Sunday, November 19, 2017

Last Flag Flying - Review

Last Flag Flying 

Self-taught writer/director Richard Linklater who is among the first and most successful talents to emerge during the American independent film renaissance of the 1990s offering such films as “Dazed and Confused”, “Before Sunrise” and the 2014 Best Picture nominated film “Boyhood”, takes on another realistic and natural humanist film story titled “Last Flag Flying”.

In 2003, 30 years after they served together in the Vietnam War, former Navy Corps medic Richard “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) re-unites with Former Marine, now bar owner Sal (Bryan Cranston) and fellow former Marine now minister Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). His visit to them is a surprise as they have not seen or spoken to each other for decades. But “Doc’s” arrival is a solemn one as he is on different type of mission to his old friends. He came to ask them to help him bury his only son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War. Doc has decided to forgo a burial at Arlington Cemetery and with the help of his old buddies, they take the casket on a bittersweet trip up the East Coast to his home in suburban New Hampshire. Along the way, Doc, Sal and Mueller reminisce and come to terms with shared memories of the war that continues to shape their lives.

REVIEW: “Last Flag Flying” structurally speaking is a conventional film in the purest sense. Meaning, it’s never flashy in any frame during in its 2:04 minute running time, spending most of the film's story portraying very realistically meaningful “in the moment dialogue”. Specifically the kind of dialogue that helps the viewing audience get acquainted with these Marine buddies who are now years later getting reacquainted with one another. 

But in the first 30 minutes into their personal story, this viewer came to realize that while Rotten Tomato has "Last Flag Flying" scored at a modest 76, from my perspective something special was starting to take place up on the big screen. Something special as I was witnessing three stirring performances about how men, in only ways our DNA X chromosomes will generally ever allow, how men uniquely show their warmth, share their humanity, share their respect and yes share their love for and with one another. Not with tears, not with melancholy and not with bravado. But rather by drawing on their comradery that has been fortified into a deeper hidden strength from a single shared experience. In their case it was their experience as brave soldiers in Vietnam War.

While the overall arc and premise of the story is somewhat gloomy, as it is always ever present in your mind while its narrative unfolds, this is a story at its core about a funeral procession for a brave dead solider who is being laid to rest by his father and his two best friends. And while there are a few rare moments where the three men do engage in other matters like belief in God, sex and sentiments about being anti-war verse being pro-soldier loving Americans, the film is always buttressed by the wonderful interplay between Cranston’s, Carell’s and Fishburne’s characters as they create acting magic with one another, using both sometimes dramatic restraint and sometimes down right hilarious chemistry that will touch anyone’s heart at the deepest of levels.

The overall strength of "Last Flag Flying" is it is always sincerely honest with itself and therefore is always sincerely honest with its audience each step without relying on simplistic sentimental gimmicks to fill in space or take up time. No its a moving story from beginning to end that is even more elevated by some memorable and unforgettable scenes that will have you thinking about the movie days later after you see it. 

The first such scene is when we watch Doc sees his son's casket at Dover military base. The second is with all three men riding in the cargo section of the train carrying the Marines remains home. The third is when they buy and use flip phones on an impulse (remember this take place in 2003 - no I phones yet). The fourth is when the three men take a side trip to a friend's mother home who died with them while in Vietnam. And finally the scene on the day of the funeral ranging from Doc’s home to the cemetery. I guarantee you these moments in the movie will make you laugh, reflect, smile and be emotionally touched by the beautiful seamless transition of experiencing these three men support for one another during one of the deepest human tragedies anyone can experience……………..A parent putting their child to their final rest.

But the real magic in this film is Bryan Cranston. He is the lead engine on this train, metaphorical speaking, as he galvanizes the appropriate amount of inner wisdom, emotional strength, humor and personal reflection that the film needed to prevent it from being dragged down as some simple sad tale of death. His performance is nothing short of brilliant and reinforces what I have been saying for 5 years now he is the finest male actor working in Hollywood today.

