Lady Bird

November 16, 2017 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts
Directed by: Gerta Gerwig (debut)
Written by: Greta Gerwig (“Frances Ha”)

It may not push past all the tropes of coming-of-age films that came before it, but “Lady Bird,” the directorial debut of indie-darling actress Greta Gerwig (“Frances Ha”), is a wonderful testament on how not everything has to be exceptionally groundbreaking to be an intelligent and insightful contribution to a subgenre. With “Lady Bird,” Gerwig has created a tender, engaging and clever script that any first-time filmmaker would love to claim as his or her introduction to the cinematic world from behind the camera. Gerwig has a distinctive voice – although there are hints of directors like Noam Baumbach, Joe Swanberg and the Duplass Brothers sprinkled into it – that should be interesting to watch as she grows into her own.

In “Lady Bird,” two-time Academy Award nominated actress Saoirse Ronan stars as the title character, a teenager living unhappily in Sacramento with her sympathetic father (Tracy Letts) and overbearing mother (Laurie Metcalf) and attending a Catholic high school with her best friend Jules (Beanie Feldstein). As a somewhat autobiographical take on her own life, Gerwig maneuvers through the narrative with compassion and humor as Lady Bird plans her escape from her hometown and hopes to attend college in New York City, although her grades are mediocre and her family can only afford community college.

Lady Bird’s teenage angst takes over most of the picture, but Gerwig doesn’t allow her main character to ever become unlikeable. Sure, she’s a bit of a spoiled brat with her mom, but her overall personality makes up for it and audiences are able to root for her as she tries to “find herself” and find a way out. The film mostly hinges on the tempestuous relationship between Lady Bird and her mother. The multifaceted dynamic between the two is deep, and Ronan and Metcalf are sharp when they share the screen.

While the storytelling is fairly ordinary, there is life behind the universal themes Gerwig explores with her own sense of satisfaction, frustration and wide-eyed wonderment. This definitely feels like a “first film,” but not all first films feel this rich with potential.

American Made

September 29, 2017 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright Olsen
Directed by: Doug Liman (“Edge of Tomorrow,” “The Bourne Identity”)
Written by: Gary Spinelli (“Stash House”)

Based (somewhat loosely) on a true story, “American Made” finds Tom Cruise finally returning to the type of role that gives him some vulnerability—something which has been sorely lacking in a decade filled with high-octane “Mission: Impossible” movies, the dull “Jack Reacher” series, and this year’s dreadful reboot of “The Mummy.”

Cruise plays Barry Seal, a TWA airline pilot who, in 1978, is bored of welcoming passengers to Bakersfield and Vancouver. While in Canada, he and other pilots run a low-level smuggling ring, bringing Cuban cigars into the United States for a few extra bucks. This attracts the attention of a CIA agent named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) who plays into Seal’s boredom to recruit him to fly a twin-engine plane over communist training camps in Central America, snapping photos for Uncle Sam. Barry agrees, but doesn’t tell his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen), who pesters Barry for more money for their growing family. When he’s shut out of a raise by Schafer, Barry accepts an offer from the men who would become the Medellin drug cartel, led by Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía) and Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), to smuggle cocaine into the United States for piles and piles of cash.

When Barry is arrested and thrown into a Colombian prison for drug smuggling, Schafer again comes to his aid with an offer: deliver guns to communist-fighting Contras in Nicaragua. Again, the cartel steps in and offers to buy the guns from Barry, who becomes obscenely wealthy from the smuggling, attracting the attention of the FBI, ATF, and several other law enforcement agencies.

Directed by Doug Liman, who previously helmed the under-appreciated (and poorly titled) Cruise sci-fi vehicle “Edge of Tomorrow,” “American Made” aspires for the breezy, comedy-drama feel of “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “The Big Short” and ends up mostly succeeding. There are times when the plot feels hacked up to get the running time just under two hours, with stunted characters like Jesse Plemons’ “look the other way” small town sheriff getting featured introductions and significant follow-up scenes only to end up with little to do afterward and the sudden fore fronting of one of Barry’s vague associates in the final act.

It’s a small quibble, really, and it doesn’t do much to detract from the enjoyment in finally seeing Tom Cruise really sink his gorgeous teeth into something for the first time since “Magnolia” or “Vanilla Sky.”

