ZOOLANDER 2 (2016)

February 12, 2016

zoolander2 Greetings again from the darkness. Here comes yet another write up where I am out of step with the majority of film critics. While most are heaping hatred on it for idiocy and self-obsession, my response is … isn’t that the point of a sequel to Zoolander, itself a tribute to idiocy and self-obsession? Maybe the difference stems from my not being a big fan of the 2001 original. Granted, the sub-plot of child labor from the original was (and remains) a real world issue, while this one is fuzzy-focused on a plot to kill the beautiful people in hopes of finding the fountain of youth … less real world tragedy and more like holding a mirror up to society’s insecurities.

The fashion industry was skewered in the original, but couldn’t wait to embrace this sequel. In the 15 years since that first Zoolander, a symbiotic relationship has formed between TV – Movies – Music – Fashion. The lines are blurred now that actors have become models and models are acting. TV shows are built around fashion and fashion shows boost music. And all of these elements are tied into the explosion of social media outlets. The greatest impact yet is probably the fact that most every person has a camera (phone) attached to them at all times and in every environment … we have a citizenry of selfie-taking models.

What can’t be denied is that the sequel is a smorgasbord of celebrity cameos (some might call it overkill). There are times the cameos pop up so fast that it’s challenging to keep up. Spotting the celebs, following the sight gags and catching the one-liners … that’s the tripod on which writer/director/star Ben Stiller has built his Zoolander second home. Though it’s not as quotable as the original, the production value is much improved. Never is this more evident than the slick looking opening chase scene that sets the stage for national narcissism being attacked for the next 90 minutes.

Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson return as male models Derek Zoolander and Hansel, though when we first see them, they have been in years-long hiding … Derek claiming to live as a “hermit crab”. The film begins by catching us up on why they are in hiding (it’s related to Derek’s Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good), and what’s up with others like Mugatu (Will Ferrell), Derek’s wife Matilda (Christine Taylor), and Billy Zane (Billy Zane). The gag is that Derek and Hansel are now “old and lame” … literally out of fashion in fashion.

As with most comedies, it’s best to avoid the trailer and any details or punchlines before walking into the theatre. You need only know that the old favorite characters are still here and an army of new ones (including Penelope Cruz and Kristen Wiig) arrive – some for a few scenes, others for only a few seconds. Satire is still the name of the game and the biggest fashion icons are front and center: Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger, Valentino, Anna Wintour and “both Wangs”. A big assist goes to Kiefer Sutherland who joins in the fun of poking fun at his own image. There’s even a jab at celebrity political endorsements with the line “She’s hot. I trust her.”

Justin Theroux is back as Stiller’s co-writer and also plays a role in the sub-plot involving Derek’s son, and the script proudly plays homage to the original (as it should) while still moving into contemporary themes (as it should). So “Relax” (nod to Frankie) and take in the fun. It’s the type of fun akin to riding a roller coaster … fun while it lasts, and over when it’s over. To paraphrase Derek, it’s a ‘really really ridiculously’ good time.

No trailer posted (it’s for your own good!)

 

 


A WAR (Krigen, Denmark, 2015)

February 11, 2016

a war Greetings again from the darkness. Distinguishing between right and wrong has always been pretty easy for me, which probably explains my fascination when a good book or movie presents a decision weighted by moral ambiguity … especially one involving life and death. Such is the case with writer/director Tobias Lindholm’s (A Hijacking, 2012) latest, which has been Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (Denmark). It’s tension-filled and overflowing with moments that will make you question yourself and your beliefs.

Three parts make up the whole, and each segment brings its own pressures and is presented with its own camera technique. We see Commander Claus Pederson (Pilou Asbaek) leading his squad of Danish soldiers in their Afghan peace-keeping missions. The film bounces between these boots on the ground and Pederson’s wife (Tuva Novotny) back at home in Denmark trying to maintain a sense of normalcy for their three kids. The final act is a tense courtroom drama that will undoubtedly mess with your head.

