WILD ROSE (2019)

July 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Quick … name all of the female Country music singers from Glasgow, Scotland! Yep, that unicorn is the premise for this film from director Tom Harper and writer Nicole Taylor, both best known for their British TV work. Rose-Lynn Harlan (played by Jessie Buckley) is being released after a year in jail on drug charges. She uncomfortably adjusts her white boots over the ankle monitor and sets off to conquer Nashville with her singing.

Of course there are a few obstacles to her Music City dream. See, she’s a single mother with two kids, and she’s from a working class area where putting food on the table and paying the bills is a significant achievement. Ms. Buckley stars as Rose-Lynn, and by stars I mean she carries the film and flashes great promise as an actress. Her no-nonsense mother Marion is played by 2-time Oscar nominee Julie Walters, and while Rose-Lynn has stars in her eyes, mother Marion pushes her to take a housekeeping job and be a mother to her kids. The scenes with Rose-Lynn and her kids are devastating, as she has no parenting instincts, and is solely focused on herself.

We know where all of this is headed, and it’s a credit to Ms. Buckley and Ms. Taylor’s script that we care enough to follow along. Rose-Lynn is employed to clean house by the wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), and we get one of the funniest vacuum cleaner scenes ever. Susannah soon takes on Rose-Lynn as a pet project with the goal of helping her get to Nashville for her shot.

Some rough language is peppered throughout and it’s spouted with the heaviest of Scottish accents, so much of it sounds a bit comical rather than threatening. The film is a bit uneven, but the mainstream approach keeps it from going too far off track, and it quite comfortably fits into the “crowd-pleasing” category. “Three chords and the truth” is used to describe country music, and if that’s your musical taste, you’ll likely enjoy the songs. However, if you prefer ‘Country and Western’, you’re flat out of luck. Either way, look out for Ms. Buckley.

** I saw this at the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival, and it’s now getting a theatrical release.

watch the trailer:

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DIFF 2019 Day 2

April 13, 2019

2019 Dallas International Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. I missed yesterday’s Opening Night Gala and feature film, but paid my penance today by taking in 5 films on Day 2 of this year’s Dallas International Film Festival. Changes have come to the festival this year, including reserved seats, and a shorter run that omits the encore screenings of award winners on the final weekend (there is no final weekend). The reserved seats policy is especially challenging for those of us who try to catch a couple of dozen films during the festival, but if it helps things run a bit smoother, then it’s something we will work around.

As with other years covering the festival, I will recap the films I see each day. Due to the time involved and the quick turnaround required, these will not be the usual full reviews, but rather an overview of the films and my initial reactions. If you are in the Dallas area, the festival runs through Thursday April 18, and more info can be found at http://www.DallasFilm.org

 

MS. PURPLE

 Kasie (an excellent Tiffany Chu) lives with her father, who has an unidentified terminal illness and is in an extended coma with no real chance for recovery. Kasie is the primary caregiver, and out of duty, refuses to put him in hospice for professional care. She also works as a Hostess/Escort at a popular Karaoke bar and has a rich boyfriend, although there seems to be no love between the two – it’s more of a business relationship.

Out of necessity, Kasie re-connects with her older brother Carey (Teddy Lee) who bolted from home many years ago after disputes with the father. He seems to have done little with his life, and frequently gets booted from an internet café for lack of cash. Carrying guilt for deserting his sister and father years ago, especially since the mother/wife left home when the kids were very young, he agrees to help Kasie with caregiving, and even takes dad for “road trips” in the neighborhood by pushing the bed through town (a comical sight).

Director and writer Justin Chon (co-written with Chris Dinh) was behind the critically acclaimed GOOK in 2017 (a Korean DO THE RIGHT THING). Here he uses Kasie’s flashbacks to childhood with her dad and brother as a framing device, demonstrating how the father dealt with his wife leaving, and laying out the responsibilities and burdens that family can bring. There are recurring shots of lone palm trees whose significance to Kasie is only explained late in the film … but does provide more insight into the bond with her father. A nice young valet (the car parking type) offers Kasie a taste of normalcy and it slowly brings her back towards center. The film has a terrific score of violin music from Roger Suen, and lets us know that finding one’s self while caring for another can be a breakthrough that may sometimes be loud, and may sometimes be quiet.

