Polar


Portrait of a badass.

(2019) Action (Netflix) Mads Mikkelsen, Vanessa Hudgens, Katheryn Winnick, Fei Ren, Ruby O. Fee, Matt Lucas, Robert Maillet, Anthony Grant, Josh Cruddas, Lovina Yavan, Ayisha Issa, Pedro Miguel Arce, Anastasia Marinina, Martin Zolotarev, Richard Dreyfuss, Johnny Knoxville, Inga Cadranel, Jill Frappier, Nia Roam, Julian Richings, Roman Lebeau, Sofia Grossi. Directed by Jonas Åkerlund

 

It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen Polar that it is based on a graphic novel. Everything about the movie screams “comic book,” from the color palette to the emphasis on feminine boot-ay and boobies, to the well-choreographed mayhem that takes place with a surfeit of blood and gore.

Duncan (Mikkelsen) works as an assassin-for-hire for the Damocles Corporation, where he is known as the Black Kaiser. He is nearing the mandatory retirement age of 50 and looks forward to receiving his pension and retiring to his remote Montana home. Unfortunately for him, the company’s corpulent owner Blut (Lucas) is looking to sell and needs to maximize its value. A clause in the contract says that if employees die without a will, the pension goes back to the company. Blut aims to kill all the veteran assassins who largely have had no relationships over the years and use the money to prop up the liquid cash holdings of the company. A true Republican move, that.

But Duncan isn’t so easy to kill and despite the parade of colorful killers sent his way, continues to survive much to the irritation of Blut. Duncan has also formed a relationship with Camille (Hudgens) who lives nearby (i.e. within 100 miles). If Duncan can live long enough to collect his pension, there are going to be an awful lot of openings at Damocles.

For action junkies, there is a whole lot of that and just the way you like it, too – long on gore and short on sense. There are a lot of backhanded compliments to other lone assassin stories, with John Wick chief among them, although the world of Polar is a lot less developed than the world of John Wick. There is also the subversive humor of the Neveldine brothers as well.

I have definitely got a man-crush on Mads Mikkelsen. The man never seems to make a bad acting decision. He is one of those guys who is never flashy, but always makes every movie he is cast in just that much better. He can do the taciturn loner about as well as anybody including Keanu Reeves – although not as well as Clint Eastwood in his heyday (sorry, Mads).

Critics have basically torn this film a new one, but I don’t know. I think of it as a guilty pleasure. It’s definitely a film for boys, though – not that women won’t or can’t enjoy it, but it certainly panders to that demographic.

REASONS TO SEE: Has the feel of a cinematic comic book. Mikkelsen is awesome, as always.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little bit self-repetitive near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of violence and gore, plenty of profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While there is an actress named Marsha Mason in the cast, it is not the same one that appeared with Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews, Metacritic: 19/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Atomic Blonde
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Feral

The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales (Le grand méchant Renard et autres contes…)


On a moonlit night you could see such a sight that you won’t believe your eyes…

(2017) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Kamel Abdessadok, Jules Bienvenu, Guillaume Bouchede, Guillaume Darnault, Jean-Loup Horwitz, Augustin Jahn-Sani, Christophe Lemoine, Elise Noiraud, Boris Rehlinger, Céline Ronté, Magali Rosenzweig, Violette Samama, Antoine Schoumsky, Damien Witecka. Directed by Benjamin Renner and Patrick Imbert

The thing about animation is that it is truly universal. Once dominated by one country – and essentially one studio – these days, great animation is coming from all around the globe. While Disney continues to be the 1,000 pound gorilla when it comes to animated features, there have nonetheless been some terrific films coming from elsewhere.

This new French animated feature from Benjamin Renner, the guy who gave us Ernest and Celestine, is definitely on the terrific side – for the most part. Three tales are presented here, all involving animals who don’t act like you might expect them to. The first involves a stork tasked with delivering babies, but the stork is a lazy sort and fakes an injury to get a passing duck, rabbit and a pig. The three try their best but they aren’t really cut out for that kind of work. The second involves a fox who is trying to steal some eggs to eat from a rather violent hen. The fox takes too long to eat them and they hatch. Rather than eat the chicks, he becomes their caregiver – which isn’t easy to do with an angry hen and a murderous wolf on the loose. Finally the third tale involves the rabbit, the duck and the pig who believe they’ve accidentally killed Santa Claus and determine to make sure that the presents are delivered. As in the first tale, that doesn’t go well either. Personally, I liked the second tale the most of the three but all three of them are good. They use a stage show framing device which is reasonably clever.

The animation is kind of a throwback, hand-drawn and 2D rather than computer generated 3D. It looks vivid and minimalist and is gorgeous and fun. The humor has a Chuck Jones/Tex  Avery influence that is delightful; adults may appreciate it a little more than the kids do, although I think kids will love it too. What is also worth looking out for is the warm, sweet charm that infuses the whole movie; it’s perfect rainy day viewing and if you’re not already a kid, it may bring you back to your own childhood.

