ISLE OF DOGS (2018)

March 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s referred to (sometimes affectionately, sometimes not) as Wes World. Many directors have their own style, though few are as immediately recognizable as a film by Wes Anderson. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, MOONRISE KINGDOM, FANTASTIC MR FOX, THE ROYAL TENNEBAUMS, and RUSHMORE all share a tone and style … a cinematic personality, if you will, that places them squarely in Wes World. Beyond the similarities, there is also a level of innovation and creativity in each of his projects. He consistently delivers a “Wow” factor, or in the case of his latest, a “bow-wow” factor (my one and only pun, I promise).

Expanding on the stop-action animation he used in FANTASTIC MR. FOX, director Anderson also plays homage to Japanese filmmaking – especially the animation of Hayao Miyazaki and the cinematic legend Akira Kurosawa. The film’s prologue, “The Boy Samurai” is a Japanese fable and sets the stage for a futuristic Japan where the Mayor of Megasaki, Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), has decreed that all dogs should be banned from society due to dog flu, snout fever and canine saturation. Kobayashi (an embittered politician who looks eerily similar to Japanese acting legend Toshiro Mifune) even ships off his nephew’s beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber) to Trash Island. In Part 1 “The Little Pilot”, that nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin) crash lands his plane on Trash Island while attempting to rescue Spots.

Part 2 (“The Search for Spots”), Part 3 (“The Rendez-Vous”), and Part 4 (“Atari’s Lantern”) break the story into segments, but the real fun here is in the visual effects and the banter amongst the dogs. The five main dogs we follow are Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Chief is a stray dog who is the group skeptic and doesn’t hesitate in greeting most anyone with “I bite”. We know this because director Anderson explains “Barks are rendered in English”.

While assisting Atari with his search, the five dogs alternate between gossiping and decision-making by committee … spouting one-liners that are consistently funny and incisive. Anderson co-wrote the script with Roman Coppola and his frequent collaborator Jason Schwartzman. Kunichi Nomura provided expertise to ensure the Japanese segments were accurately portrayed. The usual Wes-style droll humor is evident throughout, though viewers must make sure their hearing is fined tuned to catch some of the wise-cracks that almost seem like background noise at times.

In addition to the humor, political corruption and conspiracies are at the core of what could be described as an animated rescue adventure comedy. Narrator Courtney B Vance ensures we are following along with the story, although the artistic beauty of Trash Island – a garbage strewn wasteland – is enough to hold our interest. Keeping track of the homages is challenging enough, but we also get Haikus, Puppy Snaps, and Yoko Ono as a scientist. Greta Gerwig voices Tracy, an idealistic Foreign Exchange student who recognizes a corrupt politician when she sees one, and there are a couple of brilliant noirish scenes between Chief and Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson). A recurring visual of dogfights in a cloud of dust harken back to the days of classic cartoons and the unbridled violence that we’ve always found so comical in animation.

It’s a dystopian tale … well it is if you happen to be a dog. Cat lovers probably view this as paradise. An all-star cast of voice actors keeps us interested even when the story bogs down at times, although the look of the film always seems to be priority one. It’s such an easy movie to respect, however, one that’s a bit more difficult to speak passionately about. This review doesn’t address the ever-present complaints from those looking to create a race or nationality based scandal. To me, the film is creative and appears to be against unkindness and discrimination and corruption. Perhaps that message overrides some easily ruffled feathers.

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LADY BIRD (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Joining the likes of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Ben Affleck, Greta Gerwig proves her significance and brilliance is most apparent behind the camera, rather than in front. Her first feature film flying solo as writer and director is without a doubt, one of the year’s best. Surely she has benefitted from having a very talented live-in muse and mentor and partner in Noah Baumbach, but this extraordinary film is clearly Ms. Gerwig’s passion project … and it’s a thing of beauty (character warts and all).

Ultra talented Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, aka “Lady Bird”. She claims it’s her given name – a name she gave herself. Entering her senior year of Catholic High School in Sacramento, she’s the typical blend of teenage insecurity, bravado and restlessness. Her never quite satisfied mom is played by Laurie Metcalf, in what is probably her career best performance, and definitely worthy of Supporting Oscar consideration. A brilliant opening scene finds mother and daughter sharing a cry, which quickly devolves into one of the endless stream of arguments that make up half of their relationship. Their scenes together are sometimes caustic, always realistic, and likely to hit home to many mothers and daughters watching.