Mr. Asbaek (“Game of Thrones” and the upcoming Ben-Hur remake) is spell-binding as Commander Pederson. When a land mine causes the loss of one of his men, Pederson proves that he is no desk-jockey, but rather a leader by example. He has a calm presence that inspires his men, though his fearless approach is quietly questioned by some. His in-the-heat-of-the-moment decision with his squad under fire saves the life of an injured soldier, while also resulting in a tragedy that could affect his military career, his family life, and his freedom.

It’s interesting to see how director Lindholm parallels the struggles of Mr. and Mrs. Pederson … albeit in different worlds. The personal and emotional challenges are everywhere and affect everyone. The 3 kids miss their father and struggle in their own ways with their new world. The wife misses her husband and battles to keep the kids in line. The husband misses his wife and their closeness. He also misses the little joys that come with being a (present) father. The soldiers struggle with their orders to patrol a community that doesn’t seem to want them. Even the community struggles with the constant threat of danger.

Commander Pederson’s fateful decision is the focus of the courtroom drama. The dilemma faced by him and his men is truly a no-win situation. His job was to protect his men while also protecting the citizens of the community. It’s a judgment call in the heat of the moment. Either decision would be right and either decision would be wrong. The issue on trial is so complex that it’s very likely the desired verdict would be split among those in the theatre. When Pederson’s wife tells him “It’s not what you did that matters. It’s what you do now.” We certainly understand her, but do we agree? Is it possible to judge a war crime when lives are in immediate danger?  What would you do? Unless you’ve been in those boots, it’s impossible to know. The best intentions can be eclipsed by a will to live and quest to save those for whom you are responsible. Is lying ever OK, and if so, what is the fallout?  How does it impact you, those you love, and those whose respect you have earned?

This is an exceptionally well made movie with a script that constantly has us questioning our morals. while providing no easy answers.

watch the trailer:

 


BOY AND THE WORLD (animated, 2015)

February 11, 2016

O Menino e o Mundo (Brazil)

boy and the world Greetings again from the darkness. It may not be Pixar, but this wonderful film from Ale Abreu is absolutely worthy of its Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, though it’s heavier on message than story. It’s a wonderful reminder that one of the best features of animation is that the look can be unconventional and still be effective.

The stick figure boy is on a mission to re-connect with his father, who left the family’s country home to find work in the big city. For Abreu’s film, the boy’s real purpose is to be our tour guide through this exploration of the state of the “civilized” world. It’s an adventure that provides the boy (and us) insight into cities, the sea, the countryside and agricultural life. It’s also an examination of the loss of childhood innocence as we are exposed to reality.

A rare hand-drawn presentation is also mixed-media, as it utilizes a few real news clips to emphasize the cluttered, damaged world. It’s a different approach in making the arguments regarding climate change, carbon footprints and socioeconomic imbalance. The hand-drawn core here is more complex than what we initially believe. Colors explode onto the screen, and the visuals often carry multiple meanings in depicting the intended message.

Dialogue is minimal and often garbled in a manner that reminds of any adult in the Charlie Brown comics … but we are never confused on what is being conveyed. In addition to the visuals, sound effects play a huge role, as does the music from composers Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kuriat, and Brazilian jazz favorite Nana Vasconcelos. It’s a unique approach to reminding us that our harsh treatment of the planet could play like a horror story or dangerous adventure to the innocent eyes of a child.

watch the trailer:

 


WHERE TO INVADE NEXT (doc, 2016)

February 10, 2016

where to invade next Greetings again from the darkness. We haven’t heard much from director Michael Moore since his 2009 film Capitalism: A Love Story … and not many people have complained. While Mr. Moore’s eagerness to ask tough questions and confront the system has always been appreciated (or at least thought-provoking), his style and manner have often seemed somewhat dubious, one-sided and self-serving. And now comes the new and improved Michael Moore. Many say he has mellowed in temperament; however, a better description might be that he has achieved a level of wisdom that allows for an approach that makes us more receptive to his points.

This latest begins with a note that the U.S. has not won a war since WWII, and the farcical hook is that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have summoned Moore for advice. See, America has lost its way and is on the wrong track when it comes to such basics as personal happiness, equality and overall priorities. Moore’s solution is to “invade” other countries and stake a claim on the things they do better than us (us being the United States).

To drive home the contrast of how other nations focus on crucial topics that the U.S. seems to have forgotten, Moore cherry-picks the best parts of other societies. These include: Italy (extended vacations for less stress), France (superior school nutrition and straight-forward sex education), Finland (top rated education despite no homework, short school days, and no standardized testing), Slovenia (free college education which means no debt for graduates), Germany (strong middle class, national healthcare, high wages at small companies), Portugal (decriminalization of drugs resulting in less crime and lower drug usage), Norway (prison rehabilitation), Tunisia (women’s rights), and Iceland (gender equality).

To convince us of his kinder, gentler self, Moore obsessively flaunts the American flag throughout. It does help to distract from his trademark disheveled and bedraggled personal appearance … his usual method in attempting to convince he’s just “one of the guys” rather than the multi-millionaire he is. Still, despite his gimmicky approach, it’s impossible not to notice the obvious lack of in-your-face negativity. In fact, it could be stated that optimism exists as he tromps his way through the good news in each stop. Optimism with a bite – the comparisons aren’t favorable for the U.S. in any of these scenarios.

What Moore does best is generate debate and inspire passionate discussion on topics. His point here is that most of the ideals he is claiming from other countries actually have a foundation in America. Yes, these are ideals that America has forsaken, yet are working in other places. Of course, the cherry-picking gives the impression of idyllic societies, when in fact, each of these nations face many of their own unnamed challenges – some on the specific topics addressed by Moore.

Moore’s goal seems to be to re-focus our attention on core American values – the topics Americans care about in our daily lives. He wants us to be annoyed with the way things are … crime-fed bankers still lining their pockets, a stressed-out workforce, and an education system that is quite simply stated, a mess. Maybe this kinder, gentler (but still manipulative) contrarian is on to something, and he ends by asking us how we feel about all of this. Moore has again succeeded in getting us thinking about things, and this time it comes with quite a surreal movie moment … Moore telling a disinterested Portugal police officer that he has “cocaine in my pocket right now.”

watch the trailer:

 


MARSHLAND (La isla minima, Spain, 2015)

February 10, 2016

marshland Greetings again from the darkness. The best neo-noir crime thrillers immersed in the grim tone of “True Detective”, Stieg Larsson’s trilogy and El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes, 2009) have a way of drawing us into the atmospheric underbelly of society and keeping us grappling for solid ground until a resolution is in place.  This gem from Spain comes courtesy of director Alberto Rodriguez, who co-wrote the story with Rafael Cobos. Cinematographer Alex Catalan also deserves much credit.

Juan (Javier Gutierrez) and Pablo (Raul Arevalo) are two police detectives thrown together to investigate the disappearance of two teenage sisters in a remote part of the southern country. It’s 1980, five years after the death of Franco, and the country is in the midst of political and social transition/turmoil. The two detectives are a microcosm of this transition as Juan is the old-school cop who views “physicality” as part of the interrogation process, while Pablo is next generation and believes in following the new rules of democracy and treating all with respect. Pablo, whose wife is back home in Madrid expecting their first child, is none too happy about being paired with Juan, who seems to have no real moral compass at this stage in his life and career.

When the violently abused bodies of the sisters are discovered, Juan and Pablo follow a trail of leads that take them through a mostly closed-circuit and uncooperative community … one eager to explain that those sisters had “a reputation”. The village women are all frightened to speak, the men are zealously protective of each other, and both are suspicious of outsiders. Even the Civil Guard systematically defends the old society of man-rule.