Please to all who read this, I implore you to see “Last Flag Flying’ in the theater if you can. If you cannot, please do not miss it when it is convenient for you to do so. It’s a profoundly thoughtful and powerful meditative story about war and how surviving its aftermath can affect people in lasting ways negatively, but also in ways that are wonderful, humorous and nurturing.

One of the best films for 2017, “Last Flag Flying” is not just an excellent story that is well written with terrific executed performances and direction, it’s just a superbly magnificent emotional experience that should not be missed. 

4 Stars

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Wonder - Review


Based on the New York Times bestseller, “WONDER” tells the inspiring and heartwarming story of a young boy named August Pullman. In the film we find the central character who prefers to be called “Auggie” is born with a facial abnormality ("mandibulofacial dysostosis", aka “Treacher Collins syndrome”) that up until now has prevented him from going to a mainstream school with other children. But his mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) who has taught him at home from birth realizes his reluctance to blend and interact with other kids his own age can‘t go on forever. So with love and support from Isabel, from Auggie’s father Nate (Owen Wilson) and his sister Via they all agree that it is time for him to attend the organize school Breecher Middle School.

As to be expected Auggie’s transition into the real world with other kids is marked with some cruelty, some kindness and some moments that will define his character into adulthood. It’s this transit in the film that is the core to its plot where we get to observe how the love and strength of his family, the growing acceptance and respect of his new classmates and the overall compassion of the larger community takes us the viewer on a moral message  journey. A moral tender heartfelt message journey where all those who are touched by Auggie’s life gain some new found measure of courage and kindness in their own life.

REVIEW: Actor Jacob Tremblay, who rose to fame in the Academy Award nominated film “Room”, plays Auggie splendidly. You never see someone acting under some fake prosthetic, rather during its 1:13 minute running time you discover just the opposite. A tiny  blossoming life that is decent, smart, affable and endearing in the form of Auggie Pullman, who struggles balancing the enduring support and love of his family and teachers while persevering bravely well beyond his physical years against the cruelties perpetuated towards him daily.

While Wonder" has some rare moments of just plain old corniness, it is not some Hallmark card overly sentimental schmaltzy tale. It stays effectively in the lane of reality of what parents and children go through when dealing with difficult emotional issues. The result is a sweeping arc of a story in “Wonder” that delivers a charming, sweet and infectious story of people making hurtful mistakes but who also show a capacity to figuring things out to eventually being kind and respectful towards one another.

“Wonder” delivers a wondrous cinematic lesson on the power of human compassion, self-acceptance, the acceptance of differences and the expression of human kindness. Without trying to drag tears out of the viewing audience, it still will tug on your heart with the warm compelling message for all to look at others beyond their physical surface or mask. And when someone is able to grow emotionally enough to do that without ever thinking about it,............ well as it was stated in the film,............. "When given a choice between being right (to others) and being kind (to others)……………choose kind.".

3.25 Stars  

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express - Review

Murder on the Orient Express

Director – Actor Kenneth Branagh revisits probably Agatha Christie’s most famous and successful novel in the who done it crime story “Murder on the Orient Express”. Along with Kenneth Branagh in the leading role of Detective Hercule Poirot, the cast includes Oscar winners Penélope Cruz and Judi Dench, as well Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley and Josh Gad.

PLOT: After catching the Taurus Express from Aleppo in Syria and traveling to Istanbul, private detective Hercule Poirot arrives at the Tokatlian Hotel. Once there, Poirot receives a telegram prompting him to return to London. He instructs the concierge to book a first-class compartment on the Simplon-Orient Express leaving that night. However, the train is fully booked and Poirot only gets a second-class berth after the intervention of a fellow Belgian who is a director of the train line.

After boarding, Poirot is approached by Mr. Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a malevolent American who believes his life is being threatened and attempts to hire Poirot to protect him, but Poirot refuses.