There are a few things on the negative side to consider as well; The subtitles, which are in white, are hard to read whenever the background is white or a lighter color which is a problem. There’s been no word as of yet whether GKIDS will release a dubbed version as they did with Ernest & Celestine; I’m betting that they will. The film is clearly meant for younger viewers and some of them may be less proficient at reading and may not do well with subtitles. If a dubbed version had been available, I likely would have given this at least a full point higher rating, maybe even two.

Also unlike E&C the story feels a bit dumbed down in places. I got the sense of being talked down to by the filmmakers, a sense I never got in the previous film’s case. That was a bit disconcerting. However, those cases were fairly rare; most of the time I just let the craziness wash over me like a comfortable afternoon in my PJs watching Looney Tunes on the television with a big bowl of Cocoa Puffs in front of me. Now, that is what true happiness is.

Please note that this film is still on the Festival circuit and although it does have a distribution deal with GKIDS, no release date is currently scheduled. You’ll just have to keep an eye out for it at your local film festival or animation festival. Also while I did discuss an English dubbed version, no such version currently exists to my knowledge and GKIDS hasn’t confirmed that there will ever be one. Just so you know. P.S. I’d also like to give a shout-out to GKIDS who have put together an impressive roster of animated features from around the globe that will appeal to adults as well as kids. If you see their logo on anything, you know it’s going to be extremely high quality.

REASONS TO GO: There is a Looney Tunes quality particularly in the first vignette. There is a quality of sweetness throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: The subtitles can be hard to read. The story is on the dumb side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The middle tale was made up by Renner when he was a child; he eventually turned it into a graphic novel from which the film is adapted.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zootopia
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Guilty

The Death of Stalin


Stalin has the literal last laugh.

(2017) Comedy/Satire (IFC) Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Olga Kurylenko, Jason Isaacs, Paddy Considine, Paul Chahidi, Adrian McLoughlin, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Richard Brake, Dermot Crowley, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Paul Whitehouse, Cara Horgan, Karl Johnson, Diana Quick, Jonathan Aris, Dave Wong, Eva Sayer. Directed by Armando Iannucci

 

While history is often written by the victorious and comes from that point of view, there are some things that transcend opinion. For one, tyrants like Hitler and in this particular case, Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union, were homicidal monsters who are to be reviled rather than revered. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good for a laugh or two

Stalin (McLoughlin) barely makes an appearance in the film; he has his life-ending cerebral hemorrhage about 20 minutes into the film, but his presence hangs over the entire proceeding as a power struggle develops between secret police chief Lavrenti Beria (Beale) and the politically canny Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi). The rest of the central committee, including the spine-challenged Georgy Malenkov (Tambor) and the flip-flopping Vyacheslav Molotov (Palin) are busy scrambling to make sure they don’t get caught in the fallout that is sure to come once one of their number assumes control of the Soviet Union.

While the movie compresses a period of about three years into a few days (the final denouement which is shown here to take place shortly after the funeral actually occurred three years after Stalin was laid to rest), the historical facts as we can come by them seem to be pretty accurate. That the movie is based on a French graphic novel makes that a bit astounding but in this era of fake news and bald-faced lies that come from our own politicians, not surprising.

Buscemi has always been something of an underrated comic performer but this might be his best role yet. He plays Khrushchev as paranoid and somewhat high-strung, relating funny stories from the siege of Stalingrad including one of sticking a private’s finger in warm water in order to cause him to wet himself which turns out to be somewhat ironic since Stalin himself would shortly do exactly that (which is historically accurate; the hemorrhage caused him to lose control of his bladder).

Iannucci has created such spot-on satires as the HBO series Veep and the seminal British show The Thick of It but while those tend to be somewhat harder edged than Stalin he manages to concoct a story that is both timely and of a specific time simultaneously. We here in the West understand that being near the top of the political heap in the old Soviet Union was inherently dangerous to life and limb and we pat ourselves on the back to say “it was never like that here” but then we look at the current White House and its revolving door and wonder if it wasn’t a lot more similar than we think.

There are some moments of wonderful nonsense, such as when Beria and Khrushchev (neither one of whom are particularly athletic) racing through the woods of Stalin’ s dacha in order to be the first to greet his daughter Svetlana (Riseborough), or when war hero Grand Marshall Zhukov (Isaacs), then in charge of the Red Army, arrives at the Kremlin dripping with medals and roaring “What does it take for a soldier to get lubricated around here?”

Not everyone will find this funny. The Russians have banned this movie, claiming that it was insulting to Russian history which I suppose it is – if the Russians did a satire on the death of President Kennedy I suppose we wouldn’t be laughing much either. But then again, Putin has a lot more in common with Stalin than Trump has with JFK and I don’t doubt that those who are Trump supporters may find this to be a thinly veiled dig at their hero. I don’t think it is in particular, but parallels can certainly be glimpsed.

Da Queen found the film to be a bit long-winded and she has a point. I also have to point out that I was laughing out loud hysterically the first time I saw it but the second time I saw it with Da Queen it wasn’t quite as funny. That may mean that it won’t lend itself to repeated viewings although comedies rarely do. However, the first viewing really got me into the somewhat anarchic and zany world that Iannucci created and while it may not have been too laugh-inspiring at the time, at least today we can look back on it and see the humor – not so much in the situation but in how we react to it.

REASONS TO GO: Much of it is hysterically funny. Buscemi is at the top of his game. The dialogue is wickedly funny. Those who love Monty Python are going to enjoy this.
REASONS TO STAY: The subject matter may make laughter a somewhat uncomfortable reaction. It’s a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is consistent profanity, adult themes, violence (some of it graphic), sexual references and intimations of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was banned in Russia, two days before it was due to be released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monty Python’s Life of Brian
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
La Familia

Atomic Blonde


This is what a femme fatale looks like.

(2017) Action (Focus) Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Eddie Marsan, John Goodman, Toby Jones, James Faulkner, Roland Møller, Sofia Boutella, Bill Skarsgård, Sam Hargrave, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Til Schweiger, Barbara Sukowa, Attila Arpa, Martin Angerbauer, Lili Gessler, Declan Hannigan, Daniel Bernhardt, Sara Natasa Szonda. Directed by David Leitch

 

Hitchcock famously had a thing about icy blondes; along comes a film that may have the best one yet. For one thing, Charlize Theron isn’t just a master manipulator – she can kick quantum ass. Here, set to a pulsing and throbbing soundtrack and a cornucopia of mayhem she becomes the coolest and sexiest assassin of them all – drinking, smoking and seducing her way to Bond’s title.

Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI-6 agent in Berlin days before the Wall fell in November 1989 to retrieve a list of double agents that, should the Soviets get their hands on it, would mean the end of a goodly number of high-value assets, to use spy film terminology. Broughton, who also has an agenda of her own, is assisted by the none-too-trustworthy station chief who in the dry words of her MI-6 handler (Jones) “has gone native.” Basically she goes looking for the list and every step of the way she gets attacked by goons and beats the snot out of them while getting her share of lumps as well.

There are some amazing action sequences here, particularly one set in an abandoned apartment building that is as brutal and as realistic a fight as you’re ever going to see. Lorraine dishes out the pain but gets her own share of it as well and even though this is set up in many ways as a distaff Bond film, this feels more in tune with the real world. The soundtrack of mainly Euro-New Wave (heavy on the Depeche Mode, Nena and Siouxsie and the Banshees) will bring a smile to the face of anyone who was young during that era i.e. people my age.

The film, based on the graphic novel The Coldest City gets more convoluted as the film wears on but the pace is always frenetic and you’re never more than two or three minutes away from another breathtaking action scene. 2017 has been the year of the renaissance of action movies (and of horror movies as well but that’s for another review) and this one is right up there among the best of a year that brought us Baby Driver, Logan Lucky and The Hitman’s Bodyguard among others. That’s some fine company to be included in.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are stunning. The 80s soundtrack is perfectly matched to the action. Theron takes an unforgettable character and runs with it. As spy films go, this one is much more realistic.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot gets a bit convoluted and the ending is not unexpected.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and violence as well as some graphic sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Charlize Theron cracked two teeth during the course of filming the action sequences for this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Verizon, Vudu, Xfinity, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knight and Day
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Shape of Water

Wilson (2017)


A dysfunctional family portrait.

(2017) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines, Margo Martindale, Brett Gelman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, James Saito, Bill McCallum, Alec George, Nate Mooney, Paul Cram, Tom Proctor, Katie Rose Law, Roxy Wood, Bruce Bohne, Greta Oglesby, Rachel Weber, Toussaint Morrison, Tonita Castro. Directed by Craig Johnson

 

We all know someone like him; a person with the social skills of a charging bull. Someone who generates awkward silences like our president generates Tweets. You know, that person who stops every conversation dead in their tracks with pronouncements that defy reason or rudeness that defies civility.

Wilson (Harrelson) is that guy. He lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota with his dog that he adores but who pisses him off regularly. His only friend is moving about as far away as he can get and taking his shrewish wife with him. Wilson’s dad passes away from cancer soon afterward. With all this going on, Wilson decides he needs to reconnect with the world.

Doing that, he decides, means reconnecting with his ex-wife Pippi (Dern). She’s no saint either, owning what could charitably be charitably described as a checkered past including prostitution and drug abuse. When Wilson finds her, she’s trying to get her life back together working as a waitress. But that’s not all.

When Pippi originally left, she’d told Wilson that she’d gotten an abortion – but psych! It turns out that she’d put the baby up for adoption instead. Claire (Amara) has been raised by wealthy parents but has plenty of issues. Wilson is determined to reach out to the child he never knew he had and establish a connection, dragging a reluctant Pippi along in the process. It could be a good thing but as Wilson is wont to do, he messes things up instead.

This is based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the screenplay) and it plays in a lot of ways like a Clowes book; simply drawn and not terribly sketched out. However, I have to admit I went in with low expectations based on a trailer that felt like something I’d seen plenty of times before. In all honesty I was pleasantly surprised; I thought this was going to be one of those social experiments to find out how unlikable they can make the main character and still get some critical acclaim.

Frankly, the critical response has been surprisingly low on this one; the general consensus seems to be that the film is predictable and in some ways it is – Wilson’s journey is pretty much by-the-numbers and yet I left the theater feeling a bit of catharsis. That’s not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.

It is definitely a movie that builds. Early on my low expectations were essentially being me and I remember leaning over and whispering to Da Queen “Oh, now I remember why Woody Harrelson is mostly playing support roles these days.” Well, more fool me – as the film progressed, Harrelson took over and while he was still playing a pretty much unlikable no-filter kind of guy, I felt myself beginning to root for Wilson. Hey, a guy that much into dogs can’t be all bad, right? In any case, I was reminded why Woody Harrelson has a filmography that a whole lot of actors in this town would envy. Okay, in Hollywood. EVERY actor in Orlando would envy Woody Harrelson’s filmography.

Yeah, there are places that the film gets a bit sentimental and yes, when Wilson hits rock bottom it’s hard not to get emotional. One thing though that differentiates this from other films of this ilk is that it has a superior cast. Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale (who’s essentially only in one scene) and Cheryl Hines are top actresses who take a back seat to nobody in terms of consistent performances. They add depth to the film and give Harrelson plenty of places to play off of – Dern in particular makes an excellent foil for Harrison. The young Isabella Amara does some fine work here as well; her character is certainly complicated and troubled but is basically a decent girl who hasn’t gotten a ton of love in her life.

The ending is a little schmaltzy but all in all, I did end up liking Wilson more than I expected to. I’m not a big Clowes fan by any stretch of the imagination so that’s a bit of an accomplishment but I’m now very interested in picking up a couple of the man’s graphic novels and giving them another chance. Sometimes, changing your perspective is a right place at the right time kind of thing.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of film that grows on you. Wilson does in fact grow throughout the film which is a bit of a shocker.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too many neuroses on display for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of profanity and a smidgeon of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The jail scenes were filmed at the Ramsey County Correctional Facility in St. Paul, Minnesota which is a working prison.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Barry

The Legend of Tarzan


Him Tarzan, you Jane...don't you wish!!!

Him Tarzan, you Jane…don’t you wish!!!

(2016) Adventure (Warner Brothers) Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, Ben Chaplin, Casper Crump, Sidney Ralitsoele, Osy Ikhile, Mens-Sana Tamakloe, Antony Acheampong, Edward Apeagyei, Ashley Byam, Clive Brunt, Charles Babalola, Yule Masiteng, Mimi Ndiweni, Faith Edwards. Directed by David Yates

 

The pulp era gave us some of our most enduring characters and heroes. From the comic books to the detective novels, iconic characters like The Shadow, The Phantom, Superman, Doc Savage and Conan the Barbarian all were created in that era. Perhaps the famous one of all, however, is Tarzan. Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, he has been active in nearly every medium for nearly a century, from comic books to novels to television shows to of course the movies. Now comes the latest big screen Tarzan adventure, but what would the 21st century make of the pulp hero?

Tarzan (Skarsgård) has left the jungles of Africa and come home with his sweet Lady Jane (Robbie) to England, where he now inhabits his father’s title and mansion, and these days goes by the name of John Clayton, his given name. Meanwhile, back in Africa, Belgium’s bloodthirsty King Leopold II has quietly enslaved the natives in the Congo which was, at the time, a Belgian colony and has loosed his nefarious right hand man Colonel Leon Rom (Waltz) to take out the only man capable of stopping his plans – Tarzan.

Colonel Rom lures Tarzan back on an expedition ostensibly to inspect Leopold’s supposedly enlightened progress in the jungle and, as representatives of the English government imply, in the meantime assisting England with trade relations with the fractious monarch. Tarzan is decidedly reluctant to go back although Jane, who also grew up on the Dark Continent, is eager to return to her home and friends. Tarzan is accompanied by the American activist George Washington Williams (Jackson) who believes that Leopold is up to something – slavery, to be specific – and wants Tarzan to help him document it.

Of course, you don’t need Admiral Akbar to tell you it’s a trap. On a visit to the peaceful village where Jane grew up and near where Tarzan was raised by a tribe of apes, Jane is kidnapped by Rom and of course Tarzan chases him through the jungle relentlessly. What Tarzan doesn’t know is that an old enemy (Hounsou) awaits him on the other side of the jungle to take his revenge on the Lord of the Apes, in exchange for a boatload of diamonds that will enable Leopold to pay for a mercenary army to wreak havoc in central Africa. Definitely not cricket, that.

Skarsgård, who made so many fans on True Blood, makes a fine Tarzan. He reminds me a little bit of Viggo Mortensen with the kind of twinkle in his eye smirk that Mortensen has, particularly when he played Aragon. Skarsgård who took the role largely to please his father who’s a big Tarzan fan (his dad is noted actor Stellan Skarsgård for those not in the know) gives the pulp hero a brooding presence, perhaps more so than any other actor who has played him (and there have been plenty of those).