 

LEAVE THE BUS THROUGH THE BROKEN WINDOW (doc)

 Most documentaries explore a topic or an event, or provide a profile of a person or organization. Not this one. It’s an unusual … OK, very odd … documentary that follows Andrew Hevia, a Cuban-American photographer/filmmaker on his trip to Hong Kong to cover the Art Basel fair. His motivation in heading to Hong Kong from the United States is a nasty break-up in a long-term relationship with his girlfriend. It seems more likely that he’s running from rather than towards, and he is described as having a camera and little else.

Mr. Hevia admits to having no real knowledge of Hong Kong art and the initial culture shock he experiences includes securing lodging that can best be describes as “cozy” – a 40 square foot “apartment” that would be a tight closet and inhumane prison cell. Once he has a roof over his head, he hits the street with his camera. It’s at this point where we realize he has no real plan.

On his trek through the city, he crosses paths with fish balls, art galleries, jumpers, a street riot, artists, art collectors, expats, tourists, students, and a ferry ride. People come and go during his days and nights as he interacts with all sorts … often showing us a part of the city we wouldn’t likely see. He searches out different artistic outlets, attractive girls, and just about any party he can crash. The film plays like a travel video-diary narrated by electronic voice that’s a blend of Alexa and the computer voice from WAR GAMES. It’s an unusual viewing experience and one that leaves us feeling a bit empty. Fortunately, its run time is a brisk 68 minutes.

 

TREASURE ISLAND (doc) L’ile Au Tresor

 Yet another atypical documentary, this one from French director Guillaume Brac, who turns his lens on a water park in suburban Paris. The park is beautiful and wrapped in nature, as the lake offers many differing areas of attraction depending on one’s interests.

Brac presents various segments, some quite short, based on various groups visiting the park. We might be watching a group of underage adolescent boys trying to sneak in, and once caught, try to talk their way out of trouble. In a few segments we see the challenges facing the security guards who have to balance the park’s goal of fun with the need for safety. Of course this is France, so we also get the teenagers flirting and trying to impress each other (“Life is great”). There are families – large and small – enjoying a picnic in the bucolic setting, while young kids splash and frolic during their carefree days. Brac even takes us behind the scenes where park managers work on logistics based on weather, staff, and resources.

This is really more of a social project than a cinematic one, and we sometimes feel like we are snooping on people just having fun or doing their job. One segment with a 10 year old boy and his 3 year old brother is particularly sweet. The beauty of the park setting is contrasted with the pylon jumpers and the after-hours staff partying, but mostly it shows that people are pretty similar no matter the location.

 

WILD ROSE

 Quick … name all of the female Country music singers from Glasgow, Scotland! That’s the premise for this film from director Tom Harper and writer Nicole Taylor, both best known for their British TV work. Rose-Lynn Harlan is being released after a year in jail on drug charges. She uncomfortably adjusts her white boots over the ankle monitor and sets off to conquer Nashville with her singing.

Of course there are a few problems with her Music City dream. See, she’s a single mother with two kids, and she’s from a working class area where putting food on the table and paying the bills is a significant achievement. Jessie Buckley stars as Rose-Lynn, and by stars I mean she carries the film and flashes great promise as an actress. Her no-nonsense mother Marion is played by 2-time Oscar nominee Julie Walters, and while Rose-Lynn has stars in her eyes, mother Marion pushes her to take a housekeeping job and focus on her kids.

We know where all of this is headed, and it’s a credit to Ms. Buckley and Ms. Taylor’s script that we care enough to follow along. Rose-Lynn is employed by the wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), and we get one of the funniest vacuum cleaner scenes ever. Susannah soon takes on Rose-Lynn as a pet project with the goal of helping her get to Nashville for her shot.

Some rough language is peppered throughout and it’s spouted with the heaviest of Scottish accents, so much of it sounds a bit comical rather than threatening. The film is a bit uneven, but the mainstream approach keeps it from going too far off track. “Three chords and the truth” is used to describe country music, and if that’s your musical taste, you’ll likely enjoy the songs. However, if you prefer ‘Country and Western’, you’re flat out of luck.

 

THE DEATH OF DICK LONG

 “It’s been awhile” by Staind is the song we first hear from Pink Freud, a garage band formed by buddies Zeke, Earl and Dick. The music is awful, but “band practice” seems to exist solely for the purpose of getting these slackers together, hanging out, and drinking beer. Daniel Scheinert also directed SWISS ARMY MAN (2016) and this is the first screenplay from Billy Chew. Mr. Scheinert also plays the titular Mr. Long.

