Suspiria (2018)


Even the graceful may be made to look grotesque.

(2018) Horror (AmazonChloë Grace Moretz, Tilda Swinton, Doris Hick, Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, Alek Wek, Jessica Harper, Renée Soutendijk, Malgosia Bela, Angela Winkler, Vanda Capriolo, Jessica Batut, Elena Fokina, Clementine Houdart, Ingrid Caven, Sylvie Testud, Fabrizia Sacchi, Brigitte Cuvelier, Christine Leboutte, Vincenza Modica, Halla Thordardottir. Directed by Luca Guadagnino

 

Those expecting to see a remake of the legendary Dario Argento 1977 horror classic of the same name will be very disappointed. Sure, there are a lot of elements in common with that film here.  But, as Guadagnino himself has said, this is more of an homage than a remake.

Susie (Johnson) is an American dancer, come to Berlin in 1977 to try out for a prestigious modern dance academy. The air in Berlin at the time is vibrant and terrifying; it is the era of the terrorism of the Baader-Meinhof gang, of the still-fresh scars of the Nazi regime, of the still-in-place Wall dividing the city and where David Bowie prowls around getting ready to record some of the most compelling work of his career.

The academy is cut off from all of that. Presided over by the icy Madame Blanc (Swinton), an acclaimed choreographer of modern dance who is preparing to present one of her most important postwar works, Volk and with her lead dancer, Patricia (Moretz) having had apparently a mental breakdown and disappeared, apparently into one of the radical groups floating around Berlin, Susie falls into that role. However, Patricia’s psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer (also played by Swinton, nearly unrecognizable under layers of latex and make-up) suspects that her delusions of magic and witchcraft are hiding something else just as sinister and goes about investigating her disappearance like an aging Ellery Queen.

Occasionally horror films come along with many layers designed to make you think and this is one of those films. It has polarized audiences and critics alike; there were several perfect scores given to the film on Metacritic and at least one zero. There is a definitely feminine viewpoint here; there are almost no male roles and the main one is played by a woman (Dr. Klemperer). The academy is a microcosm of divided Berlin, with two distinct camps – one led by Madame Blanc, the other by the equally mysterious Madame Markos (Swinton, again) with divergent points of view of how things ought to be run. The movie may be perceived to be feminist by some, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but the feminism is less overt than you might think. Female bodies are not ogled over here and the movie is virtually sexless other than a few odd comments here and there. However, there is no mistaking the stance the film takes on the violence (both physical and otherwise) forced upon women by society, and the objectification of them in general.

There is violence here and some of it is intense. There is a scene in which Susie is rehearsing a scene from the piece while in another room, her movements are visited upon a dancer who has fallen out of favor (Fokina) in nauseating extremes; bones crack, tendons rip, organs are perforated. The sequence goes on for awhile and may be found to be excessive or even unendurable for those who are sensitive to such things.

There are some real nice touches here. Thom Yorke’s score is absolutely superb, one of the best I’ve heard in quite a while. The production design is also quite impressive, diametrically opposed to the original film, eschewing the vibrant color palate of the 1977 film for a more muted, almost drab and cold look. It works nicely given the tone of the film. There is also a cameo by Jessica Harper, star of the 1977 film, as the psychiatrist’s wife near the end of the film that adds a touch of grace.

However, the 2018 version is almost exactly an hour longer than the original and I really can’t find a justification for it. It also begins to go off the rails a bit in the third act although I suspect that many who would be offended by the arthouse aspect of it might have switched off long before then. That would be a shame though; this is a movie that looks at the experience of being a woman in an unflinching and sometimes brutal manner; it’s the kind of movie I would expect that someone like Rose McGowan would make. And maybe, should.

REASONS TO SEE: Gorgeous set design. Thom Yorke’s autumnal score is incredible.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a bit artsy-fartsy towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some graphic nudity and ritualistic violence including one death scene that is nauseatingly graphic, as well as some profanity including sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yorke becomes the third member of Radiohead to segue into film scoring, following Jonny Greenwood and Phil Selway.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Uninvited
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Toxic Beauty

Isle of Dogs


Some dogs and their boy.

