s when Zaida (Natalia Reyes, who is set to co-star in “Terminator: Dark Fate”), the daughter of protective clan leader Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), is ceremoniously presented as being ready for marriage.

Rapayet (José Acosta) is a single man who announces his desire to marry Zaida through a “word messenger.” However, the dowry is steep. While contemplating his quandary, the unemotional Rapayet and his friend Moisés (Jhon Narváez) encounter some American Peace Corps members who are looking to score weed to take back to the United States. Rapayet seizes the opportunity and convinces his older cousin Aníbal (Juan Bautista Martínez) to harvest some whacky weed for the gringos. Not only do the profits allow him to pay the dowry, much to the chagrin of Úrsula who disapproves of Rapayet, but they also provide everyone involved a way to become filthy rich.

Greed begets power and power begets violence as Rapayet’s influence grows, but a pivotal moment involving the hot-headed Moisés has vicious repercussions for years to come. Additionally, the ancient traditions of Úrsula’s clan come under increasing attack from the new times they live in. It all comes to a bloody head that is reminiscent of something straight out of “The Godfather,” “Scarface,” or virtually any other organized crime-type of drama. And that’s a major problem with the film.

Directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, who previously worked together on the 2015 drama “Embrace of the Serpent,” “Birds of Passage” does contain a terrific, Shakespearean tragedy at its core. It is saddening to witness the meteoric rise and epic downfall of both a family and an ancient culture all at the hands of the illegal drug trade. However, it’s boringly predictable and the characters are stereotypes. Furthermore, the acting varies between being wooden and over-the-top with pacing that is sluggish at times. Take a pass on “Birds of Passage.”

Film Review: “Finding Steve McQueen”

FINDING STEVE McQUEEN

Starring:  Travis Fimmell, Rachael Taylor and Willian Fichtner

Directed by:  Mark Steven Johnson

Rated: R

Running time:  1 hr 31 mins

Momentum Pictures

1980.  In a small California town, Harry Barber (Fimmell) has something to confess to Holly (Taylor), his girlfriend of seven years.  Holly thinks a break-up is coming but it’s more like a stick-up.  You see, Harry is a bank robber.

Based on a true story, “Finding Steve McQueen” is one of the smaller films that often get overshadowed by the latest offerings from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Through flashbacks we find Harry back in 1972 (who Molly knows as John) working in his Uncle Enzo’s factory, along with his younger brother, Tommy (Jake Weary).  The factory is a front for Enzo (played by the always fun to watch Fichtner), who is, for lack of a better word, the “boss” of Youngstown, Ohio.  Enzo has learned from a friend that President Richard Nixon, who Enzo is definitely not a fan of, has squirreled away $30 million in campaign funds in a bank not far from San Clemente (the Western White House).  Eager for a big score, and the chance to stick it to the President, Enzo and his team, including Harry and Tommy, journey west to pull off what Enzo believes will be the perfect crime.  After all, if someone steals the President’s dirty money, who can he call?

The film is both clever and, if you’re a fan of the 1970s, nostalgic.  The script, by Ken Hixon and Keith Sharon, moves sharply through the decade, taking time to introduce things like hot tubs and historic characters.  When the F.B.I. bureau chief (Oscar winner Forest Whitaker) gets a visit from his boss, Mark Felt (John Finn), you can’t help but smile when Felt tells him to read an article in the Washington Post written by “a couple reporters named Woodward and Bernstein.”  For those who don’t remember their history, Felt was the infamous “Deep Throat” who led Woodward and Bernstein to their Pulitzer Prize.

Director Johnson keeps the story moving and kudos as well to whoever picked the songs that accompany the on-screen action.  They helped set a perfect tone for a film that doesn’t need someone in Spandex to make it entertaining.

Film Review: “Climax”

Starring: Sofia Boutella, Kiddy Smile and Roman Guillermic
Directed by: Gaspar Noe
Rated: R
Running Time: 96 minutes
A24

Usually for arthouse films, you hear the phrase, “This may not be for everyone.” When it comes to Gaspar Noe films, they may not be for anyone. Having only seen “Enter the Void,” out of curiosity on Netflix one night, my second trip into Noe’s twisted mind comes in the form of a dance troupe’s celebration before heading out on an international tour. They got the jams, they got the drinks, and they got the food. However, an uninvited guest is about to crash their party.

