Sunday, April 22, 2018

You Were Never Really Here - Review

You Were Never Really Here

Joaquin Phoenix who has a reputation in Hollywood for being brilliantly weird in both the roles he has chosen as well in the manner in which he interprets the characters themselves, does nothing to damp down those perceptions in his latest effort called “You Were Never Really Here”.

In this contemporary story we find a hoody wearing man simply named “Joe”. And at the beginning of “Joe’s” story he seems emotionally disturbed in his mannerisms and his interactions with other people; he’s laconic both in conversation and physical movement. However what we discover early from flashbacks is that Joe was an Army Combat veteran and a former FBI agent who now suffers with post-traumatic stress disorder. Unable to hold a normal job he becomes a hired gun (so to speak) using brutal methods against those he has been contracted to find to dole out the “proper” punishment for his fee. Typically when he is finished with the job he quickly and dutifully heads home to care for his elderly mother in his childhood home in New York City

One day while returning home from a job in Cincinnati, his middleman named McCleary informs Joe about his next job. A New York State Senator, Albert Votto, has offered a very large sum of money to discreetly find and rescue his abducted daughter, Nina. Joe accepts but realizes quickly this job is layered with deceit and criminality that could cost him his life.

REVIEW: The first 15 minutes of the film was as about as odd a looking film as I have ever seen. It meanders about from scenes seemingly not connected to the other. But shortly after the film’s odd tick period is over its plot does come dramatically into better focus similarly to being given a sledge hammered punch to the face. Specifically “You Were Never Really Here” is a modern unnerving adaptation of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”. And while it is not as compelling as the former effort Actor Joaquin Phoenix does bring to life a new kind of “Travis Bickle” who is equally lonely and equally haunted by events in his past. Ultimately his acting work here makes for an impressive film that is a super intense tale of one man's effort to right the wrongs against those who engaged in depraved decadent behavior against the innocent.

WARNING: THIS FILM IS VIOLENT, WITH SCENES OF BRUTALITY AND ADULT SUBJECT MATTERS. “You Were Never Really Here” demands that you look at it. Actually it dares you not to turn your head. And while some of the violence is briefly graphic and grim to watch it is never executed in such a reckless way that strays from the taut plot with any cheap clichés. 

Scottish Director Lynne Ramsay has made a transcendent fearless story of what it is to be fearless, whether it is based on some deep personal principles, or for money or for revenge or for all of the above. LET ME BE CLEAR Joaquin Phoenix is the only one who could have played this ‘Joe” with his composed aplomb emotions. And while this is not a slasher film at all it is also no ordinary “Joe” story either. Our man “Joe” is possessed with the focus and movement of a Jason Voorhees who while tormented still possesses lethal skills that are singularly focused and guided by core values probably given by his mother to protect the innocent and to punish the hell out of those who are not.

There is no romantic fairy tale ending to speak of in this film but it does have as good an ending as one could expect given what the story is all about. Mesmerizing from beginning to end Director Ramsey has created something that stays in your face with raw tension for all of its 1:30 minutes running time.

“You Were Never Really Here” is filled with layering of visual language ranging from melancholy, grimacing, coldness, intimacy, brutality and even poetry. If you should see it I am almost certain it is not something you will readily, easily or ever forget. This Joe won’t let you.

3.50 Stars 

The Rider - Review

The Rider

Based on his own true story, “THE RIDER” stars breakout Brady Jandreau as a once rising star of the rodeo circuit warned that his competition days are over after a tragic riding accident. Back home, Brady finds himself wondering what he has to live for when he can no longer do what gives him a sense of purpose: to ride and compete. In an attempt to regain control of his fate, Brady undertakes a search for new identity and tries to redefine his idea of what it means to be a man in the heartland of America.