Lady Bird is convinced she must escape 2002 Sacramento and live on the east coast, where she assumes culture thrives. This is the age where every teenager is convinced an amazing destiny awaits them … not stopping to contemplate what talent they possess that might actually contribute to society. Lady Bird is an average student who seems to dream not of greatness, but rather of some vision of life where she will be appreciated for simply being herself. So much of what happens is grounded in the reality of high school life, friendships, and family. She jumps at the chance to be friends with the “it girl” who controls the “in crowd”. Leaving her lifelong best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, Jonah Hill’s real life sister) in the dust, Lady Bird finagles her way into Jenna’s (Odeya Rush) inner circle of rich kids, including the cooler-than-cool Kyle (Timothee Chalamet, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME). He’s the bohemian-wannabe type we’ve all come across. Her attraction to Kyle results in confusion over her relationship with nice guy Danny (Lucas Hedges, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA).

The film touches on many familiar topics, and the script elegantly handles each piece of the puzzle and gives each character their due. Lady Bird’s middle class family is going through some financial difficulties after her dad is laid off. Tracy Letts is superb as the dad who is beaten down by a life that’s nearly passed him by, but he staves off his own depression just enough to provide the basic strength needed by his wife and spirited teenage daughter. Mr. Letts and Ms. Metcalf aren’t TV sitcom parents carefully positioned as punchlines for clever kids, like what we typically see. The emotional bond between parents and offspring is perfectly awkward and deep. Mother and daughter have their shared escapes, while father and daughter share some secrets. There is also a complex sister-brother dynamic, as well as the common issues of school days – teenage girl self-respect, class warfare, teacher crushes, and the pressures of extracurricular activities. Lois Smith has a couple of outstanding scenes as a wise and observant nun who sees Lady Bird for who she is, and provides the necessary guidance. Welcome comedy relief is combined with an editorial statement on the ongoing reductions in funding for the arts, as the football coach (Bob Stephenson) is put in charge of the drama department.

Ms. Gerwig’s excellent (quasi-autobiographical) film defies traditional categorization. It’s part teenage comedy, coming of age, family drama, and character study – yet it’s also so much more. Have you seen much of this before? Absolutely, and it’s likely at least some of this has occurred in your own life, though you may not always enjoy being reminded. What is enjoyable is watching the work of a skilled filmmaker and exciting new cinematic story teller.

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20th CENTURY WOMEN (2016)

January 12, 2017

20th-century Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Mike Mills has found a niche, and a form of therapy, by exploring and exposing his life in a most public manner … on the silver screen. Beginners (2010) brought us the story of his father’s (an Oscar winner for Christopher Plummer) late life pronouncement of homosexuality. This time, Mr. Mills turns his lens and his pen towards his mother, and he seems to understand her much better in retrospect than in the summer of 1979 when the film is set.

This can be viewed as the story of three women, masked as a coming-of-age story for a teenage boy. Annette Bening stars as Dorothea, a chain-smoking single mother in her mid-50’s who seems to have surrendered to her own sadness and loneliness, while simultaneously trying to make sense of a changing world. One of her tenants is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer and NYC punk scene drop-out, who is now battling cervical cancer. The third female is the seemingly always present Julie (Elle Fanning), a sexually promiscuous and borderline depressive 18 year old who values the platonic friendship she has with Dorothea’s 15 year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zuman).

Factor in another tenant in the form of laid-back handyman and former hippie William (Billy Crudup), and we have a makeshift family in a communal setting that seems almost normal for 1979 Santa Barbara. Dorothea enlists the other two women to show Jamie their lives – the intent being to influence his growth in ways an older mother can’t. Of course, Jamie is at the age where exploring life isn’t necessarily best served by tagging along on a trip to the gynecologist with Abbie or having no-touch sleepovers with Julie.

Ms. Bening finds her groove as the story progresses and we feel her struggling to connect to each of the characters. When William plays a Black Flag song, her reaction is priceless: “They know they’re not good, right?” She doesn’t mean it as a put down, but rather her attempt to understand why her son is drawn to this. An even more emotionally naked moment occurs when Jamie is reading a passage from “The Feminine Mystique” to his mother. It’s a passage that captures what he thinks of her, as well as what she thinks of herself … a mostly invisible woman finding it difficult to be a parent while also maintaining a self.

Mills is not one to be nostalgic or glorify the past. His brilliant writing includes lines like “Wondering if you are happy is a great short cut to being depressed.” The movie can be slow moving at times, but it’s the best I’ve seen in awhile at expressing what makes us tick. The film is what Running with Scissors should have been. Real people are sometimes interesting, sometimes boring, and sometimes annoying. Each of the characters here are all of the above (just like you and me).

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JACKIE (2016)

December 10, 2016

jackie Greetings again from the darkness. There will be two distinct groups that erroneously presume this is a traditional biopic of the glamorous former first lady: those who wave it off as Lifetime Channel fare, and those who excitedly walk in thinking they are going to be swept away in the pink Chanel suit from that fateful day in November 1963. Instead, the first English language feature from director Pablo Larrain (No, 2012) offers up a what-might-have-been look behind the scenes and takes a stab at the psychological make-up of the often underestimated and complex woman known even today as simply Jackie.

