Vox Lux

December 17, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy
Directed by: Brady Corbet (“The Childhood of a Leader”)
Written by: Brady Corbet (“The Childhood of a Leader”)

Pop star Celeste Montgomery (Oscar winner Natalie Portman plays her as an adult) is doing everything possible to control her own destiny. She’s been doing so ever since tragedy struck when she was a teenager and despite the fact that her life may already be primed for a “predetermined destination.”

The setup to the satirical drama “Vox Lux” by actor-turned-director Brady Corbet (“The Childhood of a Leader”) is strange and hypnotic. As a devout teen, Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives a school shooting and later uses the experience to launch a successful career as a musician.

If the idea sounds a bit preposterous, it’s probably because Corbet means to say something contentious about the culture of celebrity in the 21st century. These days, all it takes to become famous is to create a YouTube channel or star in a sex tape or play a villain on a reality TV show, so why wouldn’t the same thing happen to a young girl who is shot in the head and decides to write a song to help ease her pain? Let’s be honest. Is it any more unbelievable than cast members from “The Real Housewives” or “Teen Moms” trending on Twitter?

In “Vox Lux,” Corbet introduces audiences to Celeste as a young girl — a girl “not all that special or conspicuously talented” — coming to terms with her newfound fame alongside her supportive sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) and unnamed manager (two-time Oscar nominee Jude Law). Her character arc during these formidable years is captivating — evolving from an innocent performer into a mainstream sellout.

Divided into two acts, we meet Portman in “Act 2: Regenesis” as a seasoned and cynical 31-year-old superstar raising her daughter Albertine (also played by Cassidy) in an industry she loves and despises for different reasons. When another tragic event takes place halfway across the globe that is connected to one of Celeste’s music videos, she is forced to reevaluate the circumstances that brought her to a place where fantasy and catastrophe go hand in hand.

Ambitious to a fault, “Vox Lux” feels otherworldly. Corbet still has a long way to go as a filmmaker, but it’s inspiring to see someone take risks so early in their career.

At Eternity’s Gate

December 17, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, Rupert Friend
Directed by: Julian Schnabel (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”)
Written by: Julian Schnabel (“Before Night Falls”), Jean-Claude Carrière (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being”) and Louise Kugelberg (debut)

During a scene in the 1975 Academy Award-winning drama “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a doctor at a mental institution tells R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) that after evaluating him for four weeks, he sees no evidence of mental illness. “You know, what do you want me to do?” McMurphy asks before mimicking masturbating, as if to say, “Is this what ‘crazy’ is supposed to look like?”

In “At Eternity’s Gate,” a biopic on Vincent van Gogh, Oscar-nominated director Julian Schnabel (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) seems to wonder the same thing as Nicholson’s character. Everyone knows van Gogh suffered from some form of psychological disorder, so why play it up like other van Gogh films of the past? Why show him writhing in front of a mirror like a madman in 1956’s “Lust for Life?” Why depict him as some fiendish loon who licks the blood off a knife after he uses it to cut off his ear like in 1990’s “Vincent & Theo?”

While both actors Kirk Douglas and Tim Roth give commendable overall performances as van Gogh in their respected films (Douglas earned an Oscar nomination for his), the idea that mental illness can be defined as one specific thing (or behavior) is an antiquated concept. It’s one of the reasons Schnabel’s film — co-written by him, his girlfriend Louise Kugelberg and French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being”) — is such an enlightening and unique experience. With “At Eternity’s Gate,” Schnabel, who is a famous painter himself, confronts van Gogh’s mental instability with inventive style and philosophical reflection. In doing so, he has given audiences one of the most creative and visually-striking cinematic compositions about an artist in recent memory.

Although almost 30 years older than van Gogh was at the time of his death, three-time Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe (“The Florida Project”) delivers a glorious portrayal as the Dutch post-impressionist painter during the final years of his life — living and painting in Arles in the south of France. During this time, we watch van Gogh connect with nature, exchange ideas with friend and artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) and find the beauty in the mundane. Through handheld camerawork, distorted scenes and other stimulating experimental film elements, Schnabel designs “At Eternity’s Gate” as if it were one of van Gogh’s pieces seen through the eyes of a filmmaker like Terrence Malik (“Tree of Life”).