REVIEW: I seriously doubt “The Rider” will be nominated for any Oscars next January 2018. But it will be on most films critics Top 10 for 2018. Why? Because it’s a throwback kind of timeless story that can be seen for decades to come asking the eternal question most people in America are confronted with at an early age………”So, what do you want to be when you grow up?. And in the case of “Brady Blackburn” (the films character name) he already knows……I want to ride horses”. Not just professionally as a local rodeo rider, but to ride them to train, to break them and just for fun. He sleeps, dreams and talks to horse. Brady is so committed to his ambition in life that you wonder if he and horses were somehow symbiotically connected at birth. THEN, imagine for yourself the only thing you ever wanted to do, the only thing you have ever done or will ever want to do in the future is suddenly taken from you? That is the core plot of the story.  

Shot in a documentary style (it is not however) the film is both very intimate and very sentimental about one person having a passion that he eats, breaths and lives with in his consciousness - subconsciousness. THEN the weight of the world comes down to a crashing decision to choosing to ride again or possibly dying doing so. And while the structure of the film captures this question rather effectively it does so in a solemn and stoic manner.

“The Rider” is artful, spiritual, graceful and truthfully. It is also a very quiet film that at times was emotionally moving about having a singular passion in life all of which was visually framed through the beautiful sweeping vista plains of South Dakota. Together theses two pieces added up to a poetic film that some of you will like as much as me and others who will find it a tad slow; lacking anything emotionally stirring to recall. But for me I will always remember young "Mr. Brady Blackburn” who may have been at times a bit naïve, maybe even a little slow intellectually - academically and even lacking broader knowledge about the ways of the world, he will still be remembered as someone who was honest. Honest to those he loved, honest to the horses he trained and honest to himself. 

4 Stars

Friday, April 20, 2018

Isle of Dogs - Review

Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson who directed one of my personal favorite films “Moonrise Kingdom”, a contemporary, quirky and deliciously romantic story about adolescent first love, delves into the refreshing genre of a stop-motion animated comedy titled “Isle of Dogs”. A fictional tale set in a dystopian near-future Japan that tells the story of the entire species of dogs are banished to an island due to an illness outbreak.
Early on in the movie we see the Mayor, by executive decree, banishing all the canine pets of Megasaki City Japan to the exiled vast garbage-dump called Trash Island. But a 12-year-old boy named Atari finds out his dog has been sent to the island too and quickly sets off all alone in a miniature Junior-Turbo Prop to fly across the river to the Island in search of his trusted beloved bodyguard-dog named “Spots”. There with the assistance of a pack of newly-found mongrel friends lead by “Chief” he begins an epic journey that will decide the fate and future of the entire country’s government and dogs.
REVIEW: Bryan Cranston leads an all-star (voice over) cast as the dog “Chief”; the dog in charge of a pack on trash Island. The rest of the dog cast includes Edward Norton as “Rex”,  Bob Balaban as “King”, Bill Murray as “Boss”, Jeff Goldblum as “Duke”, Frances McDormand as The Japanese Interpreter “Nelson”,  Scarlett Johansson as “Nutmeg”, Harvey Keitel as “Gondo”, F. Murray Abraham as “Jupiter”, Yoko Ono as “Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono”,  Tilda Swinton as “Oracle” Ken Watanabe as “Head Surgeon”, Fisher Stevens as “Scrap”, Liev Schreiber as “Spots”, Courtney B. Vance as the narrator, and Anjelica Huston as “Mute Poodle”.  
Look, I already know that I will get very few of my friends to ever see this film. And while it is thematically dark it nevertheless is still a fabulously meticulous, enchanting and splendid film about the unique enduring bond between humans and dogs. More so, the film is a joyous old fashion rolling around on the floor belly rub homage to the universal sweetness of dogs, their intelligence and their immense loyalty. And no matter how much humans have betrayed that bond dogs still remain deep within the fabric of their DNA resiliently committed to a relationship with humans even at times to the detriment of their own species.
Now if you are generally turned off by the idea of watching a 1:41 minute running time animated film about dogs living on an island of trash, then it is your lost, especially if you are a dog owner yourself.  This film is a smart change of pace without being some dumbed downed effort to solely manipulate the sentimental heart string relationship you have with your own pet. And while the dogs in this film do have perfect diction with well-developed intellect and vocabularies interacting with another, there is no “Scooby Doo” doggy accents to giggle about. Anderson’s dog story moves much deeper and broader into that core contractual non-verbal dynamic between dogs and humans, such as in when we first see our dogs and they greet us at the door. With them waging their tales profusely, we talk to them and they talk (bark) back to us. Now we don’t actually cross communicate between species but we are reminded that dogs are simply great and we are especially and uniquely blessed to having them in our lives with their unwavering and unquestioning love.
“Isle of Dogs” is both satirically serious and funny at the same time. It is also an introspective and clever film that in my guess if you do see it will pull on your inward heart just enough to seeking out your own dog, or your neighbor’s dog or even a strangers dog; “unleashing” that emotion urge to just finding find them for a pat on their head and for them to smile back at you.
3.50 Stars