(2018) Animated Feature (Fox Searchlight) Starring the voices of Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Bob Balaban, Edward Norton, Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Frances McDormand, Akira Takayama, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Liev Schreiber, Mari Natsuki. Directed by Wes Anderson

 

Those who love the works of the quirky director will love this; those who are turned off by his oeuvre will not. The second stop-motion animated feature by Wes Anderson is so Wes Anderson.

In the future, the Japanese megalopolis of Megasaki has banished all dogs to an island formerly used as trash disposal. An intrepid young orphan boy (Rankin), who is also the mayor of Megasaki’s ward, flies to the island to locate his dog Spots (Schreiber). A pack of alpha dogs, including Chief (Cranston), Boss (Murray), King (Balaban), Duke (Goldblum) – a kind of four-legged TMZ – and Rex (Norton) along with the only female dog in the pack Nutmeg (Johansson) agree to help the boy find his friend. It doesn’t help that he speaks only Japanese while the Japanese dogs speak only English – or at least that’s how we perceive them. Meanwhile, back on the mainland, Tracy (Gerwig), a school reporter, discovers a terrible secret behind the cat-loving mayor’s (Nomura) proclamation.

The look of the film owes a lot to legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and is consistently beautiful throughout, even on the industrial garbage heap that is Trash Island. The Oscar nomination it received earlier this year was no fluke even though it eventually lost out to Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. The dogs are exquisitely rendered and are genuinely hilarious. Anderson’s trademark deadpan sense of humor very much rules the day here; not everyone gets it or likes it. Bill Murray has made a career of it, including many of Anderson’s films but the two were made for each other.

This isn’t everybody’s cup of sake and I don’t think Anderson ever sets out to make a film that is. There are moments that are beautiful and others that are ugly, so young kids should be warned away due to the latter. There is a lot of Japanese cultural references here which will appeal to Japanophiles everywhere although SJW-types might mutter things about “cultural appropriation.” The bottom line here is the same as the top; those who love the works of the quirky director will love this; those who are turned off by his oeuvre will not.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is brilliant. The sense of humor is droll, a welcome change.
REASONS TO AVOID: Guilty of occasionally being too quirky for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of violence and the thematic elements might not sit well with the very young.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This marked the first time in 14 years that a Wes Anderson film didn’t feature Jason Schwartzman in the cast (he did co-write the script).
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Apple TV, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, HBO Go,  Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fantastic Mr. Fox
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Killbird

New Releases for the Week of June 14, 2019


MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL

(Columbia) Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Rafe Spall, Kumail Nanjiani. Directed by F. Gary Gray

The Men in Black have long protected the Earth from extraterrestrial villains but now they face their biggest threat yet; one of their own, a mole in their own organization. Agents H and M will be challenged more than any other agent before them in this new installment in the franchise, the first without either Will Smith or Tommy Lee Jones.

See the trailer, video featurettes and clips here
For more on the movie this is the website
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action, some language and suggestive material)

5B

(RYOT) Hank Plante, Cliff Morrison, Mary Magee, Lorraine Day. The first dedicated AIDS ward in the country was built at San Francisco General Hospital in 1983. This is the story of those who built it; the nurses and caregivers and the often heartbreaking stories of loss, courage and triumph.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Square
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic content including unsettling images, and some strong language)

American Woman

(Roadside Attractions/Vertical) Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Amy Madigan. When a woman’s adult daughter disappears, she is left as caregiver for her infant granddaughter while trying to solve the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance, a journey that takes far longer than she anticipated.

See the trailer and clips here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language, sexual content and drug use)

The Dead Don’t Die

(Focus) Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Carol Kane. A sleepy small town is beset by the living dead who are looking for a free meal in the latest by quirkmeister Jim Jarmusch.

See the trailer, a video featurette and a clip here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Horror Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Barnstorm Theater, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for zombie violence/gore, and for language)

Late Night

(Amazon) Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Hugh Dancy, John Lithgow. A veteran late night talk show host, in danger of becoming irrelevant, hires a woman of color to join her stable of writers. The two women, who couldn’t be more different, find themselves sharing more in common than they would have thought.

See the trailer, video featurettes and an interview here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for language throughout and some sexual references)

Shaft

(Warner Brothers/New Line) Samuel L. Jackson, Jesse T. Usher, Richard Roundtree, Regina Hall. The son of the baddest private eye in New York City has a completely different methodology than his father. When a close friend of the son turns up dead, he will need a crash course in street tough from his dad, who was absent throughout his childhood but John Shaft has an agenda and no mutha is going to keep him from achieving it, family or not.