It’s not until the second half of the film when Schnabel really scours inside the mind of van Gogh as his mental illness starts to get the best of him — hallucinations, anxiety, depression and self-mutilation. Even then, however, Schnabel focuses more on the man, his work and his words. In “At Eternity’s Gate,” he allows viewers to see the world from van Gogh’s transcendent perspective.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

December 17, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Rohan Chand, Matthew Rhys, Freida Pinto
Directed by: Andy Serkis (“Breathe”)
Written by: Callie Kloves (debut)

Although Warner Bros. waited patiently for two years to release “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle,” so that it wouldn’t have to compete with Walt Disney’s highly enjoyable 2016 live-action take on “The Jungle Book,” the subsequent fantasy adventure based on English author Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories feels needlessly glum and irrelevant.

The narrative framework is basically the same. “Mancub” Mowgli (Rohan Chand) is raised by wolves and must find his place in the pack before tiger villain Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) makes a meal out of him.

It’s obvious actor-turned-filmmaker Andy Serkis (“Breathe”) is working from a darker script than director Jon Favreau did during production of his 2016 movie. Favreau’s film was closer in tone to the original 1967 Disney animation, but Serkis seems more concerned with providing “Mowgli” an ominous atmosphere than he does with building on the classic tale’s message of friendship and zest for life.

Even when Serkis and first-time screenwriter Callie Kloves try to spin the story in their own direction, the decision to stray away from a kid-friendly movie poses some problems. Primarily, who is Mowgli’s intended audience? Now that Netflix has bought the rights, one might assume the answer is everybody with access to a Netflix account, but Mowgli is too cruel for kindergarteners and, at best, a curiosity for adults who will probably just end up comparing it to superior versions.

If you do decide to plop the little ones in front of the screen, know that “Mowgli” isn’t a musical, so there are no new renditions of “Bare Necessities” or “I Wanna Be Like You.” In fact, King Louie, who Christopher Walken voiced phenomenally in Favreau’s contribution, is completely cut out of this newest adaptation. Baloo is still included, although he’s more of a drill sergeant than a happy-go-lucky, honey-smacking bear. And main antagonist Shere Khan is designed to look like a devil-cat who at one point in the film describes tasting the blood of Mowgli’s mother.

Mowgli also shows its title character living among other humans when he is banished from the jungle. He meets a hunter (Matthew Rhys) contracted to kill Shere Kahn and a young woman (Freida Pinto) who cares for him during his stay. Neither of these storylines offer any emotional impact to the film, and the fact that Mowgli can speak to the animals in the jungle but not to the villagers makes about as much sense as picking a prickly pear by the paw.

Latino Entertainment Journalists Association Forms Under President Clayton Davis, Launches Hashtag #YoSoyLEJA

December 7, 2018 by  
Filed under CineBlog

New York, NY – December 7, 2019 – The Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA) has formed under President Clayton Davis (owner of AwardsCircuit) in an effort to create a diverse voice in the industry for the Latino community. After realizing there was a glaring gap in the diversity conversation for Latino voices in entertainment, Davis decided to step up and steer the committee for the inaugural association which would represent all Latino voices across multiple disciplines in entertainment.

With the help of additional board members Toni Gonzales (Freelance, PGA Member), Niki Cruz (amNew York), and Kiko Martinez (Remezcla), LEJA is committed to developing and uplifting Latino voices among all areas and backgrounds of the entertainment industry.

Founded in 2018, LEJA provides a much-needed opportunity for writers based in the United States and its territories, to have their works amplified and heard in the areas of film, television, music, theatre, and the arts. Accepting of all backgrounds and identities, LEJA embraces anyone who identifies as Latino, Latina, Latinx, Hispanic, Afro-Latino, Afro-Latina, Latin, Spanish, or any inclusive and progressive description that champions and accelerates the voices of our culture from around the world.