The jubilation slowly turns into a horrifying mystery as members of the young French dance team suspect someone has spiked their sangria with drugs. Things decline quickly as the LSD takes hold, leading to arguments, more dancing, graphic violence, more dancing, deaths, more dancing, graphic sex and more dancing. Luckily for audience members that might not have the stomach for Noe’s twisted vision, he never comes off as an edgelord looking to exploit his characters for ghoulish fun. Instead he’s more transfixed on how an eclectic group of young 20-somethings in the mid-90’s quickly turn on each other or flock into unsuspecting arms when their perceptions deteriorate.

“Climax” doesn’t abide by any cinematic rules, as it begins with the film’s end credits, then fixates on an old box TV that plays VHS interview tapes of all the dancers we’re about to meet. After every character’s brief introduction, the film switches to the old abandoned school where the madness goes down, beginning with a lengthy dance sequence, all within a single take. There’s actually quite a few single takes in the film, some that would make Alejandro Inarritu scratch his head in curiosity as to how it was pulled off.

A movie like this in anyone else’s hands would be boring, but Noe keeps you transfixed to the screen as he flies seamless and methodically around the school, like a curious specter watching the pure bedlam unfold. There’s genuine dread as several scenarios are left to playout as the LSD amplifies character’s primal instincts. It’s in these moments that you realize that despite our best attempts to do good for the benefit of society, self-preservation will kick in or we’ll resort to our most basic animal instincts. Of course it’s entirely possible that you’ll take away a different experience or viewpoint.

Much of the film is made even more impressive by the tidbit that the cast is made up of professional dancers, not professional actors. We never see the hallucinations from their point of view, but the pain or pleasure is etched all over their faces. The only person of note in this film is Sofia Boutella, and even she gets lost in the group theatrics. In several interviews, Noe has discussed his love of dance. Not as a participant, but more as an observer. “Climax” is almost like his theatrical version of people watching. “Climax” takes that club dancing expressionism that he fondly enjoys and cranks it to 11 by throwing in drugs, blood and sex. It’s a trial by fire where the people become marionettes, with the bass puppeteering their every movement. For those who break free from the trance, they meet an untimely fate or wind up naked with an unlikely lover. It’s a true Heaven/Hell on Earth.

I felt really unsure about “Climax” as I left the theater, but I couldn’t quite narrow down much in terms of technical or storytelling complaints. The cinematography is on another level, matching the constant dance beats in the background. The soundtrack ranges from foreign EDM to more recognizable artists like Daft Punk and the Rolling Stones. I only withhold unflinching adoration for a film like this because I may believe I’m consuming something of substance while blinded by its deliciously fresh style. It’s a brisk, but bewitching film that I’m sure I’ll watch again. It’s in that second watch I’ll either find distaste or amplified admiration for Noe’s vision. Love it or hate, viewers won’t be able to shake “Climax,” much like a bad acid trip.

Film Review: “Captain Marvel”

Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Mendelsohn
Directed By: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 124 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It only took 21 movies for Marvel and Disney to finally release a female-led superhero film, and it’s not about Black Widow. It’s the kind of some comic book fans have been clamoring for, for about a decade now. For those fans, I have to warn you up front, this isn’t the monumental moment you’ve been hoping for.

“Captain Marvel” is an origin story in reverse. When we first meet Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Larson), she goes by Vers and is having her skills crafted under the observant eye of the Kree military. She’s in a unit that serves as an important cog in the intergalactic war between the Kree and Skrull. Honestly, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you have a lot of movie binging to do. The film really doesn’t pick up pace until “Vers” is stranded on Earth after being ambushed by some Skrull. It’s on Earth that she not only chases down the Skrull, but begins chasing down fleeting memories of a life she’s forgotten.

The first 30 minutes or so are pretty rough, even if you understand and know all of the necessary backstory that’s been glossed over in “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Thor” films. It attempts to juggle exposition, mystery, and introductions, while handling them all poorly. The exposition isn’t interesting, we already know who “Vers” is, and Marvel is generally terrible about disguising their surprise villains. The movie actually gains momentum and gets a lot more fun when Danvers crashes through the roof of a Blockbuster Video, one of the dozens of reminders that this takes place in the mid-90’s.

As a child of the 90’s, all the winks, nods and nudges are welcome, but they ultimately come off as pandering. The movie feels like it needs to tickle some nostalgia bones, in lieu of character building or plot development. That being said, I don’t mind a little Nirvana or No Doubt in my soundtrack or jokes about how painfully slow computers and the Internet used to be. Millennial inside jokes aside, it’s on Earth that Danvers runs into a young Nick Fury (Jackson), which helps serve as a bit of an origin story for the Avengers initiative.