One evening, band practice takes a wrong turn, and Dick ends up dead … dumped in a hospital parking lot by his bandmates. If we previously had any doubts as to the intelligence of Zeke and Earl, all of that is cleared up as these two bumbling idiots try to cover up their involvement and what actually happened that night. The cause of death is slow to unfold, but once it does, it surely is the only one of its kind. The Sheriff (Janelle Cochrane) and her deputy (Sarah Baker) prove equally clueless in their attempts to solve the crime, and much of the film’s humor revolves around folks just not asking quite the right question in any situation.

Michael Abbott Jr plays Zeke and Andre Hyland plays Earl, and there scenes together will have you laughing and questioning human existence. Virginia Newcomb plays Lydia (Zeke’s wife), Jess Weixler is the perplexed wife of Dick, and Sunita Mani is hilarious as Earl’s friend Lake Travis (a name nearly as much of a punchline as the film’s titular character).  While the film has many funny and awkward moments, it can also be taken as a statement on testosterone-driven bad decisions and actions with consequences. If nothing else, we learn how to quickly answer when someone asks, “Y’all wanna get weird?”


MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018)

December 17, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The 1964 classic Disney film MARY POPPINS is much beloved and has been shared across generations for more than 50 years. It won 5 Oscars on 13 nominations, and shifted Julie Andrews from a Broadway star to an international movie star, as she won the Oscar for Best Actress while becoming the ideal nanny for most every boy and girl. Rarely do reboots, remakes, or sequels to the classics make much of a dent with the movie-going public, but it’s likely director Rob Marshall’s (CHICAGO, INTO THE WOODS) film will be an exception. Marshall balances nostalgia with contemporary, and benefits from a marvelous successor to the Mary Poppins role … Emily Blunt.

The film opens in low-key fashion as we follow Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) through town as he performs his lamplighting duties singing the melancholic “Underneath the Lovely London Sky”. It’s actually a bit of a dry opening that may have some impatient kids wondering why their parents dragged them to see this. Soon after, we are at the familiar 17 Cherry Tree Lane – the Banks’ home – easily recognizable from the original film. We meet grown up siblings Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer). Jane is a labor organizer following in her mom’s footsteps, and Michael is a struggling artist and widower raising 3 kids. He has taken a teller job at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank where his dad (now deceased) worked, but mostly he’s an emotional wreck. In fact, the only way to save the family home from foreclosure is with proof of his father’s bank shares … something the evil new Bank President, William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth), conspires to prevent.

It’s at this point that the kids’ popcorn should just about be gone, so it’s fortunate that our beloved nanny makes her timely appearance … literally floating (with practically perfect posture) into the park where Georgie (an adorable Joel Dawson) and lamplighter Jack are flying a very recognizable kite. Jack, having been an apprentice under Bert the Chimney Sweep, is quite familiar with the significance of Mary Poppins’ arrival. Back on Cherry Tree Lane, Michael and Jane are shocked to see their childhood nanny back in the house, and Michael’s two spunky twins Anabel (Pixie Davies) and John (Nathanael Saleh) aren’t sure what to make of this mysterious visitor.

Director Marshall wisely utilizes the template from the original film, so many of the subsequent sequences have a familiar and cozy feel to them. Mary Poppins’ “Off we go” kicks off a fantastical bathtub adventure and leads to the first of many smile-inducing, visually spectacular moments. A broken porcelain bowl guides us to a beautiful hand-drawn animation (from Walt Disney Studios) sequence with horse-drawn carriage, penguins, and more. Meryl Streep performs “Turning Turtle” in her topsy-turvy studio, and there is an extended (perhaps a bit too long) dance sequence featuring Jack and the other lamplighters singing “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”.

Julie Walters appears as the Banks’ housekeeper and David Warner is Admiral Boom, the Banks’ canon-firing neighbor; however it’s two cameos that will really hit home with the older viewers: Angela Landsbury (not in the original) is the balloon lady singing “Nowhere to Go but Up”, and the remarkable Dick Van Dyke (a huge part of the original) plays an elderly Mr. Dawes Jr from the bank – and even performs a dance routine atop a desk. All of the actors perform admirably, yet this is clearly Emily Blunt’s movie. She shines as the practically perfect nanny, whether debating with her umbrella, digging in her mystical baggage, filling heads with ‘stuff and nonsense’, teaching life lessons to those in need, or singing solo and with others. It’s a wonderful performance and she becomes Mary Poppins for a new generation.