The opening scene provides the first of countless close-ups of Natalie Portman as Jackie. Different than the usual movie close-ups, these are somehow closer – more intimate and more intrusive. The shots make us uncomfortable, as if we are intruding on her personal space. This is by design, as the film takes us to a surreal place where we see Jackie the person, rather than Jackie the icon. The framing device used is an interview she granted to Life Magazine reporter Thomas H White (Billy Crudup billed only as “the journalist”) at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, merely a week after the assassination.

To grasp the concept here from director Larrain and writer Noah Oppenheim (in a big stretch from The Maze Runner), it’s imperative to understand that, at the time, Jackie was the personification of a nation’s grief and the ultimate example of dignity and grace (yes, Seinfeld fans, she had grace). We quickly witness the power and control she wielded. “Don’t think for a second I’m going to allow you to publish that” … she states after exposing her most vulnerable and personal thoughts. Later, she puffs on a cigarette and tells the reporter, “I don’t smoke”. It’s in these moments that we begin to realize the point – Jackie was a master at generating the “proper” public perception from even the harshest personal realities (many of which the film politely ignores).

Much of the film deals with her dogged pursuit of creating a lasting legacy for her husband. The idea of Camelot was meant to provide hope and idealism to the public who so wanted to idolize and romanticize the first couple. The symmetry with Lincoln – the portrait, the bedroom and the meticulously planned elaborate funeral procession – were meant to establish heft and substance for an all-too-brief administration that even had brother Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) lamenting how little was accomplished. These were the calculated strategies of a woman who was much more than the charming and slightly nervous host who took America on a televised tour of The White House on CBS in 1962.

The film utilizes flashbacks to the Lincoln Continental with the Texas Schoolbook Depository in the background, as well as detailed recreations of The White House, Parkland Hospital, Air Force One, St. Matthew’s Cathedral, and of course, the pink Chanel dress. That said, this is certainly not a movie designed to solve the case or disprove one of the conspiracy theories … it remains steadfast as a close-up of Jackie.

Others in supporting roles include a nearly unrecognizable (and minus her usual ticks) Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman (Jackie’s social secretary and friend), John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant as LBJ and Lady Bird, Max Casella as Jack Valenti, stunning lookalike Caspar Phillipson as JFK, and a remarkable John Hurt as the Priest helping Jackie through her spiritual crisis. But of course this is Natalie Portman’s movie. She captures the breathy vocals and the contrasting strong directness when dealing with Bobby and Lyndon. Her movements mirror those from the actual footage of the White House tour … it’s really a performance to behold.

Many original images, videos, and clips are blended/spliced into the re-enactments to add a touch of sentimentality and prove how close to reality the film holds. One thing to brace for is the most unique score you’ll likely hear in a film this year. Mica Levi’s unusual sound brilliantly complements the many moods of Jackie, and even manages to remain strong around Richard Burton’s rousing rendition of “Camelot”. Ms. Portman’s performance and the behind-the-curtain approach work well in reminding us that these were real people … not just Kennedys.

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MAGGIE’S PLAN (2016)

June 2, 2016

maggies plan Greetings again from the darkness. A significant portion of Woody Allen’s film career has been projects that seem designed to appeal to (sometimes only) the New York intellectual sub-culture. You know the type … those who thrive on talking (incessantly) about all the things they know, often without really accomplishing anything themselves. They are the kind of people we usually laugh at, rather than with. Filmmaker Rebecca Miller appears ready to accept the passing of the Woody Allen baton, and at a minimum, her latest is heavily influenced by his comedic-brain food.

Ms. Miller casts perfectly for her first film in six plus years (The Secret Life of Pippa Lee, 2009). Greta Gerwig plays Maggie, whose ever-evolving “plan” is both the title and focus of the film. Ethan Hawke plays John, the middle-aged crisis guy who wants desperately to be showered with attention. Julianne Moore plays Georgette, John’s slightly odd and brilliant wife, and mother to their two kids. Other key players include Travis Fimmel as Guy, a pickle entrepreneur and the center piece to Maggie’s master plan; Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as friends and confidants of Maggie; and Wallace Shawn, always a treat on screen.

The story starts out pretty simple, and then gets complicated, and then kind of loses focus before ending just right. Perpetually whining Maggie has admittedly given up on ever finding the kind of true love that results in a happy family. Because of this, she has recruited former schoolmate and math whiz and pickle dude Guy to supply the missing link for her artificial insemination. This leads to one of film’s rare cheap laughs and one that not even the quirky Gerwig can pull off. A payroll mishap brings Maggie and aspiring novelist John (a ‘ficto-critical anthropologist’ by trade) together, and her willingness to read his writing and offer some support, is all it takes to finish off John’s slowly disintegrating marriage to Georgette (Ms. Moore dusting off the Euro accent she used in The Big Lebowski).