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Chappaquiddick - Review


Australian Actor Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, Mudbound and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes) plays the lead role in the true story of former Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and the singular event that both changed and shaped his political future as the longest serving Senator in United States history.

On July 18, 1969 two days before Neil Armstrong took his historical first steps on the surface of the moon, Sen. Ted Kennedy was having a gathering of friends on Massachusetts' Chappaquiddick Island. Late that evening Kennedy and a former aid to his slain brother Bobby Kennedy named Mary Jo Kopechne, now a 28-year-old campaign strategist on Ted’s Staff, left in his car together that resulted in him driving off of a wooden bridge on the island. The accident caused the drowning death of Kopechne creating a fire storm of both possible criminal and political consequences for the young Senator. It’s this event some historians believe and the subsequent police investigation that followed into the woman’s mysterious scandalous death forever altered Ted Kennedy’s political legacy and possibly changed the course of American presidential history.

REVIEW: “Chappaquiddick” is not about any affirmation of liberal politics or the liberal legacy of Senator Kennedy. What it is about is one of the oldest stories known, where and when the corrosive advantages of wealth, power, privilege, class and even race can allow some people to break (some) laws with impunity avoiding the life damaging consequences of being branded a felon.

Such was the case of this film as Director John Curran makes no attempt to sugar coat the obvious fact that not only did Ted Kennedy take great pains to use his wealth and name to avoid any criminal charges for his drunk driving induced accident that night but also to assure by any and normal legal standards avoid being found guilty of involuntary manslaughter (as he probably should have). Director Curran does not make Kennedy into some saint. He pulls off the scab with no hidden agenda other than telling the truth of what happen that night and to Kennedy pleading guilty to the misdemeanor of leaving the scene of a car accident.

The film also shows how emotional weak the 37 year old Ted Kennedy was during the time. His father, while terribly debilitated by a stroke, still yielded great demanding influence over the entire Kennedy clan, especially Ted. From the film’s perspective Ted is seen more as a sympathetic character as he was constantly living under the great legacies of his older brothers who all died tragically but were still seen both by his father and the nation as a whole as heroes. The oldest Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. was a United States Navy lieutenant who was killed in action during World War II while serving as a land-based patrol bomber pilot. President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. And Bobby Kennedy the former US Attorney General and Senator of Massachusetts was assassinated while running for President in 1968. 

Comparatively speaking Ted at this time in his life felt the heavy burden of having no meaningful accomplishments in his life like his brothers before the events of the accident. Now he was struggling even more so with the possible lasting legacy as the surviving patriarch of the family of being a criminal felon which was made even more unbearable with the back drop of Neil Armstrong fulfilling his brother’s Jack legacy of landing a man on the moon before the end of the 1960’s decade.

Structurally, while the film starts out a little slow with its running time of 1:41 minutes, I came to realize this was a nuance examination of both Ted’s life and the tragic events of the accident. Specifically, “Chappaquiddick” while has a very plodding workmanlike script it still gives up a compelling telling of the details of the fatal accident and its turbulent aftermath. And while the editing makes the film feel occasionally a bit heavy handed in its execution of those events, it still is a powerful reminder of how money and powerful influences behind the scenes can work effectively for the elite few.

