LES MISERABLES (France, 2019)

January 15, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Being the new student in school can be an emotionally trying experience for some kids. Now take that pressure and put it in a patrol car for law enforcement in a tough part of town where racial and religious tensions are always on edge. The ‘new kid’ in this case isn’t a kid, but rather an adult cop … and the experience will eclipse ‘trying’ and shift directly to life-altering. “Ever since 2005 …” is a line that reminds us that the Paris riots of that year remain fresh in the minds of locals, and police harassment is applied to most every stop or interrogation. This is an area that has yet to reclaim balance and writer-director Ladj Ly, having grown up in this part of the city, is more qualified than anyone to tell these stories.

Montfermeil is the Paris suburb where Victor Hugo wrote his classic 1862 novel “Les Miserables”. Recently divorced Stephane (played by Damian Bonnard) has transferred to the Anti-Crime Squad (ACS) in the area to be closer to his young son. His first day on the new job involves riding on patrol with local officers Chris and Gwada, who are veterans of these streets. Chris (played by Alexis Manenti) is a racist, hardened by the locals who have nicknamed him “Pink Pig”. Chris’s intimidation methods are old school and iron-fisted. Gwada (played by Djebril Zonga) is an African-Muslim who tries to capitalize on his own roots with locals, even though they now consider him a traitor.

Immediately obvious is the fact that Stephane’s ‘by-the-book’ approach doesn’t meld with the forceful posture assumed by Chris and Gwada. “Greaser” is the nickname Chris gives to Stephane, emphasizing that the new cop doesn’t fit on the streets or in the patrol car. As the prime example of how this environment can cause a small situation to escalate quickly due to one wrong word or movement, a young thief named Issa takes a lion cub from a travelling circus as a prank. The next thing we know, the Muslim Brotherhood is involved and threats are flooding every interaction, creating tensions for all. When the cops finally track down Issa, an accident occurs that further escalates the tensions between various street factions and the cops. Things get really ugly when it’s discovered a young boy captured the event with his drone.

Director Ly opens on citywide excitement at the 2018 World Cup with a backdrop of Paris sites such as The Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. The script from Ly and co-writers Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti doesn’t allow us to wallow in the happiness for long. Soon, we are on the streets with the cops in Victor Hugo’s (and Ly’s) setting – contemporary only in look, not feel or substance. We are dropped into an environment where each moment is dictated by racial-social-political lines. Foot chases, car chases, and confrontations are de rigeur. Disenchantment cloaks kids and adults alike, and the fear of anarchy never wanes. A bad day for Issa turns into maybe the worst ever first day for Stephane. This is one of the year’s most incredibly tense and gripping films, and one that leaves us exhausted and dumbfounded. It’s a brilliant work.

January 2020 UPDATE: The film has been Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Language Film

watch the trailer:


UNDERWATER (2020)

January 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening credits have an “X-Files” look and feel. Newspaper headlines and redacted reports zip by … in fact, the rapid cuts are so quick that very few viewers will be able to keep up. Even if you haven’t finished your Evelyn Woods speed-reading course, the gist is clear: there is a (very) deep-water drilling lab located 36,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. Yep, that’s almost 7 miles deep for the crew of 316, and some mysterious bad things may or may not be lurking. That’s really our only set-up … unless you want to count Kristen Stewart brushing her teeth.

It’s literally less than 5 minutes in when the rig is rocked by an explosion of some kind. We are told the structure is 70% damaged. The survivors are quickly identified. Nora (Ms. Stewart) and Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) are together in the immediate aftermath. Nora is a mechanical engineer and computer whiz. They soon come across a co-worker buried in rubble. It’s wise-cracking TJ Miller and his (actual) stuffed bunny. Next up are the Captain (Vincent Cassel) and lovebirds Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Smith (John Gallagher Jr). With no time for early character development, we learn tidbits as their perilous journey hopefully leads them towards rescue. Of course anyone who has ever watched a movie can tell you, they won’t all make it. Maybe the 8 year old girl sitting in the row behind me wouldn’t know that … but no parent should take their 8 year old to a PG-13 movie that has “terror” in the parental warnings.

Director William Eubank and co-writers Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad create plenty of tension, danger and suspense. The movie is at its best when they let the moment speak. It’s the dialogue that is mostly cringe-worthy, as well as the predictable and unnecessary jump-scares. These people are stranded miles deep in the ocean and are running out of oxygen and options … and are being chased by something they can’t identify. The visual effects are successful in generating the environment of danger and claustrophobia.