Director Marshall co-wrote the story and screenplay with David Magee and John DeLuca, and they have created a worthy sequel (a quite high standard) from P.L. Travers’ original books that is delightful and a joy to watch. The group of original songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman serve the story fine, but the one downside to the film is that none of the new songs are as catchy or memorable as those of the Sherman Brothers (Richard and Robert) from 54 years ago. They won Oscars for Best Score and Song (“Chim Chim Che-ree”), and left us singing others such as “Spoon Full of Sugar”, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and of course, “Supercalifragilistic”. These new songs including “Can You Imagine That”, “The Place Where Lost Things Go”, “A Cover is not the Book”, “Nowhere to Go but Up” all contribute to the story and to the viewer’s enjoyment, but none leave us singing or humming as we depart the theatre.

This is film where those behind-the-scenes are crucial to its success. Oscar winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA) and Editor Wyatt Smith both are at the top of their game, and Costume Designer Sandy Powell delivers stunners, not just for the singing nanny, but for all characters. The core of the story remains rediscovering the magic in life, and finding joy in each other – and this sequel also provides the adventures to match the original. It’s simultaneously familiar and fresh, which is key to a successful follow up to a beloved classic. Director Marshall has signed on to Disney’s live action THE LITTLE MERMAID, but it’s with MARY POPPINS RETURNS where he has delivered a film that is practically perfect in every way.

watch the trailer:


MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (2018)

July 19, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 10 years since director Phyllida Lloyd presented the crowd-pleasing MAMMA MIA! movie. It was a box office hit (over $600 million worldwide) and was, for a few years, the highest grossing musical of all-time. Most importantly, it was extremely entertaining and a joyous cinematic romp for viewers. This year’s sequel is directed by Ol Parker (THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL and husband to actress Thandie Newton), and though the melancholy is slathered on a bit too thick, it also fulfills its number one priority – entertaining the fans.

The story begins with Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) putting the final touches on the house-turned-hotel in preparation for the upcoming Grand Opening. It’s named Hotel Bella Donna in honor of Sophie’s mother (Meryl Streep). What looks to be a straight-forward story surprises us with a flashback to Donna’s 1979 graduation, which features not only the first song-and-dance number “When I Kissed the Teacher”, but also the first of two ABBA cameos … Bjorn Ulvaeus as a professor. The young Donna is played brilliantly by Lily James, and she effortlessly captures the free-spiritedness that led to the conundrum of the first movie – 3 possible dads for Sophie.

Those 3 dads return not only as Pierce Brosnan (Sam), Stellan Skarsgard (Bill), and Colin Firth (Harry), but also as Jeremy Irvine (young Sam), Josh Dylan (young Bill), and Hugh Skinner (young Harry). In fact, most of the run time is dedicated to the backstory of these characters and how they first met as youngsters. Each has a segment (and song) with young Harry featured in “Waterloo” accompanied by Benny Andersson (ABBA cameo #2) on piano. Young Bill is the charming sailor who saves the day for Donna, while young Sam assists her with saving a storm-shaken horse (kind of humorous since Mr. Irvine starred in WAR HORSE).

Also back are Dominic Cooper as Sky, Sophie’s true love, who can’t decide between romance and career, and Donna’s life-long friends Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), who are also part of the flashback as Jessica Keenan Wynn (excellent as young Tanya) and Alexa Davies (as young Rosie). New to the cast are Celia Imrie in the graduation number, Andy Garcia as the hotel manager, and drawing the biggest applause of all … Cher as Sophie’s grandmother (and as my viewing partner commented, an early peek at what Lady Gaga will look like as a grandma)! It’s best if you experience Cher for yourself, and it should be noted that this is her first big screen appearance since BURLESQUE in 2010.

Of course, the songs are key and many of the ABBA numbers from the first movie are featured again this time. In particular, “Dancing Queen” is a nautical standout, and “Fernando” is a show-stopper. While it may not be quite as raucous as the first, it’s a treat watching Lily James, and there is a wonderful blending of “old” and “new” in the finale. The only real question remaining is, did the casting director do the math before casting Cher (age 72) as Meryl Streep’s (age 69) mother?

*As a special treat, there is a “most interesting” cameo near the end of the film

watch the trailer:


PADDINGTON 2 (2018)

January 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The sequel to the hit 2014 PADDINGTON movie reunites most of the cast, as well as the director Paul King and his co-writer Simon Farnaby. Unfortunately, Michael Bond, Paddington Bear’s creator and author of more than 150 affiliated books passed away in 2017, and was not able to see this most charming follow-up. The beloved little bear first hit UK bookstores in 1958 and has been part of the childhood of every generation of kids since. Now the movies have given life to the little bear with the red hat, blue coat and tiny suitcase.