On the second night of the journey, the train is stopped by a snowdrift and it is also at that time Poirot's hears a disturbance in the train compartment near him. The next morning Detective Poirot is informed that Mr. Ratchett has been murdered. Poirot is asked by the owner of the train line to investigate his death.

REVIEW: “Murder on the Orient Express” was originally released in 1974 to very high praise by critics across the board. So, in a film that is so tightly structured around the meticulous procedure of essentially investigating everyone on the train, it’s a very tall order and a dramatically daunting directing task to say the least to making a film where you (and myself) probably already know its conclusion.

Overall, what the film has going for it is an old fashion pacing story telling in the same way our mothers’ use to tell us stories when we were children before going off to sleep each night. Meaning? Well it’s appealing and reasonably comforting to watch, especially with a gorgeous cinematographic back drop that pushes the viewer gracefully back to a by gone nostalgic era of elegance, style and grace. And with a flashy opening that eerily reminded me of DiCaprio’s “Titanic” and a theatric ending that eerily reminded me of the Christian image of Christ’s “The Last Supper”, this “Murder on the Orient Express” is just clever enough and fundamentally enjoyable enough to keep you fully engaged for its 1:45 minute running time.

A solid snowy day rental.

3:00 Stars

Lady Bird - Review

Lady Bird

In “Lady Bird”, Greta Gerwig reveals herself to be a bold new cinematic voice with her directorial debut, excavating both the humor and pathos in the turbulent bond between a mother and her teenage daughter.

Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) fights against but is exactly like her wildly loving, deeply opinionated and strong-willed mom (Laurie Metcalf), a nurse working tirelessly to keep her family afloat after Lady Bird's father (Tracy Letts) loses his job. Set in Sacramento, California in 2002, amidst a rapidly shifting American economic landscape, Lady Bird is an affecting look at the relationships that shape us, the beliefs that define us, and the unmatched beauty of a place called home.

REVIEW: Initially, I thought this film was going to be slog fest to watch as it immersed itself  deep in the endless, sometimes confusing teenage banter that seems only meaningful for the very adolescents who are speaking to one another at the time. But after the first 30 minutes of the film’s 93 minute running time, “Lady Bird” pleasantly evolved into a witty, mature story of a female high school senior who is ending one important aspect of her life (figuratively and literally) by transitioning into an another.

Everything about “Lady Bird” is uniquely original, fresh and wonderful. It’s enchanted with itself and rightfully so with a good blend of real hilarity and weighty dramatic angst. It’s also a film that was not not afraid to cry, hug itself or poke itself in the eye with some well executed family dynamic scenes by making the well-rounded story board point that the experiences of human emotional pain, personal mistakes and unintentional cruelty can be a part of living and in the end be one of earliest positive pathways to maturity.

Director Gerwig gives a rare sweet, intimate and personal portrayal of female adolescence and their uniqueness for a change by closely examining the bonds of female teenage friendships and relationships.  “Lady Bird” is a smart grounded look of female youths who are in charge and have their appropriate number of casual flings with boys and then make them wait to see if the phone rings the next day. And while this is a modest and humble looking film on the surface it still offers in a large way a snappy and spirited look of the difficulties and hidden unforeseen pleasures of leaving a childhood behind to becoming a woman.

3.50 Stars

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Florida Project - Review

The Florida Project

Director Sean Baker, who’s 2016 film “Tangerine” won high appraise at the 2016 Sundance Film festival delves once again into the world of people we subconsciously pass by everyday day in “The Florida Project”. A warm, vivacious, glorious, deeply moving and equally unforgettably look at adolescent childhood.

Taking place mostly at art deco lavender colored hotel called the “The Magic Castle” on a stretch of highway just outside the Disney World, the film largely follows the adventurous of a free spirted vivacious six-year-old little girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince)  and her rebellious mother Halley (Bria Vinai) over the course of a single summer. The two live week to week – sometimes day to day at a low budget hotel managed by Bobby (Willem Dafoe.