See the trailer and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Action Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Blackbear
Changeland
Hampstead
Plus One
Rainbow’s Sunset</em
The Souvenir
Vault

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

Game Over
Los Viejos – The Oldies
Nureyev
Plus One
Premier Padmini
Remember Amnesia
The Souvenir

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Daughter of the Wolf
Game Over
Heavy Water
The Souvenir
Vault

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

None

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

The Dead Don’t Die
Late Night
Men in Black International
Shaft

New Releases for the Week of November 2, 2018


BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

(20TH Century Fox) Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker. Directed by Bryan Singer

This is the story of Queen, one of the most legendary of classic rock bands and their flamboyant lead singer Freddie Mercury. The band would redefine what rock and roll sounded like and looked like, adding an operatic sound and unforgettable live show to the lexicon of rock bands.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, video featurettes and B-roll video here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard, 4DX, Dolby, IMAX, RPX, XD
Genre: Musical Biography
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language)

Beautiful Boy

(Amazon) Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan. David and Nic Sheff, father and son with the father being an acclaimed writer, deal with the heartbreak and hope of drug addiction.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, video featurettes and B-roll video here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Square

Rating: R (for drug content throughout, language and brief sexual material)

Brewmaster

(The Orchard) Jim Koch, Brian Selders, Jen Kimmich, David Geary. The craft beer revolution is in full swing, with four new breweries coming into being every business day. This documentary follows the forces driving what’s happening in craft beer as seen through the eyes of a New York lawyer struggling to open his own brewery and a Milwaukee brewer trying to pass the  difficult test to become the beer equivalent of a sommelier.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater (Saturday only)

Rating: NR

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

(Fox Searchlight) Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone. Lee Israel was once a bestselling author of celebrity biographies but as the 80s became the 90s her profiles had fallen out of favor with the reading public. With nobody willing to publish her anymore and the bills piling up, she takes a desperate turn into something not quite legal.

See the trailer and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use)

The Happy Prince

(Sony Classics) Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson. In the last days of Oscar Wilde’s life he takes the opportunity to reflect on his failures and transgressions with his trademark wit. Everett not only stars as Wilde but he also wrote and directed this passion project.

See the trailer and clips here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Daytona Cinematique, Old Mill Playhouse, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief drug use)

Nobody’s Fool

(Paramount Players) Tiffany Haddish, Tika Sumpter, Whoopi Goldberg, Omari Hardwick. After being released from prison, a wild child connects with her uptight sister to get her own life back together. However she soon finds that her sister’s online boyfriend may not be what he seems at all and that just won’t fly.

See the trailer and video featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for sexual content and language throughout, and for drug material)

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

(Disney) Mackenzie Foy, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley. A young mother desperately wants the key to open a box that contains the last gift her late mother wanted to give her. When she finds it, she is transported to an amazing land of magic and wonder where three realms live in peace and harmony. It’s the fourth realm that is the problem child as the tyrannical Mother Ginger wants to rule the four realms herself. The courageous girl must retrieve her key from the fourth realm if there’s even a chance of her returning home and bringing stability to the four realms.

See the trailer, interviews and video featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, DBOX, DBOX 3D, Dolby
Genre: Family Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for some mild peril)

Susperia

(Amazon) Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Grace Moretz, Malgosia Bela. A well-known dance company is wreathed in darkness. Some will succumb to madness, but others will find an awakening.

See the trailer, clips, video featurettes, an interview and a music video here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal The Loop, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for disturbing content involving ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity, and for some language including sexual references)

The Viper Club

(Roadside Attractions) Susan Sarandon, Matt Bomer, Edie Falco, Lola Kirke.  When a mother gets word her son, a journalist, has been kidnapped by terrorists, she tries to work through the system to try and get him back only to find that the system isn’t interested in helping. Frustrated, she finds a clandestine network of journalists, philanthropists and activists who are willing to help – but can they?

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language and some disturbing images)

What They Had

(Bleecker Street) Susan Sarandon, Michael Shannon, Blythe Danner, Robert Forster. A woman returns home to Chicago at the urgent summons of her brother. There, they both must deal with their mother’s deteriorating health and their father’s stubborn refusal to put her into a nursing home.

