PARADISE (Rai, Russia, 2017)

October 10, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Hollywood, and the movie industry as a whole, absorbs a fair amount of criticism for the perceived lack of originality and creativity in this era of remakes and sequels. However, filmmakers also deserve some credit for constantly finding fresh stories associated with The Holocaust and World War II – seemingly endless sources of material for new movies. As Russia’s official Oscar Foreign Language entry, this film from director Andrey Konchalovsky (co-written with Elena Kiseleva) offers up three distinct perspectives of the same tumultuous period.

Julia Vysotskaya plays Olga, a former Russian Countess and member of the French resistance. Ms. Vysotskaya is the wife of director Konchalovsky and has a screen presence somewhat reminiscent of Ingrid Bergman with her ability to appear alternatingly tough, loving, sensitive and stubborn. Her character Olga has been arrested for sheltering two Jewish boys. Philippe Duquesne is Jules, the lead detective assigned to Olga’s case. His questionable loyalties are accompanied by a weakness of the flesh that is all too common among those in a position of power. Christian Clauss plays Helmut, a nobleman and German SS officer who is emotionally torn between his personal desires and his duty to the cause of his country.

The story is told from the perspective of each character through a blend of flashbacks and interviews. Harsh lighting, stark surroundings, and their respective wardrobes during the interviews appear to show each being held captive as they are interrogated by an entity that remains unheard and unseen. The interviews provide some insight into the characters, but almost seem intent on keeping us off-balance as the film progresses. It’s really the flashbacks that are the most interesting and provide the fascinating details for Olga, Jules, and Helmut.

Beautifully filmed in black and white with an excellent use of lighting effects by cinematographer Alexander Simonov, the tangled web of paths intersecting during war time offers some terrific sequences: a father and son on a morning walk, an isolated and guilt-ridden officer in a fog-draped forest, the immediate scavenging after an unexpected prisoner death, the excruciatingly emotional deportation of Jews, and a remarkable sequence involving a meeting with Himmler and Helmut’s subsequent mission to audit the concentration camps.

The brief flashes of joy are usually crushed by the weight of despair and bleakness, yet by the end, we believe we know each of these characters – and what motivates them. Director Konchalovsky’s film is an unconventional, creative, and ambitious combination of The Holocaust, Germany’s quest for perfection, and the greed and daily desperation of those involved. The interviews might not be what you assume, yet cause us to wonder how might our own interview sound while reminding us that, no matter the circumstances, we can always choose to do good.

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WALKING OUT (2017)

October 5, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Man vs Nature movies tend to remind us of both our tenacity when things go badly, and our lack of control or overall insignificance in the big picture of life. This tends to be true in the mountains, on the water, under the ocean, in caves and in space. Twin brothers Alex Smith and Andrew J Smith have adapted and co-directed this film from a short story by David Quammen. The filmmakers were raised in Montana, and have an inherent feel for the stunning and often treacherous landscape.

Matt Bomer, in a sharp left-turn from his usual pretty-boy roles, plays Cal, a live-off-the-land mountain man with seemingly few needs outside of food, water and a desire to connect with his teenage son through a hunting trip. Josh Wiggins (who exploded on the scene in 2014’s HELLION) plays David, a suburban Texas boy who is out of his element without his cell phone. The opening panoramic view of snow-covered mountains is contrasted with David’s engrossed concentration on his hand-held video game as the plane approaches the landing zone. “How was your year?” is David’s greeting from Cal, instantly elucidating their relationship.

Cal excitedly reports to David that he has been tracking a bull moose for 11 weeks, and wants this to be David’s first big game kill. We are constantly reminded that this isn’t trophy hunting, and that this single moose will provide Cal enough meat for a year. David has no real interest in killing a moose, but longs to connect with his father … and “longs” is interpreted through the teenager’s shrugs, glances and body language. Wiggins plays David with the subtle authenticity of the teenagers most of us have known, raised, and at one time, been.

As Cal explains the history of the mountains, he also works in stories of his youth when his father (David’s grandfather) was teaching him the ethics of nature. Numerous flashbacks feature Bill Pullman and Alex Neustaedter (as young Cal). The flashbacks are a bit artsy, and sometimes intrusive, but in the end, form a parallel story structure that works.