In the end there is an unanswered question.  Did Sen. Ted Kennedy leave Mary Jo to drown in his plunged car? The film doesn’t’ try to answer this question as much as it does answer the fact the young Senator and the people loyal to him, including the police collectively allow their moral compasses to be manipulated and compromised while illustrating everything involving Mary Jo death was an absorbingly tragic piece of American political history.

3.50 Stars

Blockers - Review


Leslie Mann, John Cena and Ike Barinholtz star in the offbeat coming of age comedy titled “Blockers”. The story of three contemporary parents who early on in the film are already showing signs of separation anxiety with their teen daughter daughters growing up too fast as young women. Things get even more stressful for the parents when on the night of their daughters high school prom they discover an email where the daughters' have sworn a pact oath to lose their virginity at the end of the prom. The parents feeling utter dread and panic decide to launch a covert one-night operation to go all out to track their teens all over town in the hopes of stopping them from sealing the deal.

REVIEW: While the plot of the film was designed to show how these three loving mature parents were genuinely looking out for the wellbeing of their kids though the backdrop of some smart self-deprecating humor, the only thing that was apparent from my viewing perspective was these three parents who were nothing more than utterly wacky, gross, raunchy, rude, lewd and ridiculous juveniles masquerading as adults. With the exception of Ike Barinholtz's character "Hunter” who seemingly was a bit more open minded and accepting about his daughters life choices, the combination of the three “adults” working together, supposedly the "mature ones", endlessly stalking their daughters from location to location across town in the dark just came across as asinine and tired to me.

Apparently, someone at Universal Studios thought they were developing a clever story about modern “Helicopter Parents” who would on one hand would be infused with a lot of smart and mature humor through a gauntlet of witty predicament situations while on the other hand have their collective personalities be balanced and rounded out with genuine parental sentimentality. It did none of that.

But did you laugh Lester? Well, hell yes - you bet I did. At least six good times I laughed. Two of which had me in stitches. The first was a situation involving John Cena’s character “Mitchell” drinking beer on a frat house lawn. The second was about two people making love “in the dark”…………….so to speak. Trust me both scenes were absolutely hilarious. But six good laughs were never enough to overcome the basic problem I had with the entire film. That being it felt like a one note story with no imagination beyond the "the chase" for me to be compelled even through the prism of humor to really care about the parent’s dilemma. Instead all I saw for 1:40 minutes running time were three loving parents who on one night devolved into completely sad obnoxious parents stalking their kids and their dates as if they were terrorists.

“Blockers” eeeeeh, it's OK, but it’s absolutely not something you should ever rush out to the theater to see. I have already made that sacrifice for you.

2.25 Stars

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Best Picture Contenders for 2018

