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: How to Train Your Dragon – The Hidden World


Voiced by: Jay Baruchel (Hiccup), America Ferrera (Astrid), Cate Blanchett (Valka), Kit Harington (Eret)
Directed By: Dean DeBlois

Rated: PG-7
Running Time: 104 minutes
DreamWork Animation

Right from the start, we’ll admit that How to Train Your Dragon is one of our favorite animation movies of all time. The Hidden World even though it’s animated, somehow feels so real, not just the visual effect and animations which put it over the top, but the story of the movie that is incredibly appealing and makes you believe in the supernatural. It is an emotional movie telling us that in every relationship you are, you must know when to let go and move on with your life.

The action takes place one year after Hiccup found his mom in the second film. Now they created a strong bond with their dragons, and everybody has one. There are no huge cages in their village to contain them, they are basically living together. That is becoming a problem because their home, Berk, is now overpopulated and their village chief, Hiccup, must find a solution.

Even though Hiccup is facing that problem, followed by his desires, he continues to rescue dragons from evil Vikings that are trying to lock them up and use them as slaves. He rescues every single dragon alongside his partner the Night Fury dragon – Toothless and brings them to Berk.

A dangerous new threat is coming to Berk, from the cold-blooded dragon tracker and killer Grimmel (voiced by F. Murray Abraham). Grimmel is the evil looking villain and his character fits very well in the movie. He is driven by his desire to kill every single Night Fury, alongside every other dragon.

He knows about Hiccup and the village full of dragons Berk, thus his plan is to go to the village and capture Toothless as the Alpha Dragon and make him command all the dragons to follow Grimmel’s orders. The angry dragon slayer uses the white female Night Fury dragon (Light Fury) as bait for Toothless.

Hiccup is facing his toughest decision yet as village chief. They must abandon the village that has been their home for generations and left by Hiccup’s father to guard. Hiccup doesn’t know what to do and there is no time to hold his horses. He remembers though, that his dad was talking about some place hidden from the world, beneath a great waterfall, but he is not sure exactly if it is true.

Grimmel using the Light Fury as bait came to Berk, with a plan of a surprise attack on the village and taking Toothless. Hiccup was expecting the attack as he found poisonous darts in the village. They shut him down and he is forced to leave. Now everybody in the village knows the power of Grimmel and they are forced to make a fast decision on their future. After Hiccup inspired the people of the village and made them believe that Berk is not about place, but about his inhabitants, they got on the way in the search of the hidden world.

Meanwhile, the alpha dragon Toothless after he meets the white female Light Fury falls in love and can’t get his mind of her. This part is quite amusing, as the dragon is doing all kinds of silly things just to impress his beloved. Hiccup is getting jealous and confused by Toothlesses behavior, since he doesn’t realize that even Toothless wants to have a family and a relationship.

The visual and sound effects on this movie are out of this world, you can see and hear that they’ve put so much effort in trying to make it more realistic and they succeeded. Even though it is animation, it feels like real life and it makes you get into that imaginary world.

The movie was released in early January in Australia and in February in United States and has grosses already 501.9 million USD in box offices. Right now, the movie holds a record of 7.8/10 in IMDB and an almost perfect score of 90% in Rotten Tomatoes, something that surely certifies the overall quality of the film.

To sum up,How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is astounding. Somehow, they captured that feeling as you were living beside them all these years through this trilogy. The characters in the franchise look older like its audience in real life, which started watching this trilogy 8 years ago.

You can learn a lot from this movie, it is deeply emotional and funny at the same time, has amazing visuals and a simple story about love and friendship. It is not a movie only for children, but for all ages. If you still haven’t watched it, you should grab some popcorn and do it!

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.

One piece – A classic animated film of the modern era

One Piece has quite dynamic content compared to the original story. Audiences who do not need to read stories can watch and understand the content of movies. Besides, the film also is the motivation for strangers to learn about this series film. All parts of the movie are about the journey to become the Pirate King of Monkey D. Luffy. Monkey D. Luffy is the captain of the Straw Hat Pirates. Throughout the movie, Monkey D. Luffy and his friends are constantly searching for the mysterious seas which have the most large treasure in the world. The film has released 13 parts, each part is extremely loved by audience.

One piece Tube – Animated film with fresh and attractive content

Among the animated films produced based on manganese stories, One Piece can be said to be a rare success. The film is adapted from a story with the same name. This story is extremely famous and popular. Normally, animated films will not retain the essence of original story, the content will be changed to suit each situation more. However, One Piece is an exception. The details contained in the story are all beautifully presented in each episode.

One piece – You watched that you can never give up

Not only that, the One Piece animated film also appears quite a lot of new details added by the director. These details play a important role in making the film content more plentiful and well-directed by the director. So that the film content is the most suitable. Although some episodes like episode 8 and episode 9 have slightly bad content, Oda’s participation in later episodes has helped make the content of the film more and more progressive.