Writer/director Miller is the daughter of famed playwright Arthur Miller, who wrote Death of a Salesman and was once married to Marilyn Monroe (after Joe DiMaggio). She also directed The Ballad of Jack and Rose, which starred her husband, Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis. Much of her latest film feels contrived and over-written … as if every scene carries the burden of generating a laugh out loud moment. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the ultra talented Julianne Moore creates the most interesting character, though unfortunately, she has the least amount of screen time among the three leads. It’s good for a few laughs, as well as some cringing … and an ending that actually works.

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MISTRESS AMERICA (2015)

August 27, 2015

mistress america Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Noah Baumbach has quite the track record of human nature commentary with his films: The Squid and the Whale (2005), Greenberg (2010), and Frances Ha (2012). The conversations he writes on the page are somehow at once both realistic and stagey when they reach the big screen. It’s like his characters speak the way we think, rather than the way we actually talk outloud … and this makes for some awkward scenes. Awkward, but no less insightful.

Mr. Baumbach’s real life partner, co-writer and lead actress Greta Gerwig stars as Brooke, an eternally optimistic just-turned-30 New Yorker who is never without a new idea, but unfortunately lacks the follow-through gene. Prior to meeting Brooke, we are introduced to her soon-to-be step-sister Tracy (Lola Kirke, who was so memorable in Gone Girl). Tracy is a misfit college freshman who quickly latches on to the much more exciting life of Brooke, and sees her as a combination mentor and limitless source of material for her short stories.

The first part of the film allows us to get a real feel for both Tracy and Brooke, but it’s the change of pace that occurs when the setting hits a house in the wealthy area of Connecticut that is most startling. This portion is a modern day screwball comedy in the mold of Hawks and Sturges. The conversation cadence throughout the film is offbeat, but it’s here that the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue pacing really pushes the viewer to keep up. Some of the funniest lines aren’t the dominant ones in a scene, forcing us to juggle overlapping characters and sub-plots. It’s really quite fun … and showcases some nice support work from Michael Chernus, Heather Lind, Matthew Shear and Jasmine Cephas Jones.

Even the “slower” first segment has some stellar writing including an explanation of “X” in Algebra tutoring, and a college freshman coming to grips with what makes a writer (it’s not the looks). Baumbach and Gerwig have a knack for creating whiney people who talk (incessantly) their way through the process of assembling pieces of the universe. Some might call this the painful process of maturity, but it seems to also include learning the difference between acting happy, real happiness, and acceptance of one’s life.

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FRANCES HA (2013)

May 30, 2013

frances ha1 Greetings again from the darkness. All the critics are raving about it. Love abounds for the latest from director Noah Baumbach and his co-writer and leading lady Greta Gerwig. What makes my ambivalence even more confounding is that I’m a fan of Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) and Gerwig (Greenberg). The expert level of filmmaking and acting is obvious, the script details and dialogue are exceptional, and the situations and setting are realistic. So why aren’t I more excited about this one? That’s what I’ve spent the past few days wondering.

It seems Frances Ha delivers everything I look for in an indie film. The problem is that I find almost every character to be annoying and self-absorbed. The first act finds Frances (Gerwig) sitting on top of the world. She has a boyfriend, a frances ha2BFF/roomie, and is a dance company apprentice with the expectation of a dance career. Soon enough she watches Strike Three go by and her world is in a tailspin. We then watch Frances trudge on through uncertainty and instability in living arrangements, personal relationships and career path. It plays like a road trip that really never hits the highway.

Frances moves in with Lev (Adam Driver) and Ben (Michael Zegen) and she is oblivious to Ben’s interest as she obsesses about her former BFF Sophie (Mickey Sumner). See, Sophie is trying to grow up while Frances wants to stay in her dream land where she and Sophie remain “the same person with different hair“. Frances then crashes at the apartment of a fellow dancer played with all seriousness by Grace Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter). The two dancing opposites attend an awkward frances ha3dinner party at which Frances manages to spew an endless stream of absurd remarks that advertise her lack of maturity. Her response to this is to take a spontaneous trip to Paris … charged to a new credit card.

Make no mistake. Frances is a very energetic and sincere free-spirited twenty-seven year old. The kind that is only charming in the movies. If her quirk wins you over, you will find yourself rooting for her to get her life together. That would put you in the same corner as most other film critics. On the other hand, if you recognize the optimism, but are unmoved by the immaturity and self-absorption, then you are banished to the corner of those who “just don’t get it”. And I’ll be right there with you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can revel in the quirky world of Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach and find joy in a flirtateous take on Lena Dunham’s “Girls”

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: annoyingly self-centered people talking a lot about themselves and other things of which they know little, inspires you to request a refund.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqMaeBtK9TA