A couple of poor decisions lead to an accident that could be straight out of the Dick Cheney’s field guide to hunting. Cal and David are both injured – Cal severely so. It’s at this point where David must grow up quickly. The skills he has learned, or at least absorbed, are now necessary if he expects to save his father’s life. What was a story of two polar opposite blood relatives trying to connect, transitions instantaneously into one of survival, maturity, persistence, and love.

Movies such as THE REVENANT and THE EDGE come to mind, but this one is short on thrills, and is instead a trudging struggle to survive – taking a quiet approach, rather than a showy one. Lily Gladstone, fresh off her terrific work in CERTAIN WOMEN, has a brief sequence near the film’s end. The beautiful landscape and terrain is captured by cinematographer Todd McMullen, while Ernst Reijseger’s score effectively complements the odd mixture of slow pacing and non-stop danger. Whether you are trying to live a reclusive life off the land, or simply one of the many parents attempting to connect with their kids, keep in mind that regardless of the beauty of the mountains, “snow is not our friend”.

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BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)

October 4, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ridley Scott’s original film was released in 1982 and based in 2019. The highly anticipated sequel from Denis Villenueve is being released in 2017 and based in 2049. So we have 35 years between films, and 30 years between story settings. Expect that to be the most complicated part of this review since we were mandated by the studio to follow many rules – write this, don’t write that. Such rules would normally be frowned upon (and even ignored by many), but in fact, this film does such a masterful job of paying homage to the first, while enhancing the characters and story, that we are eager for every viewer to experience it with fresh eyes and clear mind … no matter how tempting it is to talk about!

Obviously, the massive fan base that has grown over the years (the original was not an initial box office hit) will be filling the theatres the first weekend – even those who are ambivalent towards, or adamantly against, the idea of a sequel. The big question was whether screenwriters Hampton Fancher (maybe every writer should begin as a flamenco dancer) and Michael Green would be able to create a script that would attract new viewers while honoring the original film and source Philip K Dick novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” The answer is not only a resounding yes, but it’s likely even those who usually shy away from science-fiction may find themselves thoroughly enjoying the nearly 2 hours and 43 minute run time (it doesn’t seem too long).

The cast is deep and perfectly matched, and there are even a few surprises (no spoilers here). Ryan Gosling is fun to watch as the reserved K, an expert Blade Runner who tracks and “retires” old model replicants – the Nexus 8’s have been replaced by the more-controllable Nexus 9’s. An early sequence has K in combat mode against a protein farmer named Morton (played by the massive Dave Bautista). With all that is going on in these few scenes, director Villenueve is training us to lock in and pay attention, lest we miss the key to the rest of the movie and K’s motivation for most everything he does from this point on. Robin Wright plays K’s icy Lieutenant Joshi, who administers “baseline” tests to him after every successful mission – just to make certain he is still under her control.

Jared Leto delivers an understated and mesmerizing performance as the God-like Wallace who not only managed to solve global hunger, but also is a genetic engineer creating new beings. Somehow, this is one of Leto’s most normal roles (which makes quite a statement about his career) and yet his character is so intriguing, it could warrant a spin-off standalone film. Wallace’s trusted assistant is the ruthless bulldog mis-named Luv, played by Sylvia Hoeks. Her scene with Robin Wright is one of the best onscreen female duels we’ve seen in awhile. One of the more unusual characters (and that’s saying a lot) is Joi (Ana de Armas), the Artificial Intelligence/hologram companion to K, whose presence is cued by Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf notes. Other support work to notice comes in brief but crucial roles by Hiam Abbas, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Barkhad Abdi and Lennie James.

Who is not listed above? Of course it’s Harrison Ford (as seen in the trailer), who reprises his Deckard role from the original. All these years later, he’s a grizzled recluse who doesn’t take kindly to home visitations. Mr. Ford offers up proof that he still possesses the acting ability that made him a movie star (even if his best piloting days have passed him by). It’s such a thrill to see him flash the screen presence that’s been missing for many years. And yes, fans of the first film will mourn the absence of the great Rutger Hauer, yet there is no need to dwell on one of the few negatives.

The story leans heavily on philosophical and metaphysical questions … just like every great sci-fi film. What makes us human, or better yet, is there a difference between humans and machines that can think and feel? Can memories be trusted, or can they be implanted or influenced over time? These are some of the post-movie discussion points, which are surely to also include the cutting edge cinematography and use of lighting from the always-great Roger Deakins, and the production design from Dennis Gassner that somehow fits the tone, mood and texture of both the first film and this sequel. The set pieces are stunning and sometimes indistinguishable from the visual effects – a rarity these days. My theatre did feature the “shaky seats” that work in conjunction with the sound design … a gimmick I found distracting and more in line with what kids might find appealing.

There was some unwelcome drama a couple of months ago as noted composer Johann Johannsson dropped out and was replaced with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. The resulting score complements the film without mimicking the original. Ridley Scott, who directed the original BLADE RUNNER (and its numerous versions over the years), was involved as Executive Producer, and to put things in perspective, the first film was released the same year as TOOTSIE and TRON. Denis Villenueve was Oscar nominated for directing ARRIVAL, and he has proven himself to be a superb and dependable filmmaker with SICARIO, PRISONERS, and INCENDIES. He deserves recognition and respect for his nods to the original (Pan Am, Atari) and ability to mold a sequel that stands on its own … and in my opinion, is better than the first. Hopefully stating that is not against the Warner Bros rules.

watch the trailer:

 


BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017)

September 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. At least two generations are too young to have experienced the 1973 media circus that was the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. However, what matters is that the impact and social changes that began in earnest that night at the Astrodome are still being felt and evolving today. It might seem incredulous that the 29 year old top-ranked women’s player emerging victorious against a 55 year old who played his last professional match 14 years prior would have an impact on anything other than TV rankings, but in fact, it caused a significant societal shift.

Real life married couple and co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are well known for their collaborations on iconic music videos and TV commercials, and since joining the movie world have brought us LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and RUBY SPARKS. Their talent for visual presentation is on display here in both the tennis scenes and the more intimate character moments. And, oh my, there are some intimate moments thanks to the script from Oscar winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE). There is no shying away from Ms. King’s sexual confusion/awareness/preferences.

Emma Stone (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND) stars as tennis legend Billie Jean King and manages to convey three different sides: the ultra-competitor, the champion for equal rights, and the married woman coming to grips with her sexual identity. Steve Carell captures the essence and mannerisms of Bobby Riggs, the former tennis champ, floundering in middle-age and always on the lookout for his next hustle or gambling opportunity. Surprisingly, only a minor portion of the film deals with the actual tennis match. Instead, the film dives into the personal lives of these two polar opposite personalities, each with their own challenges and issues.

Despite the fun and outrageousness that the Riggs character delivers, the film might have been better served focusing even more on Ms. King. While she needed the “villain”, it was really her dedication to the cause and strength amidst the backlash that made the difference … along with her court skills. Watching her stand tall in confrontations with the chauvinistic and powerful Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) is something to behold. Again, those that weren’t around might not believe some of the outrageous claims by the men of the times.

Supporting work comes from Andrea Riseborough as the all-important Marilyn, who turns Billie Jean away from her husband Larry (Austin Stowell), Sarah Silverman as promoter Gladys Heldman, Natalie Morales as Rosie Casales, Alan Cumming as the colorful clothes designer, an underutilized Elisabeth Shue as Riggs’ wife, Fred Armisen as Rheo Blair – Riggs’ partner in the herbs and vitamins game, and Lewis Pullman (Bill’s real life son) as Riggs’ son, Larry. We are even treated to a Bob Stephenson sighting as the Sugar Daddy PR guy at the match.

This was the era when the Vietnam War was winding down, the Watergate scandal was raging, outside “the norm” sexual preferences were kept in the closet, prize money for men’s tennis was 8-10 times that of women, and the overall respect for women and their sports was excruciatingly misguided. Listening to Howard Cosell speak so condescendingly during the national broadcast merely confirms the inequity. Of course, these same issues are discussed and debated even today, as society evolution is often slow, even when moving in the right direction. The film might not add much to today’s cause, but it reinforces the early legacy of Billie Jean King as a difference-maker.