Stronger

September 22, 2017 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson
Directed by: David Gordon Green (“Joe”)
Written by: John Pollono (debut)

The 2013 Boston Marathon bombing is given the cinematic treatment for the second time in two years and done so, once again, with heart and sensitivity for everyone involved in the fateful day. While last year’s “Patriots’ Day” focused on the crime itself and what it took to bring a pair of terrorists to justice, the drama “Stronger” takes a more humanistic approach with the story of one man whose life was changed forever in the blink of an eye. It’s a touching look at a personal fight for survival and how the idea of heroism is viewed during a national tragedy to lift up those who have been broken.

Academy Award-nominated actor Jake Gyllenhaal (“Brokeback Mountain”) stars as Jeff Bauman, an average Bostonian who was present at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013 cheering for his on-again, off-again girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) when two bombs detonated in the crowd. When the smoke settled, it is revealed that Jeff has lost both his legs in one of the blasts. In an uphill physical and emotional battle, Jeff must learn how to live with his handicap all while reliving a day he would like to forget by reluctantly taking on the role of “hero” christened on him by a city in desperate need of inspiration.

Moviegoers are given that sense of hopefulness from Jeff’s story with Gyllenhaal’s subtle and vulnerable performance. Luckily, with director David Gordon Green (“Joe”) behind the camera, the storytelling strays from becoming too melodramatic or sappy. While Gyllenhaal doesn’t command the screen like in a lot of his previous work, the character feels meaningful and resonant. As Jeff’s supportive (ex)-girlfriend, Maslany from stands out with conviction in her most accessible film to date. It’s not a role that allows her much range like she has on her TV series “Orphan Black” where she plays a handful of different clones, but Maslany captures something beautiful in the way she exudes love and frustration as a sympathetic caretaker.

By confronting the more painful aspects of Jeff’s narrative, Green and first-time screenwriter John Pollono give audiences more than the cliché tropes that we would normally see in a film that could’ve easily been denigrated to Movie of the Week levels. Instead, “Stronger” is intimate, tender and heartbreaking in just the right amounts.

Atomic Blonde

July 28, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman
Directed by: David Leitch (debut)
Written by: Kurt Johnstad (“300”)

I’m firmly on the record as being on board for everything that “John Wick” maestros David Leitch and Chad Stahelski attach their names to from now until the end of time. Their action scenes are among the best cinema has to offer this side of Gareth Evans, and the worlds they create are so rich they put entire blockbuster franchises to shame.

Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde,” headlined by Charlize Theron, is another explosive showcase of the director’s talent. A lot of press lately has focused on Charlize doing her own stunts, and the movie certainly delivers on heroine ass-kicking. There’s decidedly less action here than in either of the John Wick installments, but Leitch cranks up the mayhem here to unprecedented levels of insanity. One particular sequence featuring a car chase is easily in contention for one of the greatest action sequences ever put to film.

In case you hadn’t already caught on, “Atomic Blonde” has fantastic action sequences. Regretfully, it doesn’t offer anything beyond that. Atomic Blonde has a running time of 115 minutes, and you really feel it. So much time is spent on exposition and backstory, but none of it accomplishes anything beyond turning the film into a dull slog. In adapting the graphic novel series by Anthony Johnston and Sam Hart, screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (both “300” movies, “Act of Valor”) tries his hardest to make a Cold War thriller, but even the slowest John le Carre moments bubble with more intrigue.

Review etiquette requires me to give some sort of a plot synopsis, but I’m going to have to forgo that formality due to the lamentable fact that the events that play out in the film are so instantly forgettable. Even great supporting talent like John Goodman, Toby Jones, and Sofia Boutella seem bored by having to deliver lifeless dialogue that is simultaneously dense and dull. Theron’s performance has a bit of that lifelessness too, which works for her character, but surrounding her lethal assassin with similar cold beings lessen her performance’s effect.

On the flip side, James McAvoy and Eddie Marsan tear up the screen in such a way you really want to see the crazy movie that they were in. There are lots of cases where Leitch seems to be down to make that movie, too, what with his upbeat (albeit on the nose) 80s soundtrack and his neon-tinged visuals. Ultimately, though, not even the brilliant mind of Leitch can save this movie. There’s a great ballet of carnage on display in “Atomic Blonde,” but the remainder of the film is so painfully out of tune you leave the theater wondering why such greatness had to be showcased alongside something so tepid.

Dunkirk

July 21, 2017 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy
Directed by: Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”)
Written by: Christopher Nolan (“Inception”)

As one of the most highly regarded filmmakers of the modern era, director Christopher Nolan’s ambition is both his biggest strength and his greatest weakness. With his ambition, Nolan conceptualized “Inception,” which explored the world of dreams and consciousness, creating an entire universe filled with painstakingly detailed ideas and a dazzling visual landscape to match. His ambition has also occasionally stifled him, such as with “Interstellar,” a generally good movie that gets far too bogged down with a convoluted third act to make any lasting impact. With his latest film, “Dunkirk,” Nolan has taken historical subject matter and while staying ambitious in certain ways, created his most restrained film yet. The results, like most of Nolan’s work, are spectacular.

Telling the story of the largest retreat in military history from allied forces in World War II, the film unfolds with a trio of timelines, one taking place by land over a week span, one by sea over a day span, and one by air over an hour span. It is the most noticeable narrative quality, evoking Nolan’s non-linear storytelling from “Memento,” though not nearly as radical. The results of this narrative structure pay off immensely. Through this device, Nolan is not only able to shift in and out between different perspectives, but he is able to create an immense amount of tension. Nail-biting moments may begin over one timeline and the audience not see a resolution until the timelines intersect. It’s the type of higher level thinking that Nolan has made his signature and really allows him to put a new perspective on a war movie.

While none may stand out, every one of the timelines are solid in their own right and serve their purpose. The land segments, bolstered by unknown actor Fionn Whitehead as Tommy are really able to show the desperation of the soldiers trapped at Dunkirk. Even as he tries to sneak his way just to survive, the soldiers seem to be foiled at every turn as sitting ducks to the enemy. With the sea segments, Nolan is able to use fantastic actor Mark Rylance to display the courage of a regular citizen insisting on taking his own boat rather than having it be commandeered to rescue troops. Finally, with the air segments, Nolan utilizes the films most notable actor, Tom Hardy, to display the heroism from fighter pilots who were some of the only protection the soldiers had.

From a visual standpoint, Nolan has created another masterpiece. The air segments feature impressive aerial shots, especially from cameras mounted on planes that feature the vast oceans below. Even on regular screens (the film did not screen for critics on the much lauded 70mm IMAX), the scope of “Dunkirk” is massive. But beyond just visual marvels and beautiful constructed shots, the audio of “Dunkirk” is wildly immersive. Gunshots in the opening segment and the unexpected ones throughout the film are jolting, creating visceral intensity and tension. There is also an unsettlingly taut score from Hans Zimmer, doing his best work in years. Make no mistake, “Dunkirk” is loud, but with the chaos going on around, it feels like a necessity.

Perhaps as a result of the timeline jumps, leaving characters in one place and picking up with others, the only thing that “Dunkirk” truly feels like its missing is stronger emotional ties to its characters. Still, it can’t help but feel like a nitpick when the movie, despite having traditional heroes to really latch onto, still generates plenty of emotion. With “Dunkirk,” Nolan has created nothing less than a cinematic marvel. It’s visually breathtaking, ambitious and stirring. In other words, it’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from Christopher Nolan.

Ghost in the Shell

March 31, 2017 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Juliette Binoche
Directed by: Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”)
Written by: Jamie Moss (“Street Kings”) and William Wheeler (“The Hoax”) and Ehren Krueger (“Transformers: Age of Extinction”)

In the ’90s, adolescent me had all kinds of under-the-radar alternate entertainment thrown at me by virtue of being a socially-awkward fat nerd. Some things stuck hard, like comic books, “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast.” Others even I deflected, like Magic: The Gathering and anime—then only accessible on VHS from higher-end comic book shops, not counting the mass-market, sanitized Japanese exports like “Sailor Moon” and the fledgling days of “Pokemon.”

I feel like I gave anime a fair shake, though, and hyper-violent cartoons with occassional nudity was an easy sell anyway. But still, nothing. As I moved into my 20s, the ubiquitousness of DVDs led to me sampling one of the masterworks of the genre I had long heard about, 1995’s “Ghost in the Shell.” And again, it didn’t take. I shook hands with anime and we went our separate ways.

But, because genre filmmaking is a beast that can’t be satiated, it was only a matter of time before “Ghost in the Shell,” with its cyberpunk-robot storyline easily retrofitted for American audiences, was given the big-budget Hollywood treatment—and the endlessly debated, probably problematic whitewashed casting that goes with it.

Set in a future where humans augment themselves with cybernetic implants and live in cities filled with Golem-like holographic advertising avatars, “Ghost in the Shell” opens with the creation of the Major (Scarlett Johansson), the first synthetic humanoid with a real human brain inside of it under the care of Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche). Major’s real body was damaged in a terrorist bombing, so she is told, and Ouelet saved her life. Since the Major is a product of the probably-evil Hanka robotics corporation, she is of course weaponized and made to hunt down terrorists with a multinational team, including the hulking, dog-friendly muscle with cybernetic eyes Batou (Pilou Asbæk), the closest Major comes to having a partner. They’re on the trail of a super-hacker named Kuze (Michael Pitt) who’s working to assassinate Hanka scientists—but his reasons remain mysterious until the Major is able to get close to him and recover her memories, changing everything.

As a dull amalgam of “Blade Runner,” “The Matrix,” and HBO’s “Westworld,” “Ghost in the Shell” is a beautiful-looking film that proclaims to be about identity, but fails to find one of its own. Its the type of movie that, 15 years ago, cinephiles would have salivated over as showcases for their home audio/video setups—a special-edition DVD in a shiny foil packaging, all gloss with nothing underneath. It’s a shame, too, because Johannson once again proves herself to be a badass female action hero in an industry severely lacking them. After this and the travesty that was “Lucy,” can we stop dicking around and just give her a “Black Widow” movie already?

Silence

January 13, 2017 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson
Directed by
: Martin Scorsese (“Goodfellas”)
Written by: Jay Cocks (“Gangs of New York”) and Martin Scorsese (“Goodfellas”)

As a film almost 30 years in the making, from one of the most prolific, respected and decorated filmmakers of his time, it’s almost impossible for Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” to not have impossibly high expectations. Sprawling, beautifully bleak and yet quietly presented, the first trailers indicated that this wasn’t your average Scorsese. As we move into the final wave of awards season films, all eyes are on Scorsese to see what exactly he has been sitting on for decades.

After the disappearance of Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a pair of Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Gariupe (Adam Driver), head to the dangerous land of Japan to track him down and to spread the word of Catholicism. As the two priests enter Japan, they see that being a Christian in Japan is a death sentence and they fight to keep the faith alive while trying find their mentor and keeping and their whereabouts a secret.

As an actor on the cusp for a while, “Silence” sees a fully realized Garfield. It’s a physical performance with a bit of weight loss, but also a sorrowful, charismatic, heartfelt and at times, humorous performance. It’s his film to carry with Neeson and Driver taking a bit of a backseat and he handles it well. Much of the rest of the cast is Japanese and very solid across the board. A lot is being made of the performance of Issey Ogata who plays the Inquisitor, and it’s valid. It’s almost strange as the performance seems hammy and cartooney yet completely works due to its commitment and darkly funny personality.

With a film this steeped in the story of priests and Catholicism, it is almost impossible to not say that what the audience takes from this film will largely depend on their own personal beliefs. At a minimum, however, the themes that can be extrapolated come down to “how far would one go to defend what they believe in?” As we watch our protagonists given time and time again to pull themselves, and those who follow them out of a situation at the expensive of selling out their believes, we see their struggle and their faiths tested. Scorsese deserves credit for not delving too far into forcing his beliefs on his audience, but the undertones are unmistakable. Is it meditative? Of course. Is it extremely religious in its themes? Absolutely.

“Silence” feels almost aggressively long, which isn’t helped by its slow pace. While much of the movie is compelling and ripe with strong performances, there are several false endings and a few check your watch moments. As a comprehensive piece, “Silence” probably falls around the middle or mid-to-lower range in Scorsese’s filmography. That isn’t to say it is a bad film on any level. It’s harrowing and challenging. It’s well performed and well written. There’s fantastic sound design and beautiful cinematography. But in the end, it remains a tough nut to crack and a little difficult to connect with on a level beyond its religiosity.