The pacing here starts off a little bit slow, but does pick up by the end. Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter flicks, knows how to build a level of action in his movies and by the time the final confrontation between Tarzan and Rom takes place, the audience is well-primed for it. As for that confrontation, trust me it’s a doozy. As far as thrills go, The Legend of Tarzan delivers.

One thing that was inevitable was that the modern liberal sensibilities of film critics were rubbed the wrong way. A lot of copy has been written about colonialism, and Tarzan as the Big White Bwana and there is truth to that – but considering Tarzan was created back in 1918, one must have at least some leeway for the times not only portrayed in the film but in the source material.

Although to be fair, in this case that source material was the Dark Horse comic rather than Burroughs’ original novels, which truth be told probably wouldn’t play well these days. Curiously, real people are used here – Leopold, Rom and George Washington Williams all existed and pretty much as they are depicted in the film. Adding Tarzan to the mix is an interesting idea, but it’s a lot like having Austin Powers try to stop the Kennedy Assassination, although of course the events in the Congo back at the turn of the 20th century are a lot less well-known to American audiences than JFK.

I will say that the lush backgrounds filmed in Gabon are absolutely extraordinary, although the actors mainly filmed on stages with green screens and CGI animals. And that to a very large extent defines what’s wrong with this film. They really wanted to go with realism in the story line, but rather than going with real animals, they went the CGI route and it shows at times. In other words, the filmmakers wanted to have their cake and eat it too, but ended up with a doughy mixture with too much sugar and not enough substance.

REASONS TO GO: Skarsgård has A-list potential. The film utilizes gorgeous African vistas, although most of the jungle scenes are on sets.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much CGI spoils the broth. The mix of real and fictional is less enticing than it sounds.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find plenty of action and violence, some rude dialogue and a bit of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the last film to be produced by Jerry Weintraub, who passed away shortly before shooting wrapped.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Greystoke
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Observance

Gemma Bovery


A portrait of wistfulness.

A portrait of wistfulness.

(2014) Romance (Music Box) Gemma Arterton, Fabrice Luchini, Jason Flemyng, Isabelle Candelier, Niels Schneider, Mel Raido, Elsa Zylberstein, Pip Torrens, Kacey Mottet Klein, Edith Scob, Philippe Uchan, Pascale Arbillot, Marie-Benedicte Roy, Christian Sinniger, Pierre Alloggia, Patrice Le Mehaute, Gaspard Beuacarne, Marianne Viville, Jean-Yves Freyburger. Directed by Anne Fontaine

Florida Film Festival 2015

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert is a masterwork of French literature, although not too many Americans have read it (then again, not too many Americans have read anything). The story concerns a doctor’s wife in a provincial French town who embarked on several adulterous affairs to relieve the boredom of life in the slow lane as well as an empty marriage. It was racy for its time and many of the themes of the book have echoed down through the ages, as has its realistic story telling style.

An English couple, Charlie (Flemyng) and Gemma (Arterton) Bovery have moved into a small French town where Flaubert wrote his masterpiece. Martin Joubert (Luchini), who runs a boulingerie with his acerbic, practical wife Valerie (Candelier), is taken by the couple’s similar name to the tragic heroine and with Gemma herself, a spirited and beautiful young woman. He is a big fan of classic literature and Madame Bovary is one of his favorites.

Gemma at first seems thrilled with all things French, taking deep, sensual breaths of the freshly baked bread, taking long walks through the countryside with her dog. Martin often walks with her, delighted by his new friend. However, he is prone to looking for similarities between Gemma and Emma (the given name of Flaubert’s heroine) and soon finds a big one when Gemma initiates a torrid affair with Hervé de Bressigny, the callow womanizing scion to a titled family that lives nearby who is home on a break from school. Certain that she is hurtling to a terrible end =takes steps to save Gemma from the same fate as Flaubert’s protagonist no matter what the cost.

Based on a French graphic novel which is in turn something of a satiric take on Flaubert’s novel, the movie moves at a pace that befits its setting in the lovely rural countryside of France although some American viewers, used to a more brisk rhythm to their film may become impatient. but American viewers willing to stick with the movie will be rewarded with one of the better endings to a movie as I’ve seen in recent years, although admittedly it takes a long time in getting there.

Luchini is one of France’s most dependable actors although he’s not well-known on this side of the Atlantic. He plays Martin as a man living a pretty ordinary life, with a teenage son (Klein) who’s a bit of an asshole, and a wife who is somewhat bemused by his penchant to see things through the lens of his beloved books. She supported him when he moved the family from Paris although she wasn’t particularly thrilled by the idea but has essentially accepted and even embraced their new life which they have been in for several years when the movie begins. Luchini tends to be subtle with his performance, never really allowing the character to sink into cartoonish excess (which would be easy to do) but still leaves that little twinkle of the eternal boy which his character truly is.