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VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017)

September 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Stephen Frears has enjoyed a long career by focusing on the interesting stories of people, rather than the salient specifics of history or politics. He received Oscar nominations for THE QUEEN and THE GRIFTERS, and helmed other crowd-pleasers such as MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS, PHILOMENA, HIGH FIDELITY, and FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. While purely entertaining movies are always welcome, it’s important to note the filmmaker’s approach when the story is entwined with historical importance.

Based on real events … mostly” is Mr. Frears’ cutesy way of kicking off the film and asking us to enjoy the unusual story of connection between a Queen and a servant, and cut him some slack on the historical depth. For most of us, the real enjoyment will be derived from watching yet another standout performance from Oscar winner (and 7 time nominee) Dame Judi Dench as the longest-reigning monarch, Queen Victoria in her elderly years. It’s a role she played twenty years ago in MRS. BROWN, and her relationship with John Brown (presented in that film) has some parallels to what we see here with Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). Dame Judi is the rare actress who can capture both the loneliness and tiresome burden of six decades of rule and the re-invigorated woman we see learning a new language and new religion. She plays weary and spunky with equal believability.

Victoria was Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India, and in 1861 her beloved husband Prince Albert died. This film picks up in 1887 with the pomp and circumstance of the Golden Jubilee – a celebration of her 50 years of rule. The early scenes tease us with obstructed views, and the comedic element becomes quite obvious as we see her so carelessly slurping her soup at the formal lunch. Part of the celebration includes the presentation of an honorary coin by two Indians peasants Abdul (Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), the first chosen because of his height, and the second as a last minute fill-in.

Lee Hall (Oscar nominated for BILLY ELLIOT) wrote the screenplay based on the book by Shrabani Basu. The journals of Abdul Karim were only discovered in 2010, a hundred years after his death. Some of the less favorable moments of this era are mentioned, but most of the Queen’s lack of knowledge or awareness is attributed to the “boring” reports from her advisers. This leads to some awkward moments later in the film regarding the Muslim mutiny and the subsequent Fatwa.

Rather than dwell on history, the film prefers to focus on the unconventional friendship and the re-awakening of the Queen. Abdul becomes her “Munshi” – a spiritual advisor and her teacher of Urda and the Koran. As you would expect, this is all quite scandalous and frustrating for those such as Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon), Lady Churchill (Olivia Williams), Victoria’s son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), and the royal staff: Sir Henry (the recently deceased Tim Pigott-Smith), her physician Dr Reid (Paul Higgins), and her quivering maid Miss Phipps (Fenella Woolgar). There is even a comical sequence with the great singer Puccini (Simon Callow) as the Queen herself belts out the Gilbert and Sullivan song “I’m Called Little Buttercup”.

Balmoral, the Isle of Wight, and Windsor Castle are all part of the breath-taking scenery, while the absurdity of the royal status is viewed through the eyes of the Indian servants. Most of the focus is on Victoria’s transformation from joyless, isolated monarch to the anything-but-insane (an Oscar worthy scene) and eager to engage elderly woman (one who has an entire era named after her) falling back in love with life as she fights off “the banquet of eternity”. Come for the laughs and the performance of Dame Judi … just not for a history lesson.

watch the trailer:

 


TAKE EVERY WAVE: THE LIFE OF LAIRD HAMILTON (2017, doc)

September 28, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The face of his sport. An American icon. A living legend. Each of these would be accurate in describing super-surfer Laird Hamilton. Oscar nominated in 2014 for her LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM, documentarian Rory Kennedy (daughter of Ethel and Robert F Kennedy) delivers the most in-depth look yet at Hamilton and his unconventional life.

Before he was born, his pregnant mother underwent a procedure that basically created free-swim time for the fetus (Laird). Whether this played a role in his life as a water man can be debated, but after his dad left the family to join the Merchant Marines, Laird’s mom Joann Zerfas moved with her young son to Hawaii. Her free-spirited nature certainly influenced Laird’s approach to life, and we are led to believe that as a 4 year old, he encouraged the union between his mother and Bill Hamilton, the best known surfer of the time.

We view some incredible archival footage of Laird’s early years, along with photographs leading through his childhood. In fact, it isn’t always easy to tell what is “old” footage and what is new from the lens of cinematographers Alice Gu and Don King. Even if you find Hamilton’s personality and approach off-putting, you will likely be awed by the surfing footage. His younger brother Lyon describes him as a 100% disobedient child, and we learn Laird was often picked on as one of the few white kids in a Hawaiian school in the 1970’s. He found solace from school and an abusive step-dad in the “honesty of the ocean”, where if you do it right – you are rewarded, and if you make a mistake – you pay the price.

It doesn’t require a psychology degree to see that Laird eschews most rules and has pretty much lived his life according the tide patterns and swells of Maui’s north shore. He has been heavy on ambition and conquering fear, and a bit light on societal norms and loyalty (ex-wife and his fellow Strap surfers). Director Kennedy is balanced in her approach here. As we begin to judge him by our standards, she reminds us of his unique nature … stand-up barrels in 7th grade, refusing to join in the parade for a high-paying career in modeling or acting, etc.

Known as the master of big wave surfing (he never competed on the traditional pro surfing tour), Laird’s life as a true Water Man took him paddle surfing through the English Channel, and the early stages of wind-surfing, connected surfing, tow-surfing, and hydro-foil boarding. He and his buddies were the first to ride the infamous Jaws waves of Pe’ ahi.

Along the way, we learn about the beginnings of his relationship with former pro volleyball player Gabrielle Reece and how he shifted ever-so-slightly into a family man role … without losing his desire to continually conquer the ocean. We see his intense training program and the beat up body he now has to work around. There is a bit of a peek into the surfer community and the jealousies and tension that aren’t obvious to outsiders. Laird’s “fear defect” is accompanied here by periodic punk rock music that seems the perfect fit for a man who is a natural phenomenon in the water and on a board, while showing no interest in the conventions most of us live by. You might not appreciate his personality, but there is nothing but respect for his courage in riding those 80 foot waves.

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TROPHY (2017, doc)

September 28, 2017

Dallas International Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Totally unexpected is a documentary on big game hunting that doesn’t come down squarely on one side of this argument. Co-directors Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz do an admirable job of laying out the facts and leaving the viewer to contemplate how these moving pieces create a blurred line between conservation and commerce.

Expect a couple of scenes that might be difficult to watch – after all, it is a documentary on hunting animals. There are plenty of facts and statistics provided, with one of the most staggering being since 1970, the world has lost 60% of its wild animals. Rhinos alone are down from 500,000 to 30,000, and we meet a rhino breeder who has devoted his life and fortune to saving the species. On the surface, his stance seems difficult to debate, but African law prevents the sale of rhino horn, which means this breeder is sitting on millions of dollars of warehoused horns, while poachers profit by picking off his animals and selling the horns on the black market. Not so clear now, is it?

Additional segments involve elephants, alligators, and other species. We visit the massive Safari Club hunting convention in Las Vegas, as well as stock auctions where breeders battle over the next generation. The safari clubs argue that much of the money paid by big game hunters is distributed back into the conservation efforts of the country, though the corruption of politicians can’t be ignored.

The contrast between shooters and hunters, killers and sportsmen, is noted and legitimate detailed information is provided. Focus goes to the “Big 5”: hunters trying to bag each of water buffalo, leopard, elephant, lion and rhino. The process is slow and expensive, and the three affected tentacles – hunting, breeding, conservation – have evolved to facilitate the future of the species and those dependent on the industries.

Hunter’s remorse is admitted, as is a connection to the animals by the otherwise stoic and businesslike breeders. When one hunter quotes the bible in saying that man shall have dominion over animals, it’s a reminder that no matter one’s stance on these topics, there is always an argument to be had and a defense to be made. The still unanswered question is, can the industry be run in a manner that allows the animals to survive, the villagers to benefit, and the vendors to profit? In theory, this seems doable … but reality and self-interest often destroy best intentions.