Best Picture Contenders for 2018

A Quiet Place, Emily Blunt - John Kransinki in horror thriller about blind monsters who hunt by sound.
A Star is Born, Actor Bradley Cooper directs twice made film about a movie star who helps a young singer and actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral. Lady Gaga acting debut.
Backseat - Adam McKay (The Big Short) directs Christian Bale as former Vice President Dick Cheney in the story of Cheney's controversial politically and corporate career. 
Black Panther, T'Challa, the King of Wakanda, rises to the throne in the isolated, technologically advanced African nation, but his claim is challenged by a vengeful outsider who was a childhood victim of T'Challa's father's mistake.
Enzo Ferrari, Director Michael Mann and Hugh Jackman tell story about Italian legendary sports car maker.
First Man - Musical master Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) reunites with Ryan Gosling, who will play first man on the moon Neil Armstrong in this biopic.
If Beale Street Could Talk - The much-anticipated follow-up to Moonlight for writer/director Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk is based on the James Baldwin novel about a young couple torn apart by a false rape accusation in 1970s Harlem.
Isle of Dogs, Animation about misfit dogs on a Japanese Island.
Mary, Queen of Scots - Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary Stuart, the royal cousin who plotted to take the throne of England from Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) and was imprisoned for years. A remake from 1971 film.
My Life on the Road - Another biopic, this one stars Julianne Moore as feminist icon Gloria Steinem. It's directed by Julie Taymor (Frida).
On the Basis of Sex, the story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bade Ginsburg as a younger woman in Law School.
Outlaw King, Director David McKenzie of “Hell or High Water”, a true David v Goliath story of how the great 14th Century Scottish 'Outlaw King' Robert The Bruce used cunning and bravery to defeat and repel the much larger and better equipped occupying English army. Chris Pine.
Roma, Director Alfonso Cuarón of “Gravity” tells a story that chronicles a year in the life of a middle-class family in Mexico City in the early 1970s.
Sicario, The Day of the Solider, The drug war on the US-Mexico border has escalated as the cartels have begun trafficking terrorists across the US border. To fight the war, federal agent Matt Graver re-teams with the mercurial Alejandro. Director: Stefano Sollima.  Stars Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Isabela Moner, Catherine Keener.
The Ballad of Richard Jewell, story of an American security guard, Richard Jewell, heroically saves thousands of lives from an exploding bomb at the 1996 Olympics, but is unjustly vilified by journalists and the press who falsely report that he was a terrorist. Stars Jonah Hill.
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, stars Kit Harington, Ben Schnetzer, Natalie Portman, Bella Thorne, Susan Sarandon, Jared Keeso and Kathy Bates. A decade ago, the publisher of a gossip magazine, Moira, exposed the correspondences of an American TV star, John F. Donovan, with an 11-year-old British boy, Rupert Turner. A storm destroys Donovan's life and career and culminates in his death. Ten years later, Turner reminiscences the written correspondence, as well as the impact those letters had on both their lives.
The Favourite - Greek genius Yorgos Lanthimos broke into the Academy's little club with a Best Original Screenplay nomination for his 2015 dark comedy The Lobster. His latest is his most ambitious film yet — a period drama set in the tumultuous court of Queen Anne.
The Front Runner, Hugh Jackman plays former Senator Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in 1988 which is derailed when he's caught in a scandalous love affair.
The House That Jack Built, The story follows Jack, a highly intelligent serial killer over the course of 12 years and depicts the murders that truly develop Jack as a serial killer. Uma Thurman.
The Irishman, Marten Scorsese directs story about a mob hitman who recalls his possible involvement with the slaying of Jimmy Hoffa. Stars: Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemons, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro.
The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara - Steven Spielberg's passion project is about a Jewish boy raised Christian in 19th century Italy and the backlash it creates. It may not be released this year, however. Spielberg reunited with his Lincoln scribe, Tony Kushner, for this one.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, an advertising executive jumps back and forth in time between 21st century London and 17th century La Mancha, where Don Quixote mistakes him for Sancho Panza. Actor Adam Driver of HBO “Girls and “Star Wars Kylo Ren”.
The Women of Marwen - Robert Zemeckis directs this drama about a man who copes with a serious injury by creating his own little world of doll people. Fans of the documentary Marwencol will know how special this story is. Steve Carell stars.
Thrilla in Manila, the third and final boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. It was contested in 1975 for the heavyweight championship of the world at the Philippine Coliseum in Cubao, Quezon City, Philippines. Director Ang Lee “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.
Tully, Charlize Theron in a film about a woman named Marlo, a mother of three including a newborn, who is gifted a night nanny by her brother. Hesitant to the extravagance at first, Marlo comes to form a unique bond with the thoughtful, surprising, and sometimes challenging young nanny named Tully.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette, starring Cate Blanchett and Director David Linklater of “Boyhood” tells story after her anxiety-ridden mother disappears, a 15-year-old Bee does everything she can to track her down, discovering her troubled past in the process.
Widows, Director Steve McQueen “12 Years a Slave” tells a story set in contemporary Chicago, amidst a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common accept a debt left behind by their dead husbands' criminal activities, take fate into their own hands, and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.
Predicted winner: “First Man”.