See the trailer, clips, an interview and a video featurette here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Square

Rating: R (for language including a brief sexual reference)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

4 Estrella
In Harm’s Way
Kayamkulam Kochunni
Sayyasachi

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

Bodied
Daughters of the Sexual Revolution
Hopelessly Devout
Monster Party
Sayyasachi

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Daughters of the Sexual Revolution
In Harm’s Way
Monster Party
Sayyasachi

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Sayyasachi

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Beautiful Boy
Bodied
Bohemian Rhapsody
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Nobody’s Fool
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

FILM FESTIVALS TAKING PLACE IN FLORIDA:

Cine-World Film Festival, Sarasota
Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood

Okja


A girl and her genetically modified giant pig; such a sweet picture!

(2017) Fantasy (Netflix) Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Seohyun An, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jungeun Lee, Byun Heebong, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Steven Yeun, Daniel Henshaw, Lily Collins, Devon Bostick, José Carias, Colm Hill, Kathryn Kirkpatrick, Nancy Bell, Jaein Kim, Bongryun Lee, Woo Shik Choi, Moon Choi. Directed by Joon-ho Bong

 

Asian culture can be incomprehensible at times for the Western mind. There is an almost cultish worship of things that are ridiculously cute and a sense of humor that is wacky and broad, yet their comic books and animated features can be crazy violent and chock full of deviant sexual behavior. Some things are best left un-analyzed.

In the near future, food shortages have led the multinational Morando Corporation to develop a genetically enhanced pig. The CEO (Swinton), seeking to undo the damage to the corporate image her amoral sister (also Swinton) did, proclaims the pig to be a miracle; it eats and poops less, provides more meat on the hoof (it resembles a hippopotamus with dog eyes) and tastes delicious. She initiates a contest in which piglets are sent to a variety of farms around the world to see which one is most successful at raising one.

The South Korean entry is sent to the farm of Hee Bong (Heebong) whose granddaughter Mija (An) has developed a bond with her pig whom she has named Okja. When television personality Johnny Wilcox (Gyllenhaal) – a sort of Steve Irwin-like character if Steve Irwin had been a corporate shill – visits the remote mountain farm and proclaims Okja the winner. What nobody has told Mija however is that Okja is to be taken away from the farm, sent to New York for a promotional appearance and then butchered for snacks. When she finds this out, she is not at all pleased.

But she gets a break; the quirky Animal Liberation Front, led by the quirky Jay (Dano) – has kidnapped Okja (maybe pig-napped would be a better term) and hopes to use the creature for his own agenda. However operatives for Morando find Okja and bring her back to New York. Can Okja be saved? And even if she is, will she ever be able to live on the farm again once she’s seen New York?

Director Joon-ho Bong, who gave us the wonderful The Host and the not as wonderful but still interesting Snowpiercer, delivers a great-looking film which is infused with a good deal of unexpected satire on the nature of corporate politics, mass media, obsession, animal cruelty and a little bit of American imperialism (at least one line spoke in Korean is deliberately mistranslated in the subtitles, which is about as subversive as you’d think Netflix would ever get). The satire can be a bit broad but it at least has its heart in the right place.

Just as broad is the humor which can take some getting used to by Western and particularly American audiences. There’s an awful lot of jokes about pig shit and if you find that dopey or distasteful, well, you’re not alone. Fortunately nothing is overtly mean or tremendously gross, so most youngsters will be delighted by the mainly CGI Okja who looks startlingly realistic.

This isn’t bad at all, although again there is a bit of a curve of how much you’ll enjoy it depending on how open to different cultures you might be. While much of this is fairly universal, I found some of it to be bewildering. Still, the cinematography is incredible (particularly in the Korean scenes) and even if the usually reliable Gyllenhaal and Swinton overact shamelessly (Esposito as a debonair corporate flunky is an exception) the movie is a solid choice for a night at home with Netflix.

REASONS TO GO: It’s bizarre and weird but in a good way. There is a surprising amount of social satire in the mix.
REASONS TO STAY: The humor is a little broad for my Western tastes and the movie a bit too long for what it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some violence and plenty of rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Animal Liberation Front is an actual organization that is dedicated to freeing animals in captivity and causing economic chaos for corporations profiting from their captivity.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Babe: A Giant Pig in the City
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie

War Machine (2017)


War is an all-American pastime!