The image quality of the animated movie hit one piece

The unit responsible for producing the animated movie “One Piece” is Toei Animation. Since the first broadcast of the film on television, One piece has received a lot of support from fans. The film is usually broadcast on the spring holiday of Japanese students. There have been 13 episodes were on aired since 2000. Although each movie only last less than an hour and is broadcasted in parallel with other anime movies, these films are carefully produced, especially about image quality. According to anime experts, the One Piece animation has a higher image quality than the weekly shows on TV.

Source: serien stream

In some actionable scenes, clearly with the ability to shoot and post-production, the production team can create more beautiful and real scenes. However, the production team did not do well. The action scenes are not really eye-catching. Moreover, although the movie has fan service and the image is not too sensitive but cinemas often mark one piece as a movie for ages 16 and older. Therefore, this is extremely disadvantage for many young fans.

Voice quality of animated film one piece

One Piece is done by a lot of professional voice actors. For example, Vinsmoke Reiju was voiced by Michiko Neya. She is more than 50 years old and has participated in many other popular anime like Alchemist, Pokemon, Yugi Oh… Vinsmoke Ichiji was voiced by Noriaki Sugiyama. Vinsmoke Niji was voiced by 47-year-old Atsushi Miyauchi. The actor also played in Gundam, Ghost in the Shell, Yugi Oh.

There is no word that expresses the greatness of the voice actors

Most characters have been applied the most modern sound technologies by the production to edit and create each character’s voice in the most appealing and easy-to-listen way. There have been quite a number of units that have voiced the animated film but failed. The voice sound of the original One Piece version is the best, the classic version without any voice sound version can replace.

It can be said that One Piece is an indispensable film for the lives of young people. One piece brings us richness in extremely boring life. With image quality, amazing voice sound and content, One Piece always attracts viewers, the sequel of one piece will definitely make you feel satisfied. 13 episodes of One Piece have been on aired. Episodes 14 have been expected to be aired in the summer of 2019. This will definitely be a very special gift for all of us. Please wait and enjoy the One Piece to be released soon!

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: “Arctic”


ARCTIC
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen
Directed by: Joe Penna
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr 38 mins
Bleecker Street
 
Every once in a blue moon a film comes along that reminds us how truly spectacular cinema can be and replenishes our passion for the artform. The stark Danish adventure/drama “Arctic” happens to be such a film. With a gripping man-versus-nature story that makes “Cast Away” and “All Is Lost” look like cocktail parties, “Arctic” is as impressive as the unyielding icy bleakness which constantly threatens to overwhelm the lone survivor of a plane crash somewhere in the Arctic Circle.
 
Shot entirely in Iceland, “Arctic” does not waste time with a lot of background exposition to its story, co-written by Brazilian director Joe Penna whose previous directorial work includes the 2015 shorts “Turning Point” and “Beyond.” Instead it thrusts us into an already precarious, ongoing struggle for survival by a man named Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen). He survives each day by sticking to a strict routine that includes maintaining a giant SOS carved into the snow, generating enough electricity with a hand crank to operate a distress signal, and catching fish through ice holes.
 
We don’t know if he is the pilot of the intact, yet charred plane he uses for shelter, but we do know that whoever was with him died in the crash. Despite all his hardships, Overgård preserves a steely resolve to stay alive and an unyielding belief that help will come. His hard work appears to pay off when his distress signal is picked up by a rescue helicopter. However, Mother Nature denies his victory with a vicious storm that causes his would-be saviors to crash nose first into the unforgiving ice below. Overgård stabilizes the helicopter’s badly injured co-pilot, but the new situation pushes his abilities to keep them alive to the limits. Ultimately, he is faced with a terrible choice of whether to stay put or risk traveling across the Arctic wasteland to find salvation.
 
Whether it’s playing the nemesis of a Marvel wizard in “Doctor Strange” or being a falsely accused teacher in “The Hunt,” Mikkelsen has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to delve into any role thrown at him. One of the most underrated actors in cinema today, Mikkelsen is a force of nature himself in “Arctic.” He attains a level of intensity that Tom Hanks and Robert Redford were never able to achieve in their respective films as he musters emotions as raw as the fish his character eats. Our hearts beat as his does with jubilation when it appears that he is going to be saved and they sink to the depths when he bottoms out in despair. It’s all done with pure emotional power performed flawlessly by Mikkelsen.
 
For his first attempt at directing a feature-length motion picture, Penna does his craft proud with a fluid story that offers a few nice twists and plenty of dramatic suspense. Overall, “Arctic” is a must-see that any cinema lover should put on their to-do list even if the film’s setting makes us feel like winter is never going to end.

Film Review: “Alita: Battle Angel”


ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL
Starring: Rosa Salazar and Christoph Waltz
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2hrs 2 mins
20th Century Fox

 BREAKING NEWS: James Cameron movies are generally more about style over substance. As a screenwriter, his simplistic scripts often play second fiddle to grandiose special effects. A bright, shining example would be 2009’s “Avatar,” which was a fantastic 3D experience that sugar-coated a “Dances with Wolves” meets “Braveheart” storyline. (I can hear someone shouting, “Aren’t you forgetting ‘Titanic?’” Sorry, 14 Oscar nominations but none for screenplay.) Apparently, you can’t teach an old screenwriter any new techniques because Cameron’s latest producer/writing endeavor, “Alita: Battle Angel” is all about shock and awe but lacks a soul. 

The story is set in the year 2563 where a dystopian society exists after a mysterious war called “The Fall” has wiped out much of Earth’s population. All we know that is left is a trash heap of a town known as Iron City, which sits directly below Earth’s last floating city – Zalem. Iron City is literally the junk yard for the wealthy Zalem and it is there where mild-mannered Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Bastards,” “Django Unchained”) finds a disembodied female cyborg with a living brain still intact. 

How this cyborg ended up in the trash is a mystery, but nevertheless Dr. Ido rebuilds the cyborg and names her Alita (Rosa Salazar, “Maze Runner”) after his deceased daughter. Alita, a bright-eyed child with no memory of her past, soon befriends Hugo (Keean Johnson, “Nashville”), a teenage street hustler with dreams of getting enough money to buy his way into Zalem. It is through him that Alita is introduced to the violent sport of Motorball, which resembles a souped-up version of 2002’s “Rollerball.” 

Thanks to Dr. Ido’s side job as a Hunter-Warrior, which is a fancy title for bounty hunter, Alita becomes exposed to a part of Iron City that leads her on a path to realizing her full potential, which involves a United Republics of Mars berserker battle suit. We are given scant background information about all of this except that there was a whole lot of fighting and some guy named Nova sees all atop his perch in Zalem, which sounds like an over-the-counter sleep medication. Of course, everything leads to a resounding conclusion as the unknown underdog attempts to overcome all odds. How original! 

Directed by Robert Rodgriguez (“Sin City,” “Spy Kids”), someone else who is often more about style over substance, “Alita” stylistically is pleasing to watch and there is plenty of action to fill your plate. It doesn’t hurt that the cast contains three Academy Award winners including Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, who plays Dr. Ido’s estranged wife, and Mahershala Ali as Alita’s primary nemesis. They all give a level of gravitas that would have otherwise sunk the film faster than if it was struck by an iceberg in the north Atlantic. While their lines are often unimaginative and cliched, the cast delivers them with such polish that you almost forget how blasé it is. 

For pure popcorn flare, “Alita: Battle Angel” does provide some fun for your time at the theater thanks to its talented cast and visual effects. Don’t expect a satisfying climax though as it sets itself up for a sequel, which may not happen if it cannot at least recuperate its massive production costs. Don’t worry though, you will get to see more James Cameron epics as more “Avatars” are set to be released.


 

Film Review – “Isn’t it Romantic”

ISN’T IT ROMANTIC
Starring:  Rebel Wilson, Adam Divine and Liam Hemsworth
Directed by:  Todd Strauss-Shulson
Rated:  PG 13
Running time:  1 hr 26 mins
Warner Bros.

Natalie (Wilson) isn’t sure about a lot of things.  A skilled architect, she is treated more as a gopher by others in her office instead of a valuable asset.  One thing she is sure about?  She hates romantic comedies,which her assistant (Betty Gilpin) constantly watches at her desk.  One night, while battling a mugger, Natalie is knocked unconscious.  When she comes to, she discovers that her life has changed. And she’s not happy.

A winning comedy built around the chemistry of its stars, “Isn’t it Romantic” is a fun time at the movies.  Much of the fun comes from trying to pick out all of the rom-com tropes that Natalie dislikes yet is now experiencing.  Handsome suitor?  Check. Overly-gay best buddy? Check.  Killer karaoke chops?  Yes, sir. The more she learns the more frustrated Natalie gets.  And when she learns that every time she tries to use the “F” word she is overridden by the sound of a honking horn, she is horrified that the world she is now living in is only rated PG 13.

With two of the “Pitch Perfect” films behind them, Wilson and Adam Divine have built an amazing rapport, and it shows on the screen. Hemsworth is quite charming and Bollywood star Priyamnka Chopra is both funny and beautiful!  The story moves quickly (the film is less than 90 minutes long) and makes a nice Valentines gift for that special someone.  Unless,of course, they hate romantic comedies!