The 70-year-old Jackson and the 29-year-old Larson are actually a dynamic duo. Their green screen scenery chewing brightens up some otherwise dull moments. It’s regrettable that Marvel missed out on giving them some 90’s buddy cop tropes to gnaw on. “Captain Marvel” may have actually worked better as a parody or homage of films like “The Last Boy Scout” or “Bad Boys.” Luckily these two stars share a lot of screen time and seem to feed off each other’s energy.

“Captain Marvel” is what we’ve come to expect from these yearly Marvel traditions, a lot of CGI, fun set pieces and eye candy for the masses. I actually had quite a bit of fun when I wasn’t analyzing its flaws. So if you want a mindless superhero film, then that’s what you get. That being said, it’s still above the mindless action of Snyder’s DC films because it doesn’t bog the fun down with a bleak atmosphere and outlandish character interactions. For others who are expecting a little more or something a lot more audacious, you’re out of luck. Disney probably over thought this one a bit; and it shows.

If it weren’t for Larson and Jackson, the film may have been a forgettable dud in the same vein as “Thor: The Dark World” or “Iron Man 2.” Those two wring out so much from a minimal script. The writers seemed to be more interested in padding time and setting up a payoff, which never pays off. The film has about half a dozen writers and doesn’t do anything remarkably different with tone or style, like “Thor: Ragnarok” or “Black Panther” managed to do in recent years. “Captain Marvel” is the kind of film you could nitpick to death if you don’t turn your brain off. Everything from visual effects to casting choices is suspect and up for ridicule.

I actually didn’t have high hopes for “Captain Marvel,” so I may not find it as underwhelming or disappointing as some people. Whereas a film like “Wonder Woman” felt like it was breaking new ground, “Captain Marvel” seems to tread water. A lot of that may be due to Disney’s weariness of trying something outlandishly new or daring with its multi-billion dollar baby. Disney could merely be testing the waters. You should be frustrated if the next female superhero film from the studio powerhouse is another cookie cutter film. A progressive step requires a fresh idea, not a copy-and-paste formula that’s slowly becoming stale.

Film Review: Woman at War

WOMAN AT WAR
Starring: Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, Jóhann Sigurðarson, Jörundur Ragnarsson
Directed by: Benedikt Erlingsson
Running time: 1hr 41 mins
Magnolia Pictures

The personal and political overlap in Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman At War which opens this Friday, March 1st in New York and Los Angeles. The Icelandic comedy-drama stars Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir as Halla, to everyone in town she is the local choir director, but to only a close pair of confidants she is The Mountain Woman. Under this guise, Halla goes far into the Icelandic highlands to single-handedly sabotage a nearby aluminum plant and make global investors wary of further industrializing her country. In addition to Geirharðsdóttir’s passionate lead performance, there’s gorgeous scenery and some quirky narrative choices which make this timely, but never preachy, film well worth checking out.

As she sets about doing the opening mission of Erlingsson’s story, Halla marches to the beat of her own drum, literally. When she draws back her bowstring to let loose an arrow which will fell power lines of a whole factory, Erlingsson’s film composer, Davíð Þór Jónsson, and two additional musicians are diegetically staged behind her drumming (and sousaphoning) along in support. This deadpan trio make recurring appearances each time Halla’s actions tend towards the illegal, sometimes even before she knows she’s in hot water. At least they’re visually charming harbingers. Halla appears to be a lone wolf but she finds support in a local farmer, as well as a choir member who happens to be high up in the government team on Halla’s tail. With all this already on her plate, she also learns that years after submitting her paperwork to adopt a child, the agencies have dropped their age limits and she’s the candidate to take on a daughter from the Ukraine. The additional prospect of motherhood also introduces a beautiful trio of female Ukrainian choir singers who, at the best of times in the film, join Jónsson’s instrumental trio to lovely effect.

Erlingsson doesn’t get too bogged down in the whys of Halla’s quest to save the planet she literally hugs at times because his biggest ally in this is his DP, Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson. The wide shots of the Icelandic countryside are breathtaking and stand in stark contrast to the industrialized locales that Halla is railing against. In some of the films stunning helicopter and drone chase sequences, the quick-thinking Halla could have easily been a goner but for the natural resources and shelters offered up by the countryside she so loves. And while the film’s core cast is small, Erlingsson takes many opportunities to touch upon what’s at stake here whether through background telecasts, school girls posing in support of The Mountain Woman’s manifesto, or a finale that hinges on a flood that’s more than likely influenced by climate change. Seeing all this and knowing that Halla had retired her hopes for motherhood before seeking a way to save the world for its own sake, for me, makes her a woman to root for.

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