Despite the sometime harshness of Moonee’s surroundings, the precocious and ebullient Moonee has no trouble making each day a true celebration of life with day after day endless afternoon excursion in and around her hotel complex with her two other playmates named Jancey and Scooty. Together they fearlessly explore the utterly unique world their parents have thrown them in. A sometimes monstrously unfit world in fact where their mothers and fathers who do love them dearly are terribly short on the necessary emotional and maturity skills to raise them properly.

REVIEW: To be honest, I had to take 24 hours to really think about how to describe my thoughts on “The Florida Project”. It’s hard to put into words. Some of you will not like it and others of you will be affected as I was, totally unable to stop thinking about these wonderful  characters. 

I guess I was captivated by them because in some measure they reminded me  of my childhood, relying less on TV and technologies and more on the many inanimate objects around the home and in my community as gateway adventures to my magical fantasies. A dairy farm with cows as a safari. An old abandon home as a castle of kings and queens. Going inside unlocked doors that say “do not enter” just to see what was inside you were not suppose to touch.  Even sitting with a friend high in a tree branch just to be able see farther away. “The Florida Project” captures these experiences and many more as one of the most effective cinematic portrayals of American adolescent childhood you will ever see. An amazingly authentic tale of children living happily with no real stability in their lives while completely immersed in abject poverty. A touching film from beginning to end as a microcosm of the many people in rural America we see each day, especially on those long family trips while passing many old hotels - motels along the way. Minimalist looking buildings filled with essentially good people who are locked into the daily equation of living each waken moment like gypsies perpetually on the run and yet always trying to make do from one minute to minute of turning bad situations into something better.

This film is not some romantic sugarcoated story. It’s a strip down in your face humanist tale of people facing long odds on having any kind of meaningful successful life. And yet in spite of their meager existence they’re happy, always taking the necessary steps forward they hope will offer the promise of a new glimmer of hope for the next day.

As for the casting, I have to start with six year Brooklynn Prince who plays the central character “Moonee” is absolutely brilliant. She doesn’t recite lines, she inhabits them. I could only imagine she’s what British Actress Dame Judy Dench must of been like as child – born talented to be an actress. I really don’t know if the Academy has the courage to nominate a small child of the age of six for the Best Actress category, but she damn sure deserves it. She gives an unflinchingly funny, equally moving and heartfelt performance. Hands down Miss Prince is the acting discovery for 2017.

Willem Dafoe, the only real veteran actor in the film, gives an astonishing performance as the manager Bobby. He gives the film the mature grounded core that is needed of a man whose stern exterior gruffness hides a more deep seeded soul of fatherly kindness and compassion. He’s probably seen more than his share of good people he has to evict from his hotel and probably knows with a wrong turn or two in his life “there but for the grace of God go I". Dafoe is almost a certain lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Finally, first time actress Bria Vinaite who plays Moonee’s mom Halley is also noteworthy as well. She does a delicate balance of being a loving mom and equally someone you despise. She is lazy, trashy, quick to anger, vulgar and impulsively despicable, so much so that at times you actually wish you could leap out of your theater chair to strangle her on the screen. She tries to give her daughter Moonee a world of endless enchantment and yet exposes her to the harshness of reality by turning tricks with her “Johns” while Moonee is locked in the bathroom. Over time (and In the end) you find yourself judging less Halley’s many bad choices and wondering more just how many Halley’s are there in America resorting to these choices just to survive.

The Florida Project is a totally innovative original piece of work that feel less like a movie and more like documentary. But if you can get past its oddly nuisance dialogue and seemingly oddly disjointed mixture of children acting like the adults and the adults behaving like children, I promise you by the second half of the films’ 1:55 minute running time you will find yourself totally absorbed by these children’s sense of daily discovery, sadness, heartbreak and hopefulness……a sense of childlike hope to be sure of the unbreakable possibility of a better tomorrow.

Sometimes funny. Sometimes hilarious. Sometimes brutal to contemplate. Sometimes heartbreaking. Sometimes poverty. Sometime paradise. Sometimes the truth for millions of Americans we pass by on the highway, The Florida Project tells their real story as one of the Best Films of 2017.

4 Stars

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women - Review

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Luke Evans and Rebecca Hall (aka for “The Town”) star in the film called “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women”. An unconventional true life story of Dr. William Marston, a Harvard psychologist and inventor of the lie detector, his academic wife and their student assistant who all collectively became the inspiration for the iconic “Wonder Woman”.

Taking place around the early 1940’s the film itself isn’t just a story about creating a comic book character named “Wonder Woman”, it’s an up in your face sexually charged film that is both a honest and positive depiction of a polyamory relationship between the three people that contributed mightily to the comic book super heroine’s creation. In the film, William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall), and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) slowly come to having a triangular relationship that includes working professionally together, becoming emotional and romantic bonded through steamy ménage à trois with one another to eventually moving in with one another for their entire life and having children with one another.

Director Angela Robinson does a solid job in bringing this film to an intellectual light without making it simply a super awkward story about people just having sex together. She effectively  recreates the political and social environment where their comic book and their personal relationship were considered both taboo and illegal for the 1940’s. But it is Robinson's direction ultimately that moves the story skillfully along as we see initially the well intention married couple's raison d etra (their reasons for being) in their legitimate academic pursuits become increasingly side track by their growing intimate passion for their female assistant. Its this romantic transition in their personal lives and their exploration of their unusual sexual relationship - their own experiences that help give rise to the conceptual idea of "Wonder Woman", the Amazonian female hero.

“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women" is not a feminist film, but a very sincere film about acts of personal bravery where (in their case) these three unique people did in fact find love with each other. A profound passionate deep seeded love bound by a genuine commitment to one another, that even after some initial episodes of anger and confusion, a realization that they could never ever live without the other.

3.00 Stars

Brawl in Cell Block 99 - Review

Brawl in Cell Block 99

Known for his comedic portrayals of characters, actor Vince Vaughn takes on a more serious dramatic challenge as a man named Bradley Thomas, a former boxer, now tow truck driver. Bradley sees himself as a respectful normal hard working blue collar stiff just trying to make ends meet providing for his home, his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter aka for Showtime’s “Dexter” Debra Morgan) and the child they are so desperate to have after several miscarriages.    

After getting laid off from his job, he head directly home to discover that not only is he at a crossroads financially apparently his personal life is unraveling as well with his wife sitting in her car in the driveway. She’s leaving him from feeling neglected and for the fact she is involved with another man. After promising to his wife he will do better, he goes back to an old friend for work. A job while more lucrative got him hooked on drugs 14 years ago which was being a drug courier for a local king pin.

When the money starts to come in, he also discovers the risks are increasing as well, including one night when he gets involved a gunfight between police officers and Mexican drug dealers he thought were allies. When the smoke clears, Bradley is badly hurt and thrown in to prison, where his enemies force him to commit an act of violence that turns the entire place into a savage battleground.

REVIEW: With a running time of 2:12 minutes “Brawl in Cell Block 99” initially is a quiet, somewhat stoic film about Bradley just trying to survive day to day. He’s not a bad man, actually he is quite the opposite as he seems to take great effort in always being very respectful to people he meets while simultaneously internally projecting a heighten sense of guarded suspicion to whomever is in the room with him. But as the film moves from his life on the outside of prison to a life inside of prison, Bradley becomes an entity of pure intellectual meanness and calculating violence for his survival and revenge.

 “Brawl in Cell Block 99” while a bit over the top at times still reminded me of a smart HBO styled drama filled with effective intimidating violence. A taught thriller filled with blood stained nasty and brutishness as Bradley goes slowly and deeper into sadistic prison hell. But it is Vince Vaughn masterful work here that makes his character sympathetic all the while he calmly, with a constant unsympathetic demeanor, crushes bones and bashes everyone who gets in his way. AND I MEAN EVERYONE.

Available now as a film that went straight to On-Demand.

3.25 Stars