(2017) Dramedy (Netflix) Brad Pitt, Ben Kingsley, Tilda Swinton, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, Scoot McNairy, Lakeith Stanfield, Alan Ruck, Will Poulter, Nicholas Jones, Meg Tilly, Josh Stewart, Tim Downey, Richard Glover, Griffin Dunne, Andrew Byron, Daniel Betts, John Magaro, RJ Cyler, Emory Cohen, Rufus Wright, Sean Power, Sian Thomas, Paul Hickey, Georgina Rylance. Directed by David Michôd

 

Netflix has been producing original movies for several years but their Adam Sandler comedies aside, their first serious attempt at a blockbuster of their own was this fictionalized Brad Pitt film based on a non-fiction book about the War in Afghanistan. It is not a promising start, although they have several films that have been released since then that are far better and far bigger.

The movie is meant to be a black comedic commentary on the nature of 21st century war as practiced by the United States. It moves at a kind of snail’s pace (at roughly two hours long, it is about a half hour too much) through a bloated script full of unfunny bits. The fault here isn’t Pitt’s although this is perhaps his most deranged work yet; his General Glen McMahon is a walking tic machine, exhorting troops that “We WILL prevail” at the same time expressing frustration with the bureaucracy he has to deal with. His square-jawed expression is the epitome of every Hollywood American military commander yet his odd gait looks like he has some sort of wound in his genitals.

Despite having a cast of some of the best actors and character actors working today, there are simply too many roles and you forget who is who after about five minutes, leading to further confusion that the screenplay hasn’t already caused itself. This has all the earmarks of moviemaking by committee.

I liked the concept and thought that given the pedigree of Michôd (Animal Kingdom) that this project had promise but it pretty much falls apart of its own weightiness. I get the sense that the filmmakers were told to make a comedy, then told to make a commentary on war, then told to make a drama by the powers that be. What they ended up making was a mish-mash that is neither one nor the other but is a tedious waste of two hours. I expected much better

REASONS TO GO: Even at his most subdued, Pitt still exudes star power.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is bloated and dreadfully unfunny.
FAMILY VALUES: There is war violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film references actual events that took place during the command of Stanley A. McChrystal between 2009 and 2010.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wag the Dog
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Suburbicon

Letters from Baghdad


Gertrude Bell, the iconic woman you’ve never heard of – but should have.

(2016) Documentary (Vitagraph) Tilda Swinton (voice), Eric Loscheider, Pip Torrens (voice), Michelle Eugene, Paul McGann (limited), Rachael Stirling, Helen Ryan, Christopher Villiers, Rose Leslie (voice), Adam Astill, Ahmed Hashimi, Simon Chandler, Anthony Edridge, Andrew Havill, Zaydum Khalad, Mark Meadows, Elizabeth Rider, Hayat Kamille, Michael Higgs, Joanna David, Lucy Robinson. Directed by Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum

 

There are people who have made enormous contributions to history that have gone largely unnoticed. Not because their contributions have been any less important but simply because of their gender. Women who have been instrumental to shaping our modern world are often lost in the mists of time simply because they weren’t taken seriously by their contemporaries, particularly those uncomfortable with the thought that a woman could make more of a difference than a man.

Gertrude Bell isn’t a household name but she should be one no less than her contemporary colleague T.E. Laurence, better known as Laurence of Arabia. Bell helped shape the modern Arabic nation-state, particularly Iraq but she did labor with Laurence in creating the map of the Middle East that we see today, largely helping various countries achieve their independence from colonial powers following the Great War.

She is largely responsible for the foundation of the state of Iraq which might not make her popular nowadays with a certain segment of our society, but she is actually well-regarded by the Iraqi people. She had a special affinity for them as well as the Arabs, speaking both fluent Persian and Arabic. She regarded them as equals, which was not the general case with the British diplomats and bureaucrats they had contact with.

She was an avid letter writer and also a published author; although these days she’s not as well known as her contemporary Laurence who was an EXCELLENT writer, she was an accomplished writer in her own right and even today her words are evocative, bringing the desert and those who live here to life. Swinton reads the writing with a natural flair, making the penned words sound naturally spoken. She does a wonderful job of giving the not so well known historical figure depth and humanity. Bell was a formidable woman in her time (and would be considered so today) although she was also a victim of some of the less admirable qualities of the time; she speaks of “the better classes” when referring to those few she admitted to her inner circle, by which she meant the educated and mannered. I suspect if she lived in contemporary times her attitude would be a bit more progressive.

The filmmakers utilize archival footage, a good deal of which hasn’t been seen in almost a hundred years and some likely never exhibited publicly. The footage is quite amazing, evoking an era long past but lives on in romantic memory. There are also plenty of still photos as well, many of which were from Bell’s own collection. One of my favorite sequences in the film was a collage of photos showing Bell’s maturing from a young girl into a young woman. It’s only a few seconds of screen time but it is memorable; keep an eye out for it.

There are also actors reading from various missives, reports and personal letters about Bell; strangely enough they are attired in period costumes and appear onscreen (whereas Swinton doesn’t). The effect is less than scintillating and I think the film would have been better off having the actors read the lines in voice over and utilizing more of the footage and still photos.

This is a marvelous documentary that redresses a wrong in relegating Bell to the forgotten pages of history. Regardless of what you might think of her – and to be fair there are modern scholars who thought her a raging colonialist although I have to disagree with that – she was a mover and a shaker in a time when women were expected to be quiet and subservient. Her story is an incredible one and shows someone of great character, fortitude and courage who should be an inspiration to young women everywhere. Thanks to this documentary, now she can be.

REASONS TO GO: The still photos and archival film footage are marvelous. Swinton breathes life into Bell. The photo collage that captured Bell aging from young girl to young woman was nicely done.
REASONS TO STAY: The dramatic recreations and actors playing talking head interviewees work less well.
FAMILY VALUES: While some of the themes are a bit adult, generally speaking this is suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In her lifetime, Bell wrote more than 1,600 letters which the filmmakers had exclusive access to.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen of the Desert
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Paris Can Wait

Doctor Strange


He's a magic man, he's got the magic hands.

He’s a magic man, he’s got the magic hands.

(2016) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Zara Phythian, Alaa Safi, Katrina Durden, Topo Wresniwiro, Umit Ulgen, Linda Louise Duan, Mark Anthony Brighton, Meera Syal, Amy Landecker. Directed by Scott Derrickson

 

It was Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey who once said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Of course, that’s assuming that there is no magic but then again if there was such a thing it would likely end up being explainable by scientific theory once we understood it. Then again, there’s always the possibility that magic is real.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is one of the top neurosurgeons in the world. He has saved literally thousands of lives and lives in a Greenwich Village apartment that is more palace than apartment although it is somewhat sterile in many ways. Dr. Strange is a bit of an egotist, something that has made his relationship with Dr. Christine Palmer (McAdams) fall apart, although they are still fond of each other – it’s just that Strange is just a little bit fonder of himself.

A terrible car accident puts paid to all of that however. His hands – those marvelous, life-giving hands – hae been badly injured. He can barely hold a scalpel anymore and has zero control over his nerves. His hands shake like an epileptic at a disco revival. He has tried every surgical option and drug known to man but nevertheless his situation remains unchanged.

Desperate, he discovers the case of a man named Jonathan Pangborn (Bratt) who was told he’d never walk again by plenty of doctors, including Strange himself. Amazingly he was not only walking but playing basketball. When asked what his secret was, Pangborn sends Strange to Kathmandu to find a particular order of monks. While searching the streets of Kathmandu for it, he runs into Mordo (Ejiofor), a disciple of the person Strange is looking for. Mordo takes Strange to The Ancient One (Swinton), an ancient Celt who reigns as Sorcerer Supreme, a title of respect and the latest addition to the McDonald’s Value Meal menu.

Despite being unable to accept on faith the powers of the Ancient One being a man of science, Strange nevertheless manages to convince her to train him in the mystical arts, although she’s reluctant at first. She thinks he’s an arrogant close-minded twit and she’s essentially right but arrogant close-minded twits are people too, no?

And she’s in need of all the help she can get. One of her former disciples, Kaecilius (Mikkelsen), has essentially gone mad. He wants to create a world without death and in order to do that, he has to summon Dormammu – an ancient creature from another dimension that predates the Gods and who wants to wipe out all life in our universe. So a world without death is a world without life, right? Those tricky old god bastards!

Kaecilius is a powerful sorcerer and Strange is just learning his way around. As Kaecilius races to destroy all the wards that protect our dimension from beings like Dormammu, Strange discovers that he has been chosen by a pair of powerful artifacts – and that the way to beat a god is to think like one.

After a couple of subpar Marvel offerings, it’s nice to see that they’re back on track with a movie that sums up everything right about the Marvel films. Firstly, this is a movie about characters and not superpowers. Steven Strange is an interesting human being full of human frailty despite having the power to warp reality itself. Cumberbatch does a marvelous job of capturing the good doctor that I remember from the comic books, although I have to admit that he sounds a little bit strange with an American accent. Ouch.

The special effects here are pretty impressive, although they do borrow heavily from other sources. Certainly the reality warping takes a page right out of Christopher Nolan’s Inception and some may find that to be a bit of a cop-out, but at least it’s utilized in a more physical way than Nolan did. The spells look almost scientific in nature just as you’d expect a man of science to relate to casting magic spells. All in all, some of the best effects we’ve seen yet in a Marvel film and that’s saying something.

The relationship between Strange and Palmer doesn’t generate a lot of heat; there’s more of a bromance between Mordo and Strange. Ejiofor is a reliable performer who always seems to get the most out of every role he tackles. Swinton is simply put one of the strongest actresses working today; the role of the Ancient One, who in the comics was an elderly Asian gentleman, was rewritten extensively to suit Swinton who is none of those things (elderly, Asian or a gentleman).

The action is pretty much non-stop once it gets going, although it takes a little while to. In essence, once again Marvel has done it – created an entirely different superhero movie that retains the feel of the comic book, the consistency of a shared cinematic universe but able to retain individual identities for each film. Any franchise filmmaker will tell you how extraordinarily difficult that is. In any case, it’s a fitting lead off to the holiday blockbuster season. I can’t think of a single reason why anyone who likes entertaining movies shouldn’t see it.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are mind-blowing. The story and characters are as good as any in any Marvel movie. One of the best supporting casts of any Marvel movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The film seems to exist on its own plane outside the rest of the Marvel movies.
FAMILY VALUES:  You’ll find plenty of violence and carnage, some mind-bending changes of perspective and a car crash sequence that’s rather intense.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The appearance of the comic book character was based on actor Vincent Price and even had the middle name of “Vincent.” In recent years the character’s look has been modernized, with a goatee replacing the pencil mustache he’d had since his inception.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shadow
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Amanda Knox

New Releases for the Week of November 4, 2016


Doctor StrangeDOCTOR STRANGE

(Disney/Marvel) Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg. Directed by Scott Derrickson

Renowned neurosurgeon Stephen Strange has everything going for him; a thriving practice in Manhattan, a beautiful girlfriend, wealth and privilege. All of that vanishes in an instant when a tragic car accident severely injures his hands and ends his career as a surgeon. Bitter and directionless, he discovers a larger world, one of mystic powers and strange artifacts. That world is under siege by a remorseless villain; Strange, a novice at the mystic arts, must put aside his ego and take up the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme if he is to save the world.

See the trailer, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Superhero
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence)

Hacksaw Ridge

(Summit) Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving. This is the incredible but true story of Private Desmond Doss, an army medic during World War II who believed that while the war was a just one, killing was nonetheless wrong. He refused to abandon his principles and while he enlisted to do his bit while his beliefs got him labeled a coward by his fellow soldiers. Nonetheless he went into battle without a weapon and pulled the wounded from behind enemy lines despite extreme danger to himself. He remains the only conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical War Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images)

The Handmaiden

(Magnolia/Amazon) Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo. This twisted romance from acclaimed South Korean director Chan-wook Park is set in the 1930s and is about a handmaiden who is employed by a beautiful Japanese lady. What the lady doesn’t know is that her handmaiden is secretly involved in a plot to defraud her.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story

(Cinedigm) Trace Adkins, Michelle Harrison, Kim Coates, Judd Nelson. A former stagecoach robber, reformed and trying to live a quiet, peaceful life, is pursued by a vengeful U.S. Marshall who was maimed during a gunfight with the ex-criminal.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Western
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: NR

Trolls

(DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Justin Timberlake, Anna Kendrick, Zooey Deschanel, Russell Brand. In the colorful world of trolls, happiness and optimism reign until the troll village is invaded by hungry Bergens who carry off all the villagers save two – Poppy and Branch, the former the most upbeat troll who ever lived, the latter a curmudgeon who prefers to be left alone. The two mismatched trolls must learn to work together in order to save Poppy’s friends.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a music video and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for some mild rude humor)

 

Hail, Caesar!


Friends, Romans, Communists...

Friends, Romans, Communists…

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Alison Pill, Max Baker, Fisher Stevens, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, Alex Karpovsky, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lambert, Ming Zhao. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Hollywood is often portrayed as a dream factory and during its golden age, it was just that. Massive studios cranked out classic films (and, to be fair, a lot of crap too) and created lasting images of a time that never really existed. We look back at that era fondly because in many ways it was a lie.

Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is the studio chief at Capital Pictures. He fixes things when they go wrong, be they a ditzy starlet posing for risqué pictures or a family musical star (Johansson) ho has gotten herself knocked up and needs a husband pronto. Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), a cowboy star, has been unaccountably put into a drawing room comedy lensed by the immortal British director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes). And the studio’s big budget production of Hail, Caesar! – A Tale of the Christ – looks to be a huge hit.

Except that Baird Whitlock (Clooney), the film’s star, has turned up missing. And not just missing, kidnapped by a group that calls itself The Future. This could be an absolute public relations disaster. Not only does Eddie have to get the ransom paid and his mercurial star back on the set in time to film the climactic speech, he also has to make sure it stays out of the gossip columns particularly via twin sisters Thessaly and Thora Thacker (Swinton). However in the meantime he’ll have to oversee a Sailor’s musical starring an athletic dancer (Tatum), a Busby Berkeley-like mermaid spectacular, a singing cowboy Western as well as the aforementioned films.

This is equal part tribute to old Hollywood and spoof of it. Clearly the Coens have a good deal of affection and reverence for the old movies. They also have a sense of whimsy that has influenced people like Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman. That’s present here too, more than in recent Coen Brothers films and more subversive in a lot of ways.

The production designer does a wonderful job of capturing the 50s look and the big studio vibe. Bright colors, as you’d see in a Technicolor production of the time, dominate here. The costume design is also flawless. One of the things that is typical to Coen Brother period films is the attention to detail is generally very serious even if the films themselves are more comedic.

As with many Coen Brother pictures, the cast is impressive. Clooney plays the empty-headed star to the hilt, while Brolin gives Mannix – who as a real person on the MGM lot by the way although he is fictionalized here – the harried demeanor that you’d expect from a studio executive. While Brolin’s Mannix is a bit more quirky than the real one was (the real Mannix was rumored to have had mob ties), his Catholic need for regular confession and ability to juggle a number of different balls in the air give him more personality than other writer-directors might have given a character like his. Ehrenreich projects a good deal of likability which bodes well for his future career.

Some of the supporting roles are little more than cameos but the ones that caught my attention were Swinton as the imperious gossip columnist twins whose rivalry is as abiding as their twin noses for a story. Hill is low-key as a notary public, and Johansson has moxie as the knocked up mermaid. As is usual for the Coen Brothers, the absurdity of the characters and their situation is played deadpan which only heightens the absurdity.

The problem I have here is that there are certain scenes that drag a little bit and fall a little flat. The scenes where Whitlock is having philosophical discussions with his captors is a bit silly and a lot more uninteresting. I know Da Queen complained that she was bored with the movie and I’ve heard similar complaints from other friends, some of whom are Coen Brothers fans. I can’t say that I was bored but I can see why they were.

I get that the Coen Brothers are not for everybody. People who didn’t like The Grand Hotel Budapest, for example, are not likely to enjoy this either. There is a quirkiness to their work that is I grant you an acquired taste. From a personal standpoint, it’s a taste I’ve acquired but I recognize that isn’t necessarily the same for you – and that’s not a bad thing. Your taste is your taste.

Any Coen Brothers movie is worth seeing. In my book, they’ve yet to make a movie that had no redeeming qualities. And to be fair, this isn’t going to be considered one of their best I’m quite sure – I’d rank it right about the middle of their pack. But the middle of the Coen pack is better than the entire work of plenty of other directors out there.

REASONS TO GO: Typical Coen Brothers vibe. Captures the era and location nicely. Love the whimsy!
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: For the most part, pretty harmless although there’s some content that’s slightly racy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fictional Capitol Pictures Studios also appears in the previous period Coen Brothers film Barton Fink.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Player
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Where to Invade Next?