“All people deserve an opportunity to have their voices heard,” said Clayton Davis. “One of the most frustrating things to witness as a Latino journalist working in this industry has been to see my fellow Latinos spend such so much time discussing what we should be called, that we’re never uniting on the things that truly matter. The core values of LEJA are inclusive to everyone. This organization celebrates the culture I’ve known from my early days in the Bronx and unites all of us, finally, under one mission, to lift us up. For decades, as a person of mixed race, I struggled to find my place in any culture. It wasn’t just non-Latinos that turned me away. Sometimes it was Latinos themselves because I didn’t meet their own identifying traits for what makes a ‘real‘ Hispanic. ”

Davis goes on to say, “The love of film and art is universal. There are nearly 50 countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Our members range from first-generation, to others with families that have been here for decades. We have citizens and DREAMERS, pure and mixed races, Spanish-speaking and non-Spanish speaking, and a foundation in place to reach out to journalists both old and new, to encourage a new generation of writers to do just that: write. We have future plans to expand this organization through professional networking and proceed to expand into varying facets of entertainment including television, music, theatre, and more. If a Latino can write about it, we want to include it.”

Davis closes by saying, “With a toxic climate that paints Latinos as anything but hard-working, intelligent, and richly valued people, it’s time we take the mic ourselves and say what we need to say.”

The association is kicking off with 24 inaugural members and plans to release their first set of film nominations on Jan. 20, 2019.

The current members consist of journalists, from different backgrounds, identifications, and corners of the United States. The inaugural members, outlets, Twitter handles, and their cultural identities are:

  • Carlos Aguilar (The Wrap, MovieMaker Magazine, Remezcla) – @Carlos_Film – Latino (more specifically Mexican)
  • Manuel Betancourt (Remezcla, Backstage, The Atlantic) – @bmanuel – White, Latinx
  • J. Don Birnam (Splash Report) – @jdonbirnam – Mexican American
  • Kerensa Cadenas (VanityFair) – @kerensacadenas – Mexican-American
  • Liz Calvario (Entertainment Tonight) – @lizcalvario – Mexican-American
  • Rosy Cordero (Deadline, Latina) – @SocialRosy – Peruvian/Cuban
  • Niki Cruz (amNewYork) – @cruzniki – Puerto Rican and Italian – LEJA Secretary
  • Clayton Davis (AwardsCircuit) – @AwardsCircuit – Puerto Rican and Black – LEJA President
  • Vanessa Erazo (Remezcla) – @infoCinelandia – Mexican and Salvadoran
  • Tim Estiloz (Boston Latino TV) – @TimEstiloz – Hispanic (mixed), Mexican, Native American, Spanish, Black
  • Dani Fernandez (Nerdist) – @msdanifernandez – Mexican-American
  • Toni Gonzales (Freelance) – @movietoni – Mexican and Native American – LEJA Vice President
  • Ed Gonzalez (Slant) – @certified_ed – Latino
  • Umberto Gonzalez (Heroic Hollywood, The Wrap) – @elmayimbe – Colombian and Dominican
  • Daniel Gutierrez (Directors Cut Radio) – @MovieGuyDan – Hispanic New Mexican
  • Marcela Isaza (Associated Press) – @misaza – Hispanic
  • Yolanda Machado (Marie Claire, Remezcla) – @SassyMamainLA – Peruvian-Mexican, First generation American
  • Kiko Martinez (San Antonio Current, CineSnob) – @cinesnobkiko – Mexican-American – LEJA Treasurer
  • Wilson Morales (BlackFilm) – @blackfilm – Honduran of African descent
  • Claudia Puig (KPCC 89.3) – @claudiapuig – Mexican and German
  • Naibe Reynoso (Freelance, The Trend Talk show, France 24) – @naibereynoso – Mexican-American
  • Jack Rico (ShowBizCafe.com) – @JackRicofficial – Colombian-American
  • Julianne Escobedo Shepherd (Jezebel) – @jawnita – Chicana
  • Jose Solís (StageBuddy, The Film Stage) – @josesolismayen – Latinx

LEJA key dates for the 2018 film year are:

January 13, 2019 – Nomination ballots are sent to members.
January 15, 2019 – Nominations due back.
January 16, 2019 – Members receive final nominations internally.
January 19, 2019 – Final ballots are sent out to members for preferential ballot voting.
January 20, 2019, @ 2:00 pm Eastern Time – Final ballots due.
January 20, 2019 @ 5:00 pm Eastern Time. – Winners, with nominees, released and announced to the general public.

The organization has also launched the hashtag #YoSoyLEJA in an effort for all writers, both professional and aspiring, with Latin American roots, to identify themselves on social media and unite with LEJA under the umbrella of journalism.

#YoSoyLEJA
Official Site: http://www.latinojournalists.com
Facebook: @LEJALatino
Instagram: @LEJALatino
Twitter: @LEJALatino

Creed II

November 30, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
Directed by: Steven Caple Jr. (“The Land”)
Written by: Sylvester Stallone (“Rocky”) and Juel Taylor (debut)

When Sylvester Stallone handed writer/director Ryan Coogler the reigns of his beloved “Rocky” franchise a few years ago, Coogler transformed what was arguably a stagnant series into “Creed” — a nostalgic drama with depth and meaning. At that point, Stallone had already done his part, giving audiences an unexpected Best Picture Oscar win in 1976 for the original film and a franchise-worst contribution with the 1990 sequel “Rocky V.”

Although Stallone redeemed himself in 2006 with “Rocky Balboa,” it was the spinoff “Creed” that proved there was still untapped emotion in Rocky’s world of boxing. In the hands of Coogler, “Creed” became one of the surprise hits of the year and even earned Stallone a much-deserved Oscar nomination for his seventh reiteration of the Rocky character — only this time a lot grayer, lonelier and sadder.

Coogler’s choice to follow Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Rocky friend and competitor Apollo Creed, was an inspired one — and Coogler delivered more than anyone could’ve imagined. Unfortunately, Coogler was unable to return to write or direct “Creed II” (some little movie called “Black Panther” got in the way) and, despite screenplay duties going back to Stallone, the sequel suffers because of it.

The premise, of course, is what will inevitably make “Creed II” hit big at the box office. Adonis squaring off with Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the boxer who killed his father in “Rocky IV,” is every fanboy’s dream. What “Creed II” just can’t seem to recapture is the distinctive voice of Coogler. Director Steven Caple Jr. (“The Land”) tries to do his best impersonation but doesn’t equal Coogler’s creativity or narrative ambition.

What’s more troubling is that in the three years since we’ve seen Adonis, he hasn’t grown as a character. In the first three quarters of “Creed II,” Adonis is unlikeable and immature. When Rocky decides he doesn’t want to train him for a match with Viktor (Mr. Miyagi does the same thing in “The Karate Kid III!”), Adonis throws a predictable fit (“I’m taking this fight with or without you”) and a myriad of sports movie tropes start ruining what should’ve been a memorable return to the ring.

“Creed II” also misses a major opportunity to tell a great story about fathers and sons. Stallone’s script just isn’t strong enough to link the dynamics between Ivan and Viktor, Apollo and Adonis, and Rocky and his estranged boy Robert (Milo Ventimiglia). Somewhere under the clichés there’s something heartfelt to be said, but Stallone and first-time screenwriter Juel Taylor simply don’t land their jabs. But, hey, at least there’s a bunch of training montages.

The Front Runner

November 30, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, Sara Paxon
Directed by: Jason Reitman (“Tully”)
Written by: Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”), Jay Carson (debut), Matt Bai (debut)

It’s almost laughable to think that only 30 years ago, an entire political campaign for a U.S. presidential hopeful collapsed under the weight of a sordid extramarital affair. In comparison to the numerous sexual misconduct allegations raised about then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016 — not to mention his countless public gaffes that would’ve destroyed any other candidate’s chances of making it to the White House — the unfaithfulness of Colorado Senator Gary Hart feels like such a trivial issue.

In “The Front Runner,” however, Academy Award-nominated writer/director Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”) does his best to make Hart’s narrative resonate for audiences that can see the parallels between his indiscretions in the late 1980s and the bad behavior men from all industries have been called out for since the start of the #MeToo movement last year. It’s not heavy-handed from this aspect, but the similarities are recognizable for those who consume news on, at least, a semi-regular basis.

Reitman, who has been in a slump these last five years with less-than-stellar contributions like “Labor Day” and “Men, Women & Children,” delivers a sufficient look behind the scenes of a campaign spiraling out of control, although much of it is surface-level drama that fails to get into the heads of its main characters. It’s especially true of Hart (Hugh Jackman), who spends most of the film’s run time playing defense against accusations and blaming reporters for their salacious coverage.

As Hart, Jackman is genuinely believable in his role as a confident politician who is “talented at untangling the bullshit of politics” and becomes the front runner for the 1988 Democratic nomination. Hart was known for his resistance to answering questions about his personal life, so when the Miami Herald ran an article on an affair he was allegedly involved in, he quickly became a punchline for Johnny Carson and would later be written into the history books as the embodiment of political scandal.

“The Front Runner” is a captivating story but would’ve benefited from the script giving audiences a more meaningful insight into how Hart’s infidelity affected the lives of everyone around him — specifically his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga), campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons) and young lover Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). In her couple of scenes, Paxton gets closer than anyone in capturing the magnitude of Hart’s selfish actions.

Like all politicians, “The Front Runner” is flawed. But Reitman offers up a compelling enough glimpse from the campaign trail and shows that, no matter in what era, journalists will always be there to hold people in power accountable — even if that means forcing them to air out their dirty laundry.

Green Book

November 30, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Mahershala Ali, Viggo Mortensen, Linda Cardellini
Directed by: Peter Farrelly (“There’s Something About Mary”)
Written by: Peter Farrelly (“Hall Pass”), Brian Hayes Currie (“Two Tickets to Paradise”) and Nick Vallelonga (“Choker”)

When filmmakers step out of their comfort zones, things can sometimes get interesting. This year, we saw gore hound Eli Roth (“Hostel”) craft a spooky, yet kid-friendly flick, with “The House with a Clock in Its Walls.” We also got another chapter from the “Halloween” horror franchise, this time from the perspective of drama/comedy director David Gordon Green (“Stronger”). Now, Peter Farrelly — one half of the directing duo known as the Farrelly brothers (“Dumb and Dumber,” “There’s Something About Mary”) — splits from his sibling for the first time and ventures out on his own to make “Green Book,” a charming, crowd-pleasing dramedy that, unfortunately, pulls its punches on race relations.

Set in New York City in 1962, “Green Book” tells the true story of two men who couldn’t be more different from one another — Dr. Don Shirley (Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali), a sophisticated Jamaican-American classical pianist, and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Academy Award-nominee Viggo Mortensen), a working-class nightclub bouncer with a gift for gab.

The men find themselves on the road together when Don hires Tony to be his driver and security during a two-month-long concert tour through the Deep South. This, of course, was during the Jim Crow era when laws mandated racial segregation. The film’s title refers to the “Negro Motorist Green Book,” a travel guide blacks could refer to so they could know which establishments (restaurants, hotels, etc.) were considered African-American-friendly. With Tony’s “innate ability to handle trouble,” they embark on a trip that ends with both of them learning about tolerance and true friendship.

Its messaging on race, however, is a little trickier. “Green Book” is serious when it needs to be, but there’s also humor at its heart. Recent films like “The Help” and “Hidden Figures” have also taken a more lighthearted approach to the painful subject of racism, and there’s no denying that it’s a tough balancing act that filmmakers need to be mindful of so they don’t appear flippant on the issue.

“Green Book”’s intention isn’t to preach or hammer a message home with harrowing images or depictions of ultra-realistic bigotry. If audiences are looking for something like that, they should go stream “Mississippi Burning” or “American History X.” Instead, “Green Book” is focused on the dynamic between Don and Tony and how they maneuver beyond their own personal biases to respect each other.

No one ever said racism in this country doesn’t exist anymore because Barack Obama was twice elected President, and no one is saying anything similar because “Green Book,” with all its mainstream appeal and handful of hokey clichés, is an enjoyable picture. Farrelly didn’t produce a flawless film, but he hit an appropriately inspirational and life-affirming theme and tone with ease.

Jon Heder – Napoleon Dynamite

November 30, 2018 by  
Filed under Interviews

For actor Jon Heder, starring as the awkward title character in the 2004 indie cult classic “Napoleon Dynamite” was more of a blessing than a curse.

“Because of it, I’ve been able to form a career,” Heder told me last year prior to his first-ever visit to San Antonio for Alamo City Comic Con. “I know actors who would kill for that. You are remembered for something — always.”

This week, Heder returns to the Alamo City for the second year in a row, this time for a conversation and special screening of “Napoleon Dynamite” at the Tobin Center. Joining Heder for the event will be actors Efren Ramirez and Tina Majorino, who played Pedro and Deb in the film, respectively.

I recently caught up with Heder again and talked about what he thinks Napoleon’s social media habits would be like today, why ligers are a totally logical animal and if he still has sweet tetherball skills.

When you get a chance to share “Napoleon Dynamite” with fans, is it more special when co-stars are with you?

That’s what makes it so fun. It’s a reunion for ourselves. It’s always such a treat to see Tina and Efren. I don’t hang out with tons of Hollywood people and co-stars. I mean, sometimes I see people, but I have my family and that’s pretty much who I stick to. So, we get to reminisce about the movie, but it’s also just about catching up and seeing each other.

I think some people might be disappointed to know that you don’t go barhopping with Will Ferrell (his co-star in the 2007 comedy “Blades of Glory”) regularly.

[Laughs] Maybe we’ll do that for the movie’s anniversary or something.

Did you know anyone like Napoleon when you were in high school?

I pulled a lot of inspiration for Napoleon from my younger brothers, but also from that loner kid who loved to do drawings and thought he was good at drawings but really wasn’t. I remember kids like that, for sure. The drawings in [“Napoleon Dynamite”], I did myself. I tried to copy the style that I remember kids drawing in school.

I wonder how much those drawings would go for today at Sotheby’s.

It would be sweet if it was in — the ones of dollars!

Do you think Napoleon would be someone who would attend his high school reunion, or would he be one of those guys that falls off the face of the earth?

I’ve asked myself that a lot — what would he be like today? Everybody is on social media, so you almost wonder if he would be, too. I think he would probably be using [social media] like most people do — convincing themselves that their life is better than it actually is by posting only the good things. I don’t think he’d be very good at it though. He’d probably just post pictures of food.

Before you were married, did you ever use the line, “I played Napoleon Dynamite” as a pick-up line?

I was actually already married when I made “Napoleon Dynamite,” so I never got to use that line! I don’t know if that line would’ve worked. If I used the line on my wife, it would’ve probably had the opposite effect. She would’ve been like, “Forget that and leave me alone!”

I have to admit something: I only recently found out that ligers are real animals. I was shocked. It was like when I found out narwhals were real animals.

I had never heard of a liger before I made the movie. In the movie, we represent them and draw them as if they are just magical creatures. But if you think about it, you’ll realize, “Well, if you breed a male lion with a female tiger, you’re going to get something!” And a liger is what you get — minus the magic.

How are your tetherball skills these days?

I was hanging out with some family friends during the summer and was at a birthday party of someone I didn’t know. They had a tetherball pole in their backyard. Some of the kids looked at me and said, “Hey, let’s play tetherball.” I was like, “Why are you asking me and not anyone else? Tetherball sucks!” I mean, it doesn’t suck, but it’s not as fun to play as bocce ball. I was like, “No, forget it. I’m just going to cream you if I play you!”

If Pedro ran for president in 2020, would you vote for him?

I probably would. He’s a good guy. We need someone with a pure heart. It would be great to have someone like that in office — someone who is actually a good person.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

November 30, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson, James Franco
Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo”)
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen (“True Grit”)

As is the case with many of Academy Award-winning filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coens’ projects, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” a six-part Western anthology that leads audiences through the heart of the unforgiving American Frontier, is a worthy addition to the Coens’ darkly funny cinematic canon, which includes classics like “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski” and lesser-known gems like “A Serious Man.”

Do not, however, go into the Coens’ newest horse opera thinking they are going to deliver another “True Grit” or “No Country for Old Men.” It’s evident from those critically acclaimed films that they have the Western genre down pat, but “Buster Scruggs” is a different kind of movie altogether. Like “The Sisters Brothers” — another unconventional and philosophical cowboy dramedy that hit theaters a couple of months ago — it’s a unique and unpredictably screwy ride.

Of the film’s six vignettes, the one that would win an Oscar on its own in the Best Short Film category is the 20-minute opening segment, aptly called “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” and featuring actor Tim Blake Nelson (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) as the title character, a neatly dressed outlaw and “songbird,” who trots into town on horseback with his guitar only to find a heap of trouble waiting for him at every turn. With the Coens’ whip-smart dialogue and Nelson’s confident and wildly fun performance, “Buster Scruggs” starts off incredibly strong.

While the rest of the segments don’t reach the heights of the first, all of them offer viewers something special — a series of fantastic yarns spun with distinctive themes, pacing and colorful characters. In the segment “Near Algodones,” an unnamed cowboy (James Franco) walks into a dusty bank to rob it but finds his neck at the end of a noose when the teller (Stephen Root) fights back.

In “Meal Ticket,” The Impresario (Liam Neeson) serves as the caretaker to The Artist (Harry Melling), a limbless thespian who recites dramatic verse for townspeople across the Old West until his traveling companion discovers he might have a new plan. In “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” a young woman named Alice Lonabaugh (Zoe Kazan) is left in an uncomfortable position when her brother dies on the Oregon trail. Her future is uncertain until wagon train guide Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) offers her a start at a new life.

Made significant by the Coens’ clever screenplay, the gorgeous photography by five-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) and the beautiful score by two-time Oscar-nominated composer Carter Burwell (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), “Buster Scruggs” is an epic delight.

A Private War

November 30, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Tom Hollander
Directed by: Matthew Heineman (“Cartel Land”)
Written by: Arash Amel (“Grace of Monaco”)

In most instances, the horrors of war are depicted in film form from a male military standpoint. Recently, feature narratives including Oscar-nominees like “Dunkirk,” “Hacksaw Ridge” and “American Sniper” have placed audiences in the trenches of war — wars that span the globe and encompass an extensive timeline.

A lot can be understood, too, when a war story is taken from the perspective of someone whose job isn’t to actually fight, but, instead, to observe and report. These men and women are appropriately hailed as heroes in their own right — journalists who risk their lives to seek the truth and convey to the world what they have witnessed.

No one is quite as deserving of that distinction than late war correspondent Marie Colvin, who in 1986 began her career writing from the frontlines of every major conflict in the Middle East. In “A Private War,” first-time feature filmmaker and Oscar-nominated documentarian Matthew Heineman (“Cartel Land”) and screenwriter Arash Amel (“Grace of Monaco”) capture the grit, fearlessness and obsession for her work that shaped who Colvin was when she was embedded on the battlefield. (Colvin died in Syria in 2012 while covering the country’s civil war).

Portraying Colvin is Oscar-nominated British actress Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl”), a role that has to be one of the most physically demanding in her last 20 years. Narrating Colvin’s thoughts throughout the film, Pike gives moviegoers a glimpse of her tenacity for her profession and strength needed in battle, even after she loses her eye in a grenade attack in Sri Lanka in 2001. “Make that suffering part of the record,” she says as if physical pain was always a component of her job description.

Throwing herself in the dirt to dodge bullets, however, wasn’t the only suffering Colvin had to endure. Heineman and Amel explore Colvin’s alcoholism and PTSD, both of which resulted from the war-zone nightmares she was consistently haunted by. “You’ve seen more than most soldiers,” a colleague tells her at one point in the film. Pike’s confident performance maximizes these mentally draining scenes, and the script manages to help with some of the heavy lifting.

All the same, in “A Private War,” Pike is perfectly capable of carrying the film on her own. Whether she sits down to interview a heartless dictator face to face or watches the unearthing of a mass grave holding the remains of Saddam Hussein victims, Pike’s intense passion and genuine humanity shine through.

At a time when journalists are being labeled “the enemy of the people” from the highest levels of our own government, “A Private War” is here to remind everyone that they’re really not.

Widows

November 30, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Liam Neeson
Directed by: Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”)
Written by: Steve McQueen (“Shame”) and Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”)

Academy Award-winner Steve McQueen is a brilliant director. Although he has only made three features in the last decade — prior to his new thriller “Widows” — each of those films was clearly different and truly memorable, especially his controversial 2011 drama “Shame,” which starred Michael Fassbender as a New York City sex addict, and his brutal, 2013 Oscar-winning drama “12 Years a Slave.”

Sadly, his early cinematic achievements make “Widows” all the more disappointing. Knowing what he is capable of doing behind the camera, it’s unfortunate to see how incredibly ordinary of a heist movie it turned out to be. Even with a top-notch cast, its sprawling narrative ambition, flimsy characterizations and vague central plot push “Widows” to the brink of total collapse.

Set in Chicago, “Widows” kicks off with serious potential. McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) introduce audiences to a foursome of criminals who are quickly dispatched during a heist gone wrong. Left to mourn them are their wives — Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and less-important Amanda (a wasted Carrie Coon). When Veronica learns that her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) owes $2 million to some shady associates, she takes a set of blueprints left behind by her dead husband and decides to organize a robbery with the help of Linda and Alice, so they can pay off the debt.

Bursting over with more subplots than McQueen and Flynn know what to do with, “Widows” also follows a powerful and corrupt political family, led by father-son tandem Tom and Jack Mulligan (Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell), who get caught up in dirty deeds with one of Veronica’s debt collectors. Their story interlinks to one of the overall themes of the film, which attempts to deliver a reflective message about race, class and gentrification, but does so without much enthusiasm or emotion.

Regrettably, “Widows” forgets that it is – first and foremost – supposed to be a believable heist flick. There is so much happening away from their actual strategy, Flynn neglects piecing together a logical way to get Veronica and her crew to accomplish the feat without mucking it up. Sure, there’s a little preparation involved as we watch the women scout the location and talk through the importance of avoiding slip-ups, but once it’s time to execute the plan, moviegoers will be hard-pressed to explain how these characters are even remotely close to being ready for such a dangerous mission.

Add to this a handful of obvious plot holes and secondary storylines about a tense election, a rich developer procuring sexual services from Alice, a dead son, a fifth single mother trying to make ends meet, a hairstylist with a loan problem and an anticlimactic twist, and “Widows” spreads itself to waifish proportions.

Wildlife

November 30, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould
Directed by: Paul Dano (debut)
Written by: Zoe Kazan (“Ruby Sparks”) and Paul Dano (debut)

Over his 18-year career, actor Paul Dano has become one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets — a talented performer whose roles in mostly dramas and dark comedies are usually eclipsed by headlining movie stars or flashier characters or, in the case of last year’s “Swiss Army Man,” a farting Harry Potter.

In a sense, some of Dano’s roles are tonally linked by seemingly reclusive characters who gradually break out of their shells to uncover another distinctive part of their personality. He does this with ease in Oscar-winning films like 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine” and 2007’s “There Will Be Blood.”

Dano takes this idea of a smoldering character and uses it to define the atmosphere of his directorial debut “Wildlife” — an intimate, low-key family affair that slowly gives way to a narrative where aggravation, pain and resentment simmer beneath the landscape ready to flare up. All in all, it’s one of the best first independently produced features by an actor-turned-director since Tom McCarthy’s 2003 debut film “The Station Agent.”

Set in the 1960s, the film, much like 2008’s “Revolutionary Road,” depicts the dissolution of a marriage and family. In this instance, it’s the Brinsons — Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and their teenage son Joe (Ed Oxenbould), who serves as the main spectator of the domestic drama.

Making a life for themselves in a peaceful Montana town, Jerry stays busy working as a caddy at a local golf course. The family dynamic shifts greatly when he is abruptly fired from his job. Stuck in a rut and looking for something meaningful to do, he decides to leave town to become a modestly paid firefighter and battle the blazes destroying the state’s forests. With Jeanette at home upset with Jerry’s choice of employment, she finds solace in the arms of wealthy car dealership owner Warren Miller (Bill Camp).

Subtle in its storytelling, screenwriters Zoe Kazan (“Ruby Sparks”) and Dano offer a delicate approach to the subject matter as Joe attempts to understand what his mother is doing and how his fear of uncertainty is shaping his childhood. His awareness and concern for his family’s survival is palpable as Jeanette embroils herself into a situation she knows is wrong, but one that might bring her some kind of simulated happiness.

The coming-of-age parallels between Joe growing into a man while his father is away and the emotional disarray his mother causes while setting off on her own direction are effective. Mulligan is nothing short of mesmerizing as she struggles internally with life-altering decisions that will ultimately lead to the destruction of something that was once beloved.

« Previous PageNext Page »