A Quiet Place - Review

A Quiet Place

Starring and directed by John Krasinski (TV’s “The Office” and the fabulous film “Away We Go”) and his real life wife Emily Blunt (“Sicario”, “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Looper”), “A Quiet Place” offers up something new and modern in the horror thriller genre. A story about a family of four who must navigate virtually every second of their lives in total silence after mysterious creatures land on earth that hunt strictly by the slightest of sound. To slip up even in a minuscule way threatens their survival with sudden death because “If they hear you, they will hunt you and they will kill you.

REVIEW: I have seen my share of horror films. More so horror films have been around as long as the movie industry itself going as far back to 1931 with the introduction of actor Bela Lugosi horror movie portrayal of Count Dracula. Since then we have had Blobs, Frankenstein, Jaws, Aliens, Terminators, Predators and Jason Voorhees to name a few. In each of these prior instances the danger of the beast stealthy lurking about was always the object of the movie goers primortal fears…………….”where is it, who will it kill next”. 

But in Director Krasinski film the fear of some creepy looking monster lurking about in the shadows is more of an afterthought to the actual real source of films angst. In his film the real predator is the misstep of making a single “sound”. A sound or any sound for that matter that could end up getting you killed and from my perspective this is one master stroke of a plot idea to this unique story which Kransinki executes almost flawlessly with great attention paid to the slightest detail.

Adroitly the film works steadily on your subconsciousness by compelling you to silently asking yourself, “could I be totally silent day after day just to survive just not to be killed”. It’s a profound question, especially given in reality we live in a country – a world where most people can’t even keep silent when they live totally alone.

“A Quiet Place” taps into a unique kind of fear not so much as a horror fear per se, but more as an exercise in creating nonstop tension as the form of fear itself. A raw steady relentless tension churning like a knot in your gut every single second of its 90 minute running time. A tension immersing you into an unusual existence where you constantly asking yourself again and again "could I keep that silent not to die?" An existence where simply bathing could get you killed. Coughing could get you killed. Eating with basic utensils could get you killed. As a point of humor on my part according to the film’s plot I can only conclude even eating too many bowls of chili with kidney beans could get you killed, if you get my after effects meaning (wink - wink).

In a nut shell "A Quiet Place" is riveting.  A piece of work that is both fast paced and yet very patient that at its core is brilliantly parts of anything Spielberg has done, George A. Romero “Night of The Living Dead”,  Alfred Hitchcock “The Birds" and M. Night Shyamalan “The Sixth Sense”. A film that on one hand sets out to torture its audience with a modernly wonderful, terrifying and emotional suspenseful experience and on the other hand show the power of love of a family trying to survive.

There is one scene in the last 30 minutes of the film that is nothing short of just pure genius where we see Emily Blunt’s character trying to manage her pregnancy. I won’t dare ruin this by saying anything further, but the intelligence by Krasinski to give this some serious thought as being something plausible was something I will not easily ever forget.

In the end this taut thriller is less about trying to scare you and more about the importance of a nuclear family plays in raising their children. It does a fabulous job in showcasing the love and the care this father and mother give to their children; to feeding them, to sheltering them and above all protecting them from the evils of the world. The chemistry from the small children and the husband and wife tandem of Krasinski and Blunt is endearing and genuinely heartfelt. Not only do you intently believe what you are seeing on the screen every minute in the way of these characters being a real close knit family, you find yourself deeply, deeply caring for their wellbeing which is never no small achievement in modern film making.

“A Quiet Place” is a smart poetic suspenseful thrilling reminder of when we are stripped away of IPhones, vacations to Disney world, trips to the mall, fast food, fast cars and other material things, all we are, all we will ever need be is an enduring bond of love between parents and our children. And this first rate visual effort by John Krasinski while nearly a silent film in reality nevertheless communicates in large broad strokes why we instinctly run to embrace our children at the end of the day and they equally run to embrace us back………………..they – we feel protected in each other’s arms.

PS: I am still smitten with Emily Blunt.

4.00 Stars