Arterton is one of those actresses who always delivers attention-grabbing performances but doesn’t get the respect she deserves. She really is one of the finest actresses out there right now and should be getting the kind of films that are being offered to Emma Watson, Keira Knightley and Felicity Jones but for some reason she’s still either by choice or circumstance laboring in smaller films on the fringes of big stardom. This is another terrific performance that leaves me scratching my head as to why this woman isn’t a big, big star.

Luchini is the mournful face of hopeless love here. The feeling of impending tragedy colors everything like dappled sunlight on a summer day that is offset by a chill wind. The village setting is charming but like the decaying cottages that Martin and Gemma live in, the charm is offset by the reality that it isn’t all wildflowers and croissants. The movie has a lot of comedic elements – are men of a certain age group who fall obsessively in love with a much younger woman really that pathetic? – although I suspect that the humor appeals to a more European sensibility than American, although some of the situations are more or less universal. Overall this is a marvelously French film that is at once sexy, wistful, tragic and ridiculous. I guess that our lives pretty much hit those same notes as well. Maybe not as sexy as French lives do though.

REASONS TO GO: Lovely rustic French setting. Great ending.
REASONS TO STAY: Sense of humor may be too European for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality, some nudity and also a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fontaine is best known as a director in the U.S. for Coco Before Chanel.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Madame Bovary
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Welcome to Me

Road to Perdition


Road to Perdition(2002) Gangster Drama (DreamWorks) Paul Newman, Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Liam Aiken, Dylan Baker, Ciaran Hinds, Daniel Darlow, Maureen Gallagher, Kevin Chamberlin, Doug Spinuzza, Duane Sharp, Diane Dorsey, Harry Groener, James Greene, Peggy Roeder, Lara Phillips, Mina Badie, Heidi Jayne Netzley. Directed by Sam Mendes

Waiting for Oscar

2003 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Supporting Actor – Paul Newman
Best Art Direction/Set Decoration – Dennis Gassner, Nancy Haigh
Best Sound – Scott Millan, Bob Beemer, John Pritchett
Best Sound Editing – Scott Hecker
Best Original Music Score – Thomas Newman
WINS – 1
Best Cinematography – Conrad L. Hall

Loyalty is a commodity that is very precious because it is so very, very rare. It’s been that way for a very long time – we are an inconstant species, truly. But then again, the earning of loyalty is a very difficult thing; we don’t give it easily for a reason. And for damn sure we don’t forgive when that loyalty is sundered.

Michael Sullivan (Hanks) is a loving husband and father as 1931 dawns. His son Michael Jr. (Hoechlin) has an unusual relationship with him; the boy worships his father and yet there is a distance between them. Perhaps it’s because his dad does mysterious work for the jovial John Rooney (Newman), who seems to be one of the leading men in town.

But John Rooney is no ordinary businessman; he’s a gangster and Michael Sullivan is his main enforcer, known far and wide as the Angel of Death. Michael Sullivan Jr. doesn’t know this; he thinks his dad is a cop, or a superhero. So he stows away in the trunk of his dad’s car when he and Rooney’s son Connor (Craig) go to visit someone for a talk, and that talk gets out of hand and Connor kills a man in cold blood, forcing Michael to have to clean up the mess. Michael Jr. witnesses this and Connor, not being a trusting sort, decides to kill Michael Jr. and make it look like a random gang hit. Unfortunately, Connor is a bit of a screw-up and manages to kill Michael’s wife Annie (Leigh) and his other son Peter (Aiken).

This puts Rooney and his former enforcer at war and Michael goes on the run with his surviving son. He appeals to Frank Nitti (Tucci) of the Capone outfit in Chicago for justice and peace, but Nitti, not wanting to get in the middle, declines. In fact, Rooney has set the somewhat demented crime photographer/assassin Maguire (Law) on the two who decide to rob John of his ill-gotten gains and then strike out on their own. It is a time of father-son bonding in a wild era, on the run from everyone and beyond the law. But when one is known as the Angel of Death, you know that the Grim Reaper isn’t far away at any given time.

This was Mendes’ first film after his breakout success with American Beauty and Newman’s final on-screen appearance (he would do a voice role in Cars). Both of those events tend to overshadow the overall quality of the movie which was a lot higher than one might have expected.  The movie was based on a graphic novel by noted mystery writer Max Alan Collins and the dark tones and overall feel of that work ported over to the cinematic version nicely.

Hanks went way out of his comfort zone here for a role totally unlike any he has played before or since. While one can relate to his protective father side, the cold and brutal killer that the Angel of Death is completely comes out of left field for Hanks, who has more in common with Jimmy Stewart than Jimmy Cagney. Jude Law also has one of his better performances as the twisted killer and crime photographer who takes crime scene photos of his own crimes.

Newman makes a final performance that is a great one to exit on. His urbane gangster is generous and full of Irish charm on the surface but is as deadly as a snake below. The relationship between him and the Hanks character is spot-on, father-son type stuff which of course makes the real son of the gangster jealous which is part of what drives him to murder the family of Michael Sullivan. This is also a very different role for Craig in his pre-Bond days.

The depression-era Midwest is beautifully captured here and photographed adroitly by legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall, for whom this was his final feature as well (he passed away the following year after doing a short film). There are scenes of a confrontation between Michael Sullivan and John Rooney photographed at night in the rain which are absolutely breathtaking. Even if you’re not partial to gangster flicks, this is one of the best-looking and best-acted I’ve ever seen.

There are those who believe this is a good but not great movie and on that point I have to disagree. I think this will be thought of as a classic in the decades to come when the films of the 90s are discussed. At the end of the day, this is a movie that may be dark in tone but entertains nonetheless. If you haven’t seen it yet, this should be at or near the top of your must-see list.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performances throughout, particularly from Hanks, Newman, Law and Tucci. Beautiful cinematography. Recreates the era nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: More somber than most funerals.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The crime scene photos in Maguire’s apartment are actual crime scene photos from the era, some of which were taken by Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, the notorious photographer whom Maguire’s character was based on.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD edition has very little other than a deleted scene that has Anthony LaPaglia’s performance as Al Capone that was eventually cut from the final version, but the Blu-Ray has two memorable featurettes worth getting – one explores the world of Road to Perdition in both the graphic novel it’s based on and the film, the other a retrospective on cinematographer Conrad Hall whose work helped make this film so memorable.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $181.0M on an $80M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billy Bathgate
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: American Sniper

Men in Black


Koochy Koochy Koo.

Koochy Koochy Koo.

(1997) Sci-Fi Comedy (Columbia) Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rip Torn, Tony Shalhoub, Siobhan Fallon, Mike Nussbaum, Jon Gries, Sergio Calderon, Carel Stuycken, Fredric Lane, Richard Hamilton, Kent Faulcon, John Alexander, David Cross, Keith Campbell, Patrick Breen, Becky Ann Baker. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

Waiting for Oscar

1998 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Musical Score – Danny Elfman
Best Set Decoration – Bo Welch, Cheryl Carasik
WINS – 1
Best Make-Up – Rick Baker, David LeRoy Anderson

Conspiracy theorists are generally certain that our planet has been visited by extraterrestrial life; some of them go so far as to say that these visitations come with government help and co-operation. There are those who think that there is an entire agency who oversees the extraterrestrial presence on Earth.

James Edwards (Smith) is a cop. He’s a very good cop; dogged, determined and a pretty smart cookie. When he runs down a suspect whose eyes blink the wrong way, he inadvertently is exposed to something that certain agencies don’t want him to see. Agent K (Jones), a man in a terribly fitting black suit, questions Detective Edwards about the affair, taking him to see Jeebs (Shalhoub), an informant of the NYPD who is also, it turns out, an informant of the Men in Black, the agency Agent K works for. When K gets what he needs, he wipes the memory of Edwards but because he’s looking for a new partner, gives him a business card. Edwards’ unorthodox way of thinking grabs the attention of K’s boss, Zed (Torn). Edwards’ identity is completely erased from existence and he becomes Agent J.

When a Bug lands on the planet and takes over the skin of Upstate New York farmer Edgar (D’Onofrio), it sets the stage for an all out catastrophe. See, the Bug kills a member of the Arquillian Royal Family in order to get a hold of an inexhaustible power supply called the Galaxy. With the Bugs at war with the Arquillians, this presents quite a dilemma; the Arquillians don’t want them to have it and are willing to destroy the Earth to make sure they don’t get it.

With the help of a New York City coroner (Fiorentino) who gets caught in the middle, the Men in Black run down the Bug but he is in the course of getting away using spacecraft hiding in plain sight of all New Yorkers. It is up to the Men in Black to save the day and protect the planet.

Based on a comic book originally published by Malibu Comics which was in turn bought by Marvel, the success of this movie would lead Marvel to go ahead and sell the rights of Spider-Man to Columbia and X-Men to Fox, leading to the explosion of comic book films that dominates the box office landscape today. It also made Smith one of the biggest stars in Hollywood where he also remains today.

The movie displayed a kind of ironic sense of humor that melded the 60s and the 90s, bringing the kitsch of that era back in a big way. The New York World’s Fair of 1964 was on display with the New York Pavilion Towers figuring prominently in the climax, but also the overall architecture of the fair which was echoed throughout the MIB headquarters in Battery Park. Well, below it actually. Strangely, it’s largely because of this era dichotomy that the movie doesn’t feel dated as we approach it’s 20th anniversary in 2017.

The chemistry between Jones and Smith was genuine and worked nicely, the laconic and humorless Jones making an able counterpoint to the ‘tude of Smith who was as modern as they get in 1997. Although they would reprise their roles in two more films to date, the first movie was really the magical one in this regard.

In many ways this movie is to science fiction what Ghostbusters is to horror. The genre elements are as good as they get, but the humor makes this movie as much fun as a movie can be. While folks don’t really consider this an Oscar type of picture, it actually won a golden statuette and was nominated for three all told. In this case, all of the honors it got were richly deserved.

WHY RENT THIS: Incredible kitschy fun. Will Smith kicks off his film career with a classic. Quirky sense of humor.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At times can be a little too far-out for the mainstream.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a little bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally, Clint Eastwood was offered the part of Agent Kay but he turned it down, preferring to concentrate on his directing career.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: All editions include a plethora of special features, including a music video, storyboard to finished product comparisons, mini-featurettes on the special effects and other technical areas of the movie and the Blu-Ray includes an “Ask Frank the Pug” feature which is a great time-waster for about 35 seconds before it gets old.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $589.4M on a $90M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Addams Family
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Waiting for Oscar continues!

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For


Born to be wild.

Born to be wild.

(2014) Action (Dimension) Mickey Rourke, Josh Brolin, Eva Green, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Powers Boothe, Rosario Dawson, Jamie Chung, Jessica Alba, Dennis Haysbert, Christopher Meloni, Jamie King, Bruce Willis, Alexa Vega, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Lloyd, Stacey Keach, Martin Csokas, Ray Liotta, Juno Temple, Jude Ciccolella, Julia Garner, Kimberly Cox. Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller

The world is a rough place and nowhere is it rougher than Sin City. A place where the corrupt wield absolute power with ruthless brutality, where tough guys hook up with even tougher dames, where anything can be had – for a price. That price might just be your soul.

Like the original Sin City, the story here is told in vignettes. In one, the ultra-lucky Johnny (Gordon-Levitt) finds a poker game which is run by Senator Roark (Boothe), the spider at the center of all the corruption of Sin City – and he doesn’t like to lose. It’s bad for business.

In the next, Dwight (Brolin), a former newspaper photographer turned private eye is looked up by his ex-girlfriend Ava (Green) who dumped him for a rich man (Csokas). He never could turn down a damsel in distress, and the brutish Manute (Haysbert) who watches Ava for her husband, isn’t about to let Dwight get in the way of the plan.

 

Nancy (Alba) still mourns the death of her love, Detective John Hartigan (Willis) who watches over Nancy from the other side. Nancy longs to take her revenge on Senator Roark who was responsible for Hartigan’s early exit, but she doesn’t have the nerve to pull the trigger. However, when Roark comes after her she knows that she has no choice but to take on the powerful senator. She can’t do it alone and so she enlists the aid of Marv (Rourke), the iron mountain of a man who protects her as best he can in a city that has no mercy.

It has been nine years since the first Sin City has been released and times as well as movie-going audiences have changed. However, the look of the sequel/prequel is pretty much the same as the first, shot in black and white with bursts of color – a headful of red hair, a bright blue coat, burning green eyes – with highly stylized backgrounds. I would imagine nearly the entire film was shot on green screen.

Still, if you like your noir hard-bitten with sexy dames more dangerous than the big guns of the guys, you’re in for a treat. The all-star cast all are down with the vision of Rodriguez and Miller, the latter of whom penned the graphic novels that the movie is based on; for the record, two of the vignettes are from the graphic novels, two were written by Miller especially for the movie.

 

Rourke, as Marv, is a force of nature. He’s grim, not too bright and damn near unstoppable, the kind of jamoke you’d want to have your back in a fight. Rourke gives him dignity and a love of violence in equal measures. He don’t remember things too good but he can be counted on when the chips are down.

Brolin takes over for Clive Owen who played Dwight in the first movie – his work on The Knick precluded his involvement here. Brolin is less suave than Owen but captures the inner demons of Dwight far more viscerally than Owen did. They do explain why Dwight’s face changed (and near the end Brolin is wearing prosthetics to look more like Owen) but they can’t explain away the English accent that Dwight affects in the first movie. Oops.

In fact, several roles have been recast. Michael Clarke Duncan passed away between films and Haysbert takes over the role of Manute nicely. Brittany Murphy, who also passed away between movies, had played Shellie in the first movie. Rather than recast her, Miller and Rodriguez instead wrote a new character to take over her part. Finally, Devon Aoki who played Miho in the first film was pregnant at the time of shooting, so Jamie Chung took over. Miho in either actress’ hands is one of my favorite roles in the series.

What is also missing from the first movie is attitude. There’s some of it here but the movie is a little more grim than the first, takes itself a little more seriously than the first one did. Whereas there is a ton of violence and gore here, it is missing the same kind of energy that the first film had. It feels more cynical and less fun.

There is enough going on here to make it worth your while and fans of Mickey Rourke are going to enjoy him cutting loose here as he does – he’s in nearly all of the vignettes. There are also some fun cameos, like Christopher Meloni as a besotted cop, Christopher Lloyd as a medico who doesn’t ask too many questions and Ray Liotta as an amoral husband having an affair who plans to end it the hard way.

I did enjoy parts of it enough to give it a very mild recommendation, but it simply doesn’t hold up next to the first film which was over the top, and balls to the wall. This one tries to be but ends up trying too hard.

REASONS TO GO: Still a visual treat. Some hard-bitten performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks panache. Grimmer than the first.

FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of violence, bloodshed and foul language as well as a surfeit of sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film Eva Green and Martin Csokas play a married couple. In real life, they had a romantic relationship for four years.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold in July

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Carriers