It’s in the little things where the film falters. When we first see the Captain, he has his arm in a sling. He’s obviously injured. Once the bulky underwater suits are donned, his bad arm seems just fine … he’s even pulling one of the others with a rope! Nora makes a big deal about being the “smallest” of the group and volunteers to explore a narrow passage. The problem is that they are all wearing the same suits – a fact that should negate any advantage of Ms., Stewart’s slim, toned body. Lastly, the film has borrowed heavily from James Cameron’s classic ALIEN. In fact, it has been referred to as “Underwater Alien”. Of course, this film isn’t nearly as well-rounded or complete as that one … but then few are.

Mr. Eubank’s film is a sci-fi/horror mash-up, but it’s really more a survival thriller than science fiction or creature feature, although the sea creatures have their moments. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli does a nice job in keeping with the ‘play it straight’ approach, and his camera work is complemented by the electronic score from Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts. Ms. Stewart and her buzzed blond hair hold their own amidst the danger. A blatant lecture about how we are going places (deep sea) we shouldn’t go and doing things (drilling) we shouldn’t do is included for those who might not figure it out on their own, but mostly we spend our time trying to figure out how to survive the deep sea pressure with little oxygen and no escape pods. Just leave the 8-year olds at home.

watch the trailer:


THE SONATA (2020)

January 9, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. A throwback to 1970’s cinema is easy to appreciate, whether it was intended or nor. Writer-director Andrew Desmond’s debut feature film certainly serves up the feel and style of so many of those low-budget horror films I watched as a youngster (many, it seemed, featured the late Roddy McDowall). Mr. Desmond and co-writer Arthur Morin (also his first feature film screenplay) likely viewed some of those same films, as this one succeeds in capturing the same creepy tone.

For some, the music they create comes from their soul … it makes them who they are. For these musicians, their obsession and quest for perfection can be off-putting to others. In an early sequence, we see young violist Rose Fisher (Freya Tingley, “Once Upon a Time”) react to news of her father’s death by shrugging and stating she wants to continue with her recording session. See, Rose’s father deserted the family when she was a toddler, and the two never spoke again. Richard Marlowe (the late great Rutger Hauer) was an exciting and brilliant young composer when he chose to drop out and live as a recluse (think Salinger). He’s even compared to Pink Floyd founding member Syd Barrett. Rose chose to never use her genetics as a springboard to success; never even telling her manager Charles Vernais (Simon Abkarian, CASINO ROYALE) of the connection.

Rose visits Marlowe’s house, and before learning of the startling manner in which his life ended, she discovers his final composition locked away in a drawer … a violin sonata seemingly left for her to find. Neither Rose nor Charles recognize some of the non-musical symbols included on the sheet music, but it’s clear there are elements of genius in the piece. While Charles envisions piles of cash to be made by capitalizing on this situation, Rose sets about tracking down clues to the unknown symbols by exploring her father’s estate.

It should be noted that Marlowe’s “house” is actually the 19th century Cesvaine Palace, and it makes a wonderfully gothic setting for this story. This sub-genre of horror films is always best when the setting is a creepy old mansion/castle, and includes a mysterious housekeeper, other-worldly children, a leather-bound book of secrets, and a subterranean room (this one is beneath a chapel) with curious wall murals telling some forbidden legend of the occult. The only element missing here is vicious dog that pops up periodically.

The symbols lead to a French secret society, and in their own ways, both Rose and Charles learn that finishing Marlowe’s final piece will conjure the Anti-Christ. While Charles pursues greed, Rose pursues the music. Spoken words pale in comparison to the music Rose creates. Screen veteran James Faulkner appears as Sir Victor Ferdinand in a vital supporting role. While it’s a bit disappointing that the late, great Rutger Hauer has very little screen time, it’s quite enjoyable to watch Ms. Tingley carry the lead. Mr. Desmond filmed in Latvia, and delivers a film that fits quite nicely for those who enjoy the creepy throwback horror style.

watch the trailer:


1917 (2019)

December 23, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s now been over 100 years since World War I ended. The Great War garners barely a mention in high school history books these days, and Hollywood has devoted much more time and energy to WWII. Filmmaker Peter Jackson did his part with last year’s stunning documentary THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD, a video and photographic look at the actual people involved in the First World War. And now, Oscar winning director Sam Mendes (AMERICAN BEAUTY) delivers another glimpse … and another technical marvel.

Mr. Mendes, working with Oscar winning Cinematographer Roger Deakins (BLADE RUNNER 2049) and Oscar winning Film Editor Lee Smith (DUNKIRK), has shot and edited the film to give the look of one continuous take in real time. Although used previously in such films as Hitchcock’s ROPE and Inarritu’s BIRDMAN, the single take approach is certainly no gimmick here. We open on two young British soldiers lounging in a prairie as they are summoned to report to the commander. Their mission is described as critical, as a British battalion is preparing to walk into a deadly trap set by the Germans. More than 1600 lives are at stake and the phone lines are down. It’s up to Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield to work their way across No Man’s Land to the front line and hand-deliver an order stopping the attack. Oh, and one more detail: Blake’s older brother is in the battalion he is tasked with warning.

The real time approach serves the purpose of allowing viewers to take on the urgency of Blake and Schofield. We experience the tension and horrors of war. Barbed wire, booby traps, slushy trenches, snipers, rats, dead bodies, dogfights (the aerial type) and towns under siege all play a part here as the men rush towards their goal of saving fellow soldiers lives, including a beloved family member. Dean-Charles Chapman (“Game of Thrones”) plays Blake, and George MacKay (CAPTAIN FANTASTIC) plays Schofield. We spot the personality differences between them. Blake is super focused and determined to save his brother, while Schofield doesn’t welcome the assignment, but is a dutiful soldier and loyal friend.

It’s really the Schofield character with whom the viewer mostly relates. He’s no super soldier or Jason Bourne-type, but rather a young man trying to stay alive and fulfill his orders. With the relentless pacing of the film, we feel the fear and admire the courage. There is an especially touching scene in a bombed-out town where paths are crossed with a French woman (Claire Duburcq) caring for an orphaned infant. It’s a reminder that humanity still exists, even within the bounds of war.

There is no clock ticking in the corner of the screen, but we know time is of the essence, and quite limited. The camera seems to be always moving forward, rarely allowing for us or the characters to exhale. As you might expect, running is done frequently – sometimes towards something, sometimes from it. Roger Deakins is in prime form here with his camera, and there are too many remarkable moments to mention them all; however, the river rapids and waterfall, and the town under siege at night, are two of the most incredible sequences I’ve seen on screen.

Along the journey, some familiar faces pop up as military men: Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth. Although each appears only briefly, it’s a testament to their acting prowess that each is memorable. The chaos and relentless terror of war is on display, more often than not. But this isn’t a film designed to create deep thoughts or serious debates on the merits of war. Instead, it’s meant to focus on one of the countless personal stories that occur during war. War is fought by people, not faceless countries, and each person has their own story.

Non-linear story telling has been a movie-thing since even before MEMENTO, but director Mendes (and co-writer Kristy Wilson-Cairns, “Penny Dreadful”) show us the true presentation of linear … in the moment and by the moment. GALLIPOLI and PATHS OF GLORY are about the closest comparisons I can come up with, and the weight of the film is felt physically and emotionally as we are drawn in. The exceptional score from Thomas Newman (14 time Oscar nominee) serves to accentuate the chaos and relentless terror. It’s a work of art and a unique viewing experience.

watch the trailer:


UNCUT GEMS (2019)

December 23, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s debatable whether this movie should be labeled an indie crime thriller or a ‘Scared Straight’ session for gambling addicts. Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie are filmmaking brothers who seem to specialize in adding a frenetic pace to the lives of characters who consistently make bad decisions. Their excellent 2017 film GOOD TIME (starring Robert Pattinson) set the tone for their latest, featuring an Adam Sandler performance unlike anything we’ve previously seen from him.

After a brief prologue at an Ethiopian mine, we are dropped right into Howard’s world. Well, more specifically, we find ourselves on the camera end of Howard Ratner’s colonoscopy, while also seeing the vibrant glow of the rare opal extracted from that opening mine. Remarkably, the colonoscopy may be Howard’s (and our) most relaxing moment of the movie. The character of Howard is based on a guy the Safdie brothers’ dad worked for in the Diamond District when they were growing up. He’s played here by Mr. Sandler, who delivers a performance so memorable that we now can’t imagine anyone else in the role.

Here is what we learn about Howard: he’s arrogant and foolish and energetic and hopeful. He lives life on the edge … or perhaps he’s already tipped. He’s a Jewish jeweler based in inner-city Manhattan, and as the film begins, he owes a lot of money to someone who has hired goons to collect. Howard has an irascible wife Dinah (Idina Menzel, Elsa’s voice in FROZEN) who is fed up with his antics … one of which is his employee/mistress Julia (newcomer Julia Fox). Howard has an insatiable gambling addiction and he’s always on the brink of a life-changing big score or a colossal failure that could cost him everything. He’s a hustler who has to move faster each day to prevent the collapse of his house of cards: sports bets, pawns, loans, lies, and empty promises.

So if you think you now have a feel for this, I can assure you that you are mistaken. The frenetic pace is relentless to watch. We kind of like Howard, but yet, we want nothing to do with him. His latest scheme involves the expectation that the rare opal will solve his many financial woes. In the meantime, his business associate Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) brings him a high profile client … NBA player Kevin Garnett. The film looks and feels like a gritty 1970’s flick, but it’s based during the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, and Garnett plays himself (and quite well). Garnett borrows the opal for good luck and that’s when all ‘heck’ breaks loose. Also in play here is Howard’s rotten brother-in-law (Eric Begosian), to whom he also owes money. Adding even more NYC flavor are Judd Hirsch, John Amos, and sports radio host Mike Francesca, as Howard’s bookie.

Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) provides an electronic score that helps ensure we are never comfortable watching what is unfolding, and cinematographer Darius Khondji (EVITA) keeps his camera in constant motion – just like the characters. Production Designer Sam Lisenco creates Howard’s world through the jewelry shop, the house, the apartment, and especially that back office. Set Decorator Kendall Anderson wins a place in my heart for the Pete Maravich poster.

The Safdie brothers co-wrote the script with their editor Ronald Bronstein (who also worked on GOOD TIME), and afterwards you’ll find yourself going back through all the poor choices made by most every character. The brilliantly sustained level of uneasiness includes a segment featuring The Weeknd, and one revolving around a school play for Howard’s daughter. The Safdie style is present throughout, and most conversations are loud and heated and threatening. If you are the type that needs at least one likable character, or a serene environment, or respectful adult conversation, you are out of luck here. Howard is an exhausting character in an exhausting story within an exhausting movie … just as it was intended.

watch the RED BAND trailer (PROFANITY WARNING):

 

 


STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019)

December 18, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ending the final trilogy of trilogies that covers 42 years of storytelling, was never going to be easy. And, given the rabid fan base’s backlash from the penultimate episode, the ending was unlikely to appease all (or even most?).  Keeping respectful of the sensitivity associated with this franchise, no spoilers are included here, certainly nothing that hasn’t already been dissected and debated after the trailers were released.

As I approached the theatre, it was impossible not to chuckle at the irony of seeing the life-sized marketing prop for KNIVES OUT in the lobby. Of course, that current release is directed by Rian Johnson, who caused such an uproar with the aforementioned STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (Episode VIII), a franchise entry that happens to be one of my personal favorites. But we are here for Episode IX, the wrap-up of George Lucas’ masterful vision. JJ Abrams (STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS) is back in the director’s chair, and knowing what a fanboy he is, it’s not surprising to see the familiarity and tributes to the franchise interjected throughout.

In fact, this finale leans heavily on nostalgia and humor, while tying up most loose ends – as well as some that weren’t even all that loose. Writers Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow (originally slated to direct), Chris Terrio, and Abrams seemed intent on giving each beloved character their moment, as a sign of appreciation for their contributions to a legacy that covers a period longer than the lifespan of some of the biggest Star Wars fans. As one who stood in line in 1977, it’s an approach that I respect and have no problems with – knowing full well that some will.

Any attempt to tie up previous threads must focus on the odd, mystical relationship between Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). Both are still conflicted and attempting to come to grips with who they are. Rey especially is struggling with her identity and roots. One of my favorite elements from The Last Jedi was inner-head conversations blended with cross-dimensional physical interactions between Kylo and Rey, and it’s used beautifully here.

So, the biggest complaint from me is that despite its nearly two-and-a-half hour run time, there is simply too much crammed in. Too much story and too many characters and too many things that get a glimpse or mention, but no real development. This movie is jam-packed, and ‘convoluted’ would not be too strong of a word to describe. There are times we aren’t sure where the characters are or what they are doing or why they are doing it. We do know that everything good is dependent on ‘this mission’, a mission that seems to change direction about every 12 minutes. In fact, the “new” players – Rey, Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) – spend very little time together on screen. And really, Finn is given almost nothing to do except look worried most of the time. On the bright side for characters, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C3PO both get their own sub-plots. Anthony Daniels (as C3PO) becomes the only actor to appear in all 9 episodes, although R2D2 joins C3PO as characters appearing in all.

There are many old familiar faces, both good and evil. Some of these play key roles, while others are brief cameos. Much has been speculated about how Carrie Fisher’s role as Leia will be handled. Archival footage, combined with special effects and camera angles, allows her to be present throughout, and yes, she gets the send-off she deserves. There are even some new characters/creatures introduced, including a cute new droid (never underestimate or under-market a droid) that is already for sale in Disney stores.

No matter one’s feelings or expectations, an area that surely will not disappoint is the visual effects. Somehow, this one is even more impressive and awe-inspiring than the others. In particular, a couple of scenes filmed in and around an angry sea left me dumbfounded, mouth-agape. However, what’s most amazing is the consistency of the visuals throughout. It’s just a stunning film to look at.  Some of the story may be a bit confusing or cheesy, but some parts of the film are truly great. Cinematographer and Special Effects guru Dan Mindel deserves special mention, as do Production Designers Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins. Of course the visual effects team is without peer – and take up about 5 minutes in the closing credits.

Lastly, composer John Williams gets to add his well-deserved personal stamp on this final chapter with new work added to the already iconic score. Very few moments compare to the opening notes blasting away on the theatre sound system as a Star Wars film begins. And as much as we’d like to treat this as the end, we all know Disney will find a way to keep us interested in a galaxy, far far away.

RIP: Peter Mayhew and Carrie Fisher

watch the trailer:

 


THE AERONAUTS (2019)

December 6, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. ‘Up, up, and away, in my beautiful balloon.’ That song says nothing about a lack of oxygen (hypoxemia), a malfunctioning valve, or frost bite … all of which come into play in this story inspired by real life events of 1862 in London. Tom Harper directed the excellent WILD ROSE earlier this year, and for this one, he and his co-writer Jack Thorne (WONDER, 2017) base the story on both the real life record-breaking flight of scientist James Glaisher and balloon pilot Henry Coxwell, and Richard Holmes’ book “Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air.’

Reuniting from THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014) where they played Stephen Hawking and wife Jane, are Eddie Redmayne (as scientist-with-a-chip James Glaisher) and Felicity Jones (as fictional balloon pilot Amelia Wren/Rennes … yes, naming your female pilot Amelia is so very creative). Courageous real life balloon pilot Henry Coxwell gets nary a mention here, as new world cinema must require a female lead or co-lead for every filmmaker not named Martin Scorsese. So, to heck with history, Amelia Wren is now the hero of this adventure!

As it turns out, Ms. Jones’ character is the more interesting of the two. Amelia’s initial showmanship catches nerdy Glaisher off-guard, though in fact, both are over-compensating. He, for his inferiority complex and the ridicule he endures from his fellow brainiacs at the Royal Society of London, and she for the tragic loss of her beloved husband in a balloon mishap. The mismatched pair are on a mission to fly higher than any human has previously flown, and in the process, allow Glaisher to record all the atmospheric readings possible in order to prove to the skeptics that meteorology is legitimate, and the weather can be predicted (although almost 160 years later, most weather reporters still haven’t quite gotten the hang of it).

It’s a tricky thing filming two characters who spend most of the movie floating tens of thousands of feet above ground in a wicker basket. The banter between the two should be crisp and the connection or disconnect should add intrigue. Here, the two characters are dwarfed by the giant balloon and the challenges that brings. What begins as an adventure morphs into a tale of survival. Storms, frostbite and technical issues provide the conflict. We do have flashbacks to background on both Amelia and Glaisher. Himesh Patel (star of this year’s YESTERDAY) plays Glaisher’s best friend, while Tom Courtenay and Anne Reid are Glaisher’s parents. Vincent Perez appears as Amelia’s husband Pierre.

I was fortunate enough to see this in a theatre and the big screen allows for the balloon effects to have full impact. There is no doubt that streaming this on your TV will not be as impressive … although anyone suffering from acrophobia will likely still experience some discomfort. The scenes in the balloon are thrilling, and Amelia’s rescue mission up the ropes is stunning and beautifully filmed by cinematographer George Steel; however, the flashback scenes are quick to deflate the excitement. The upside here is that the English really did break the French record on the flight … even if the filmmaker had to bend history so Amelia could get credit.

watch the trailer: