Sunday, April 23, 2017

"Free Fire" - "Their Finest" - "The Lost City of Z" - Reviews

Free Fire

“Free Fire” is a British action-comedy film directed by Ben Wheatley, from a screenplay by Wheatley and Amy Jump. It stars Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy and Jack Reynor.

As far as I can tell the film itself takes place sometimes in the 1980’S and is also set entirely in a warehouse, as an arms deal between a group of IRA members (led by Cillian Murphy), some Americans (Brie Larson and Armie Hammer), and a South African (Sharlto Copley) messily unravels very quickly. Once the deal does go bad, the multiple parties involved arm themselves and let loose in hail of bullets and bloody gunfight violence scenes that literally lasts the better part of an hour.

Wheatley wants desperately to make his own British Quentin Tarantino version of “Reservoir Dogs”. Problem is his homage to "QT" , "Free Fire" not only falls flat, it is just a major waste of good screen talent . Even the hour long violent gun inter-play was completely unimaginative, mundane, bland and just plain out right boring at every turn. This isn't even "Red Box" worthy of your time.

1.50 Stars


Their Finest

It’s the year 1940 and both uniquely London and the entire country itself are being bowed down by the advancing world war. The British ministry realizes early that there needs to be a concerted effort in using propaganda films to boosting domestic morale at home. They also realize that their films could use "a woman's touch," so with that in mind the ministry hires Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) as a scriptwriter in charge of writing the female dialogue. Although her artist husband looks down on her job, Catrin's natural flair quickly gets her noticed by a cynical, witty lead scriptwriter named Buckley (Sam Claflin). Catrin and Buckley set out to make an epic feature film based on the Dunkirk rescue starring the gloriously vain, former matinee idol Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy). As bombs are dropping all around them, Catrin, Buckley and their colorful cast and crew work furiously to make a film that will warm the hearts of the nation.

“Their Finest” takes the more sweet nostalgic approach to telling this war time story, showcasing the principle leads of always having an abundance of personal “grace under fire”. And while the film doesn’t have any real dramatic crescendo moment, it does have a very thoughtful sentimental charm to its overall plot.

I have not seen many Allied propaganda machine stories during the Second World War, but “Their Finest” does have a heartwarming story to tell and does so with genuine feminine smarts, elegance, cheeky British humor and finesse in making sure these anonymous contributors to the war cause are treated with  nobility, wholesomeness and respect.

3.00 Stars


The Lost City of Z

Based on author David Grann's nonfiction bestseller, "The Lost City of Z" tells the incredible true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who journeys into the Amazon at the dawn of the 20th.

Initially Colonel Percy Fawcett was charged with going to the Bolivian Amazon jungle as a part of Geographic sponsored mapping exploration. But on his very first effort he coincidentally discovers an ancient site filled with relics which he believes are first hand evidence of a previously unknown, much more advanced civilization to have inhabited that region predating any other known humans.

Despite being ridiculed by the scientific National Geographic establishment of England, which viewed most indigenous populations as savages and inferior to Western cultures and civilizations, Fawcett was doggedly determined to prove otherwise by persevering nearly most of his adult life the existence of the “City of Zid”.

Supported by his devoted wife, son, and aide-de-camp, Fawcett returned to his beloved jungle on 3 occasions in an attempt to prove his case even at the risk of losing his life.

In “The Lost City of Z” actor Charlie Hunnam (formerly of “Sons of Anarchy”) does an excellent job of projecting a time when a man’s self-worth was viewed not only through the prism of accumulated wealth, but equally so through display of national bravery and the enduring human spirit to succeed, even when such displays in spite of admirable resilience stiill seems reckless and dangerous.

“Z” is a throwback film in style, substance and plot. But even when it goes off the rails with a few meandering needless scenes and a couple long filibuster discussions about the egos of men, it still manages to tell a very compelling story that was both intellectually pleasing and visually lush to look as we watch Fawcett traverse through the tropic jungle. But the real reason to see this film is to revisit why some people achieve greatness and other do not. 

I believe “Z” offers the plausible explanation to this question through the basic revelatory understanding that some people are naturally born complicated in intellect, in emotions and in their approach to life’s journey itself. And it is these same people who eventualy become our historically noted explorers, adventurers, scientists, creators, etc. who endlessly are never satisfied in simply not knowing what is around the corner until they explore and see it first hand for themselves.

3.50 Stars

Saturday, April 15, 2017

GIFTED - Review


From the onset we see a man named Frank Adler (Chris Evans) who works as an independent contractor repairing boats in a coastal town in South Florida. After work he goes homes both as a single unattached man and as a doting loving uncle to his young niece named Mary. Frank has custody of Mary because her mother suddenly tragically died. But in the early moments of you the viewer becoming more familiar with this unorthodox family arrangement, we discover that young Mary (Mckenna Grace) is no ordinary adolescent. In fact she is a mathematical prodigy who is high spirited and very mature for her age.

Frank's wants Mary to have a normal life, so after home schooling her for the first few years he decides to send her to a public school to meet other children her own age to develop more social skills with her peers than the adults Mary insists she has more in common with. But soon we see Frank’s plans are foiled when the seven-year-old's mathematical abilities come to the attention of Frank's formidable mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) whose plans for her granddaughter threaten to separate Frank and Mary by taking her back to Boston to cultivate her skills at more prestigious schools as she did for Mary’s Mother when she was a child.

REVIEW: I went into this film thinking, “OK” this story line will probably take me down that path filled with overly sweet and recycled weepy moments that I would probably see coming a mile away. BOY WAS I WRONG. While prone to a few overly theatric dramatic scenes, “GIFTED” as both a drama and as a light comedy is very charming, very thoughtful and very mature. But above all GIFTED is just a really feel good film with a huge heart that makes all the right moves.

When on the screen together Chris Evans and Grace have sensational magical chemistry together. I bought it from the very get go that this was a real family relationship working things out as they go. Not ever being sure that they are doing the right thing or saying the right thing to each other, but above all they knew they loved each other and you see it and you feel it in every single frame of this 1:45 minute film.

With solid supporting performances by Oscar Winner Octavia Spencer as the resident landlord and motherly friend to Frank and Mary, as well as Jenney Slate as Mary’s earnest and well intentioned teacher, together they bring to life a film that could have been easily riddled with clichés and schmaltzy sentimentality. But the reason I think they all worked so well together was largely attributed to Tom Flynn’s screenplay which in every spoken word fully realizes who these people are in a thoughtful and sincere way without any cheap over the top scornful vitriol being directed towards one another. This is a well rounded story that will have a tug on your emotions with authentic wit and drama.

Ultimately, GIFTED, never tries to be anything but a simple straightforward film about family and it works very well at staying in its lane of heartfelt truths and decency. This is no corny deliberate minded tearjerker, but something tells me if you see it a tear or two may come anyway. But whether a tear comes or not if you see this film you will probably realize as I did early on in the movie that I cared about these two people.

FINALLY, there is an amazing short scene 30 minutes into the movie where Frank takes Mary to the beach just to spend some casual time with her. The scene is shot in silhouette with the sun setting. That scene and the dialog alone was worth the price of admission for me, because it was a reflective reminder for me of those many tender small moments we all hold dear from our past. Just sitting and talking about nothing special with the people we love. 

GIFTED may not the best movie I will eventually see this year, but for me it sure felt like it could be one my favorites for 2017.

4 Stars

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Frantz - Review


Set in both Germany and France in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, (1914-1918), “Frantz” recalls the mourning period that follows the great national tragedies as seen through the eyes of a family in Germany.

The principle story revolves around a young German woman named Anna (Paula Beer) who is the bereft fiancé of a man named Frantz who was killed during trench warfare. One day when she visits Frantz’s gravesite she meets a stranger named Adrien who is a French veteran of the war who has been mysteriously placing flowers on Frantz's grave as well. Being French Adrien's presence is met with great resistance and hostility by the small German community still reeling from Germany's defeat by the French. Still, Anna gradually gets closer to the handsome and melancholy young Frenchman, as she learns of his deep friendship with Frantz through his flashback stories about their time together in Paris before Frantz died. What follows next in the film is a surprising exploration of how these characters' wrestle with their conflicting feelings, survivor’s guilt, and anger at one's own losses, as well as the overriding desire to achieve some measure of happiness despite everything that has come before.

Review: Shot in Black and White and spoken in both German and French the 1:53 minute running time, "Frantz" initially appears to be too finely developed, too polite and too pure in its story telling leaving momentarily a slight artificial taste in my cinematic pallet. But what does occur over time is a beautiful, haunting, mature, emotional and touching tale of when tragedy does occur, sometimes decency will require telling both the truth and sometimes telling the thoughtful lie as part of both the personal and collective family healing.

In ways very similar to the academy award nominated film “Manchester by the Sea” “Frantz revealed very insightfully the fact that sadness is different for everyone. No two people will ever come to managing their grief in the exact same ways at others. And when over time those who are affected most deeply by a human loss, their eventual acceptance of a death can manifests itself in ways that can be surprisingly transformative and surprisingly beautiful.

“Frantz” structurally is a subdued, introspective and very still moving film and yet it is also a fabulously unassuming film that I enjoyed immensely. 

3.75 Stars 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Zookeeper’s Wife - Review

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Jessica Chastain (smitten) portrays the leading character in the real-life story of one working wife and mother who became a hero to hundreds during World War II as Antonina Żabińska and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabińsk.

Its 1939 and we find the happy couple living in Warsaw Poland flourishing. They are the stewards and care takers of the Warsaw Zoo that has an array of animals ranging from Elephants to Tigers and Lions. But when their country is invaded and most of the animals transported to Berlin or shot on the spot by the German Army, Jan and Antonina are stunned by the events and are forced to report to the Reich's newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl of "Captain America: Civil War"). When they see their community of Jewish friends and neighbors being brutalized, rape and rounded up, the couple strategize a way to fight back on their own terms with them covertly working with the underground Resistance. Their idea was to use their zoo as a hiding place for saving as many lives out of what has become the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto. By doing so in “plain sight” they were putting their lives and the lives of their children at great risk for possible immediate execution if they are discovered.

REVIEW: Jessica Chastain is always the glue to any film she is in. Why? Because she is just always great at everything she does, even when the written material is slightly below her. You can almost be 100% certain she will have moments where she lifts up dialogue in spite of the predictability of its development which happens in “TZW” as well.  

Chastain is nothing short of glowing and deeply honest in her portrayal of this virtually unknown heroin of World War 2. And while the film seems to soft pedal what I could only imagine were the day to day real life and death messy struggles to hiding people in their home and zoo for 4 years of the war, the film does get one irrefutable fact across very well. She and her husband were extraordinary heroes.

Daniel Bruhl, who you remember from “Inglorious Basterds” as the heroic idolized German Officer “Fredrick Zoller”, gives a solid performance as the lightly conflicted German Chief Zoologist Officer, Lutz Heck, who struggles with his passion for the cause of the Third Reich and his passionate affections for Antonina. His villainy here while muted at times is still compelling just enough to give the film its much needed sinister threat.

Ultimately the sweeping historical arc of this story is far more interesting than the film’s flawed execution on the big screen itself, as the screenplays seems to lack the much needed consistent spark to make this profound true drama rise to the occasion it richly deserves.  

The story, the actors and Director are all well intentioned here into making a serious movie drama with real consequences, as it does have some real spine tingling moments here and there. But in the end this story could have been much, much more if someone were only willing to be much harsher in telling this deeply moving story with ugly warts and all, rather than relying on the more safe gravitational visceral pull to always keep things somewhat sweet, antiseptic and theatrically polite.  Still even with these issues aside I genuinely recommend “TZW” as something you definitely should see.  

Edmund Burke famously stated, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. “TZW” clearly makes the case now for the inclusion of “women” to that line, with much gratitude and applause for the performance by Jessica Chastain here.

3.25 Stars

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Ghost in the Shell - Review

Ghost in the Shell

Taking place in what I presume was Hong Kong of the not too distant future and starring Scarlett Johansson, Beat Takeshi and Academy Award Winner Juliette Binoche, “Ghost in the Shell” is based on the internationally-acclaimed sci-fi property which follows a young woman simply called “Major”. She is a special ops, one-of-a-kind human-cyborg hybrid, who leads the elite police task force Called Section 9. Their devoted collective mission is to stop the most dangerous criminals and extremists. Early in the film Section 9 is faced with an enemy whose singular goal is to wipe out Hanka Robotic’s advancements in the research and development of cyber human technology.

REVIEW – “GITS” has a few good things working for it. First it is simply one of the more impressive reimagining of a future big city I have ever scene. The inclusion of very detailed nuanced new aged esthetic backgrounds while may have added absolutely nothing to the overall plot still made the film feel very fresh, other worldly, fun to watch and very technical impressive every second of its 1:40 minutes running time. Also the action special effects and costume designs are uniquely compelling as well that are clearly borrowed from the ground breaking Matrix films, Blade Runner and the highly acclaimed HBO’s Westworld”, which still allowed GITS to cut a few of its own new optical teeth here and there.

As far as the casting goes Binoche looked totally lost in the film as the sympathetic engineer; she added nothing to the film at all. Johansson on the other hand as well as some of the other supporting cast overall do work reasonable well together in providing some degree of human and moral components to the film, which was desperately needed given too often it seemed to stray away from its core mission of telling a human story.  The human story of why we even care about “Major”. Specifically Director Ruppert Sanders presentation of GITS seem to have way too much of a preoccupation of bathing each frame with mesmerizing odd looking mix of “things”. A cyber infusion wonderland of “things” including hybrid robots, Godzilla and diminutive sized geishas, skyscraper sized hologram billboard ads, strange looking vehicles, and assault weapons that look more like large reading books with muzzles. While they were all very slick to imagine, they ultimately stole precious time away from “Major’s core story.

But the biggest unfortunate problem with GITS was its plot which felt (substantively speaking) a mile wide and an eighth of an inch deep. Be clear there is a basic enough of a plot to keep your attention going until its eventual conclusion, it’s just that the scope of it always seemed too veiledly thin for my taste in regards to the  reckless carnage that always ensued.

GITS is right on the cusp of being worth a trip to the mall to see on the big screen. Mostly for the amazing reimaging of the films backdrop as well as for the principle protagonist in the way of “Major”. She adds just enough to the films story that kept me reasonably glued to its soft plot. But more so, I can see the potential of where her character can grow and evolve into a something far more worth wild should a sequel occur which the ending clearly left open that possibility.

The expression “Ghost in the Shell” is a referencing of the human mortal spirt. And while it may not stir your cinematic movie going spirit, it should be reasonably enjoyable to watch and experience nonetheless.

3.00 Stars