The contrast between the two polar opposite detectives, and their slow to develop meeting of minds, is more the focus here than the still quite interesting procedural work being done to investigate the murders and uncover the atrocities. This is not one of those heart-pounding, adrenaline-laced joy rides, but rather a slow-burn of police work and character development.

Aerial shots to open the film are breath-taking and included periodically throughout the film. Mr. Catalan’s work is combined with digitized versions of the work of photographer Hector Garrido to create the haunting atmosphere around an area of Spain that otherwise lacks the natural beauty we often associate with the country. This setting adds yet another layer to this mesmerizing movie-watching (for those of us who appreciate the genre).

watch the trailer:

 


TUMBLEDOWN (2016)

February 10, 2016

tumbledown Greetings again from the darkness. If I find myself three minutes into a movie and have already executed a couple of eye-rolls, any hopes for a decent little Romantic-Comedy-Drama would ordinarily be dashed. However, having Rebecca Hall’s character narrate her writing efforts as she taps away on the keyboard, actually does serve the story. The first feature from director Sean Mewshaw and his screenwriting wife Desiree Van Til takes advantage of a beautiful setting, a slew of contrasts, and some heartfelt music to keep us interested in how things plays out.

Ms. Hall plays Hannah, the grieving young widow who has stashed herself away in a lakefront cabin located in the rural Maine community in which she was raised. Her grief remains burdensome some two years after the tragic death of her husband Hunter Miles – a folk singer whose only album (and subsequent death) created a public mystique and a defensiveness on the part of Hannah to protect and control his legacy.

As a Ph.D from Brown, periodic contributor to the local newspaper, and soul mate of Hunter, Hannah undertakes the writing of his biography in the shadow of the studio monument that continues to expand with trinkets left at his gravesite by a cult of fans paying respect. Griffin Dunne plays her friend and owner of the local bookstore and publisher of the newspaper. His less than enthusiastic critique of her early pages of the biography correspond with the vigorous pursuit by a Hofstra Pop Culture Professor with a book publishing deal who wants to make Hunter a key element of his new project.

Jason Sudeikis plays Andrew, and his fast-talking big city mannerisms don’t initially mesh so well with the hyper-sensitive and protective grieving widow. The two spar like brother and sister, and the initial adversarial relationship means only one thing in the movie world … romance is in the air. Fortunately, the focus on telling the story of Hunter acts as a form of grief therapy for Hannah and a bit of redemption of spirit for Andrew. Of course, the path to enlightenment is not simple for either. Hannah’s “friend with benefits” is a hunky local power company worker played by Joe Manganiello (“True Blood”), and Andrew’s big city music industry girlfriend is played by Dianna Agron (“Glee”).  But as you would expect, the biggest obstacle faced by the two leads is their own stubbornness.

We learn the most about Andrew and Hannah when they are around others. An Easter luncheon with Hannah’s family is especially insightful. Her parents are played by Blythe Danner and Richard Masur, and as viewers we long for more scenes featuring these two characters (and terrific actors). We sense that these parents see right through Andrew and Hannah. Can Hannah let down her guard so that she can move on with life? Can Andrew quell his ambition so that the emotional connection takes place?

Beautifully shot (with British Columbia substituting for Maine), the aspect of nature plays a role in contrasting country girl with city boy, and it’s the accidental discovery of a long lost song that highlights the stark difference in motives … while also being the impetus for change. Hunter’s original music is heard throughout the film, and it’s actually Damien Jurado whose singing and songwriting add an element of intrigue and realism. Hannah, as narrator, states “In the middle, we feel like it’s never going to end.” While that may be true for many romance movies, the filmmakers here avoid the “too cute” moments that spoil most in this genre … and impressively overcome those early eye-rolls.

watch the trailer:


HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

February 6, 2016

hail caesar Greetings again from the darkness. Homage or Spoof or outright Farce? Though the Coen Brothers motivation may be cloudy, their inspiration certainly is not. The Golden Age of Hollywood is skewered by the filmmaking brothers who previously applied their caustic commentary to the movie business in Barton Fink (1991). However, this latest seems to borrow more from the unrelated universes of their films A Serious Man (2009) and Burn After Reading (2008) in that it alternates tone by focusing first on one man’s attempt to make sense of things, and then with a near slapstick approach to “urgent” situations.

The film seems to be made for Hollywood geeks. Perhaps this can also be worded as … the film seems to be made for the Coen brothers themselves. Rather than an intricate plot and subtle character development used in their classic No Country for Old Men (2007), this is more a collection of scenes loosely tied together thanks to their connection to Eddie Mannix, Capitol Pictures “fixer”. Josh Brolin plays straight-laced Mannix, a twist on the real Eddie Mannix, notorious for his behind the scenes work at MGM in controlling the media, protecting the stars and studio, and protecting movie stars from their own idiotic actions. He was a real life Ray Donovan. It’s Mannix’s job that creates the hamster wheel to keep this story moving (complimented by narration from Michael Gambon).

We witness a typical day for Mannix as he confesses to the Priest that he had a couple of cigarettes after promising his wife he would quit, negotiates with communists who have kidnapped the studios biggest movie star, deftly handles the studio head’s greedy desire to shift a western movie star into a genre for which he is ill-prepared, plans a cover-up for the starlet having a baby out of wedlock, and juggles the demands of the competing twin gossip columnists searching for scandal. Mannix keeps his cool through all of this while mulling a lucrative job offer from Lockheed that would put him right in the midst of the nuclear war scare.

With an exacting attention to period and industry detail, the Coen’s remind us of the popular genres and circumstances of the era. George Clooney plays mega star Baird Whitlock, working on the studios biggest picture of the year – a biblical epic entitled “Hail, Caesar!” (think Ben-Hur, The Robe, etc). Whitlock is kidnapped by a group of communist writers (not yet blacklisted) who are striking out against a capitalistic studio that doesn’t share the rewards with the creative folks. It’s a different look than what Trumbo offered last year. In a tribute to Roy Rogers and famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, there is a segment on popular westerns featuring Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures, 2013) as Hobie Doyle, a popular actor whose an artist with a rope and horse and guitar, but not so smooth on his transition to the parlor dramas being filmed by demanding director Laurence Laurentz (a terrific Ralph Fiennes). In boosting Doyle’s public perception, the studio sets him up on a date with a Carmen Miranda-type played by Veronica Osorio. Her character is named Carlotta Valdez in a nod to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Another sequence features Scarlett Johansson as DeAnna Moran, an Esther Williams type (with a behind the scenes nod to Loretta Young) in a Busby Berkeley-esque production number featuring the synchronized swimming so prominent in the era. One of the film’s best segments comes courtesy of Channing Tatum in a take on films like On the Town, where sailors would sing and dance while on leave.

Tilda Swinton (whose appearance improves any movie) appears as the competing twin sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thackery. Her hats and costumes are sublime and pay worthy tribute to Hedda Hopper (who also balked at being termed a gossip columnist). Jonah Hill’s only scene is from the trailer, and it could be misleading to any of his fan’s coming to see his performance; and the same could be said for Frances McDormand (a very funny scene as a throwback editor). And so as not to disappoint their many critics, the Coen’s have a terrific scene featuring four men of various religious sects who are asked their opinion of the script – so as not to offend any viewers. The pettiness is palpable.

Roger Deakins is, as always, in fine form as the cinematographer. The water and western productions are the most eye-catching, but he does some of his best camera work in the shots of individual actors or scenes-within-a-scene. We have come to depend on Joel and Ethan Coen for taking us out of our movie comfort zone, while providing the highest level of production – music, costumes, sets, camera and acting. While this latest will leave many scratching their heads, the few in the target audience will be applauding fiercely.

watch the trailer:

 


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