The entirety of the Brown family returns: Sally Hawkins as Mary, Hugh Bonneville as Henry, Madeleine Harris as Judy, Samuel Joslin as Jonathan, Julie Walters as Mrs. Bird, and Jim Broadbent as Mr. Gruber. Also back are Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon as the voices of Paddington’s “aunt” and “uncle”, and of course, Ben Whishaw returns as the familiar voice of the adored and oh-so-polite bear.

Most notable among the new faces are Brendan Gleeson as Nuckles (that’s with a capital N), and Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan, this story’s two-faced (and maybe more) villain. You’ve likely never seen the usually reserved and proper Mr. Grant in a role quite so colorful and flamboyant. He seems to be having a devilishly good time.

As the movie begins, we are quickly assimilated into the community where Paddington has made such a difference. The core element to this bear is that he treats all with kindness and finds the best in each person. The results of this approach are clear in how his neighbors enthusiastically greet him each morning … it’s a reminder of the power of kindness. Only when Phoenix Buchanan’s dastardly deed and actions catch Paddington in the crossfire does the film take an abrupt left turn from his blissful life.

If the film has a flaw, it’s in a story that is likely too complex and intricate for the youngest viewers to follow. However, it’s that story that older kids (and grown-ups) will most appreciate and relate to. Younger kids may be lost at times, but there are enough visual pratfalls and bear hijinks to keep them oohing and aahing and laughing – I witnessed these reactions in a theatre that was about half-filled with kids.

This sequel will probably be viewed as an improvement to what was a pretty entertaining original. There is enjoyment for all ages, and it’s a rare combination of cuteness and charm with a strong message of kindness. If that’s not enough for you, stay for the credits and take in the Bollywood-style musical number that will erase any doubts you might have had about Hugh Grant’s commitment to the mission.

watch the trailer:


BROOKLYN (2015)

November 19, 2015

brooklyn Greetings again from the darkness. A popular proverb “Home is where the heart is” is filled with truth … unless the heart belongs in two places. Such is the case with Ellis, an Irish girl who leaves behind her family and homeland to discover the new world opportunities afforded by 1950’s America. The film is based on the popular and critically-acclaimed novel from Colm Toibin, and is directed by John Crowley (Is Anybody There? 2008) with a screenplay from Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education). It’s a blend of romance, drama, and self-discovery, while also examining a couple of diverse cultures from lands separated by more than 3000 miles (and a big ocean).

Saoirse Ronan plays Ellis in a performance that is sure to garner much Oscar talk. It’s only been 8 years since Ms. Ronan exploded onto the screen as 13 year old Briony in Atonement. In this current role we watch her blossom like a flower as she grows from a timid and reserved shop girl with a bleak future in Ireland, to a fully-realized woman with much spirit and hope. On that journey, she experiences many life obstacles including seasickness, homesickness, catty and envious housemates, heartbreak and romantic awkwardness … all while dealing with the overwhelming nature of her new world.

Director Cowley makes some interesting visual choices. We begin with a muted color palette and mostly close camera shots of Ellis’ life in Ireland. This “closed in” feeling continues through her crossing of the Atlantic. However, once she steps through the blue doors of Ellis Island, the world opens up with wide shots and shocks of bright colors. These contrasts blend together in the third segment where Ellis returns to Ireland after a family tragedy. The look of the film at any given time mirrors the mood and circumstance of our lead character.

Ellis struggles to adjust to the United States, both in the bordering house run by the colorful Ms. Kehoe (a terrific Julie Walters), and in the ritzy Bartocci store where she clerks for a demanding supervisor (Jessica Pare’, “Mad Men”). Ms. Kehoe provides her girls with such life guidance as “Giddiness is the 8th Deadly Sin”. It doesn’t take long for Ellis to meet Tony (a breakout performance by Emory Cohen, The Place Beyond the Pines), a pleasant and polite local Italian plumber who is enchanted by her. Their time together provides a wonderful comparison piece for today’s courtship vs. that of the 1950’s.

The movie is beautifully paced, filmed and acted; however, there are some issues to fight through with the story and details of the main character. Her return to Ireland introduces Jim Ferrell (solid work from the ever-evolving Domhnall Gleeson), and just like that, Ellis is confused about Tony’s line: “This is where your life is”. This time of confusion for her, creates similar type confusion for viewers as we either understand her uncertainty, or question it. This distracts a bit from some of the impactful elements like her transition from clueless fish-out-of-water on her first cruise, to strong mentor for an Irish girl much like her younger self on a later trip. The script has more than a few of these moments of gold, and Saoirse brilliantly nails each.

watch the trailer: