Tuesday, July 25, 2017

NOLAN'S GREAT WAR: a review of "Dunkirk"

Written, Produced and Directed by Christopher Nolan
**** (four stars)

What a month it has been for going to the movies everyone!!!

Yes, I do lament quite often about the status of the movies in the 21st century with their over reliance upon all things overly familiar and ready made, from sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, re-imaginings and so on and all at the expense of seemingly all other films that could be made, especially from filmmakers who really wish to utilize the language of cinema to express themselves artistically.

One such filmmaker that has valiantly escaped the clutches of being creatively marginalized is none other than Writer/Director Christopher Nolan, who has spent the entirety of his career masterfully blending the esoteric and the popcorn into powerfully artistic and enormously entertaining statements that has firmly established him as one of the finest, most visionary Directors working today, ensuring that the arrival of each new film from him is indeed a cinematic event. And now, Nolan has returned with an experience so riveting and ravishing that it is quite possible that he just may have even topped himself.

"Dunkirk," Christopher Nolan's World War II set epic, is not only one of the very best films of 2017, and re-established Nolan as a cinematic force to be reckoned with and then some, I think that this may be his tightest, tautest yet most experimental film to date and that includes his breakthrough feature "Momento" (2000), the brilliant psychological thriller of a man suffering short term memory loss in a narrative told backwards.

In many ways, with "Dunkirk," Nolan has devised of a war film told in a fashion that I know that I have never seen before and which made for a furiously paced dramatic intensity pitched so highly that it was nearly anxiety inducing. Yet, this is a profoundly excellent quality as well as yet another perfect example of why we still need visionary filmmakers like Christopher Nolan. In a genre that seems to feel as if everything that could have been said about war has been made, here comes an artist that boldly re-invents the genre itself.

"Dunkirk" examines the events of the Dunkirk evacuation during the Second World War when the Germans had 400,000 British and French troops trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, France from three specific vantage points: the land, the sea and the air.

In the film's first section, entitled "1. The Mole," we follow the path of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), young British Army Private who emerges as the sole survivor of an ambush on the streets of Dunkirk onto the beaches where he befriends the silent young solider Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and the hotheaded Alex (Harry Styles) as they attempt to evacuate the beach via boats under the leadership of pier master Commander Boulton (a steadfast Kenneth Branagh).

The film's second section, entitled, "2. The Sea," focuses upon the rescue effort made by the Royal Navy and some civilian merchant ships, one of which operated by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), and his sons Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and 17-year-old George (Barry Keoghan). With German fighter planes sailing overhead ad British destroyers finding themselves bombed, Mr. Dawson remains sternly committed to the task of rescuing the soldiers, even when one shell-shocked sole survivor from a U-Boat attack (Cillian Murphy) wants nothing more than to return to England rather than set sights on Dunkirk again.

The film's third and final section, entitled "3. The Air," focuses on the aerial dogfights between the German and a trio of Royal Air Force Spitfire pilots including Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden).

Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" is exemplary, brilliant, exceedingly well conceived and executed cinema. It is a visually resplendent experience and believe me, if you are fortunate enough to live in a city where the 70MM format remains available to you (unlike myself), then it would be imperative to see the film within this format as the panoramic vistas of the land, sea, and sky are awesome to behold in their simultaneous poetry and fury. At this time, talk of awards season coronations have been bandied about and deservedly so, for Nolan himself and tremendous credit must be bestowed upon Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and Editor Lee Smith have risen to the mountainously high challenges of this film with superb aplomb!

Yet for me, Christopher Nolan's extraordinary right hand man is none other than Composer Hans Zimmer, another cinematic legend who seems to relish in the opportunities presented within a new Nolan film as he has unearthed some of the most innovative scores of his career, from the knife's edge intensity contained within "The Dark Knight" (2008) and the swirling pipe organ dynamics of "Interstellar" (2014). For "Dunkirk," like Nolan himself, Zimmer has raised his own bar powerfully with his ferocious, white knuckle score full of (again) anxiety inducing crescendos set to the heart racing, palm sweat raising tempo of a ticking watch. Among the film's many gifts, "Dunkirk" is an exhilarating marriage of sound and vision and Hans Zimmer  more than deserves whatever acclaim that may flow in his direction as his work is exhilarating and exhausting.

Oddly enough, "Dunkirk" reminded me a bit of Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver" as the music and the images congealed so brilliantly to the degree it sometimes felt as if I was watching a musical. The choreography, from the planes in the sky to the masses of soldiers all falling down to the grounds of the Dunkirk beaches in unison as the German fighter planes drop bombs all around them, are stunning to regard an din some respects, Nolan takes the music to image aesthetic, if not further than Wright, into an equally innovative direction.

For despite the film's immense volume (this being a Nolan film, it is indeed especially loud), "Dunkirk" almost functions as a silent movie, as it is a film with scant dialogue and characterizations that are more purposefully archetypal than three dimensional, all elements which make for a shatteringly visceral, and therefore, visual experience unlike much of what you will see this year and definitely not a familiar one to the war film genre.

So far, all of my praise has remarked upon the more technical side of "Dunkirk," yet what makes the film absolutely soar is what Christopher Nolan has done with the war film genre. War films have always fascinated and intrigued me and I am not terribly sure why as I do consider myself a pacifist and with that, the thought of being caught within a battlefield situation terrifies me. But still, I think of all of the war films--or are they all really anti-war films--that are indeed some of the great films that I have been exposed to throughout my life.

From the clinically surreal and satirical eye of Stanley Kubrick with "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb" (1964) and "Full Metal Jacket" (1987), to Oliver Stone's more intensely personalized portrayals within "Platoon" (1986) and "Born On The Fourth Of July" (1989) to Clint Eastwood two-sided "Flags Of Our Fathers" (2006) and "Letters From Iwo Jima" (2006), Michael Cimino's working class Vietnam opera "The Deer Hunter" (1978) to most certainly, Steven Spielberg's titanic "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), I have been exposed to one triumphant vision of humanity at its most perilous through one set of incredibly detailed and idiosyncratic eyes to another. What Christopher Nolan has done within the genre with "Dunkirk" felt to be altogether different.

In short, Nolan has utilized the film's triptych structure and the various storylines contained therein to not have the film run as three specific sections but as one, complete, non-linear narrative that plays with the structures of time, as the events of "The Mole" play out for the course of one week while "The Sea" and "The Air" play out over the course of one day and one hour respectively.

Certainly, this approach serves the Nolan aesthetic just as it did with his past cinematic jigsaw puzzles, like the dream world logic of "Inception" (2010), the quantum physics time travel of the aforementioned "Interstellar" as well as the backwards thrills of "Momento." Yet, Nolan has not utilized this technique solely for mere cinematic effect, as brilliant as it is. What Nolan has achieved is to miraculously merge the primal with the existential regarding the fight for survival and the randomness of death, where the anguish, violence, chaos and terror are all amplified into something that resembles the overall timelessness of war.

By juxtaposing all three story and timelines, Nolan depicts the primal nature with simultaneous elegance and rapaciousness, for one character who is alive in one scene set earlier or later, may be seen nearly drowning in another scene set earlier or later thus blurring the nature and concept of time completely. For within the urgency and horror of the battlefield, I can only imagine that regardless of the actual span of time being one hour, a day or a week, all of it feels interminable in its punishment and death is indeed instantaneous, occurring in less than a blink of an eye.

On a more existential level, the sheer randomness of violence and death is extremely palpable. The first scene of the film shows how young Tommy is the sole survivor of a small group of young men by either fate or dumb luck. Another who greets the day with eagerness might not survive until the next. A soldier may be a hero one moment and then a captive in the very next. I think that Nolan's technique in this regard brutally illustrates the nature of war itself, regardless of the actual time period the war is set, making "Dunkirk" not only representative of its specific subject matter but representative of every war that has ever been fought.

To that end, this is why I feel that "Dunkirk" succeeds so immensely despite its lack of significant dialogue and fully developed characterizations (in fact, Cillian Murphy's character is only known as "Shivering Soldier") and for that matter, I also think that this is why the film happens to be Nolan's shortest film in quite some time as it runs under two hours. Nolan understands that "Dunkirk" is a film that needs to be furiously paced, filled with awe, power, reverence and a stunning, terrifying velocity that cuts down to the bone and he succeeded on every count artfully, skillfully and triumphantly.

Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" is one of 2017's highest achievements.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

GIRLFRIEND IN A COMA: a review of "The Big Sick"

Screenplay Written by Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani
Produced by Judd Apatow
Directed by Michael Showalter
**** (four stars)

In our current age of big budget sequels, prequels, re-boots, remakes, re-imaginings and all manner of superheroes, Legos, Jedi Knights and wizards and warlocks running rampant among our multiplexes, it is really amazing if you take the time to look at the films that are now not being made--films that were once mainstream staples, and for the purposes of this review, I am specifically referring to the romantic comedy.

If you have been frequent visitors to this site over the years, you will already know very well that I have been extremely critical of the modern day romantic comedy for quite some time as those films have typically extinguished any sense of actual romance and anything resembling the behaviors and motivations of actual living, breathing human beings in favor of one impossibly wacky plot driven contrivance after another. For me, if I am going to bother with viewing a romantic comedy, the proceedings need to mean something. That is, the comedy and most crucially, the romance needs to be strongly earned.

Yes, I know, I know, I understand the desire to just go out and have some cinematic cotton candy and not be terribly mentally or emotionally taxed. I do  understand and I do not begrudge any of you in that respect. I just have no need for "attractive, likable" celebrities frothing around (and clearly having more fun on set than I am in the theater audience) when what I am wanting and needing is something that depicts the emotional messiness of love, a story that reaches further and deeper and feels remotely tangible to what real people experience. In short, I am more of a person who will watch Kevin Smith's "Chasing Amy" (1997) ten times in a row than to ever sit through the nonsense of "Sweet Home Alabama" (2002) or, Lord help me, "The Proposal" (2009) ever again. And if those latter films are going to be the romantic comedy flagships, then it is a genre that truly deserved its near demise.

For a time, it was more than enough to make me swear off essentially all movie love stories altogether--especially as I am one that is not typically moved terribly much, or that often, by cinematic romance. I'm not heartless, by any means. When the stars are aligned, I can be deeply affected. But generally, those types of movies have been either too simplistic or too stupid or more than their share of both for me to give them any credence. Frankly, this particular genre had flown worlds away from the brilliant, hysterical, and downright aching honesty of Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" (1977) and it seemed that there woud be no going back.

Over the last ten years, I would say--and aside from some strong, smaller scaled independent films like Writer/Director Lynn Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister" (2011) or Writer/Director Nicole Holofcener's excellent "Enough Said" (2013), for example--I have found that Writer/Producer/Director Judd Apatow has more than effectively taken up the mantle for how to effectively make genuinely funny and heartfelt romantic comedies.

As I have written in the past upon this site, Apatow instinctively understands that for these types of films to succeed greatly, they have to actually be romantic, sexy and sexual and the characters and their respective situations had to be grounded enough to allow any comedic proceedings--even when they escalate into madness--to carry any weight. At this time, I am just bursting with excitement to share with you that Apatow can now claim to be involved with not only the finest romantic comedic that he has ever been associated with, it is a romantic comedy that has beautifully resuscitated the genre as a whole.

"The Big Sick," produced by Apatow and directed by Michael Showalter, is a triumph, unquestionably for Co-Screenwriter Emily V. Gordon and Co-Screenwriter/Actor Kumail Nanjiani, whose real life love story is on which this film is based, but for all of us in the audience. As far as I am concerned, this creative collective have not simply made a good romantic comedy, they have made a GREAT one. One that deserves its place as one of the very best films of 2017 but also one that deserves to sit right alongside, and comfortably so, Allen's "Annie Hall," as it is a film that perceptive, multi-layered, laugh out loud funny and undeniably, achingly, provocatively, urgently romantic.

"The Big Sick" stars Kumail Nanjiani as well...himself,  a budding Chicago stand-up comedian struggling to reach the next rung within the industry while also working as an Uber driver. As Kumail is part of a traditional Pakistani Muslim family, he endures the matchmaking efforts of his parents Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) who wish for him to follow in the tradition of arranged marriage, a construct he secretly does not believe in but grudgingly endures for the sake of his family.

One night, while performing at the comedy club, Kumail is pleasantly heckled by a White, blonde audience patron named Emily (Zoe Kazan), with whom he hooks up with after the show and the two soon begin dating, a reality he keeps secret from his family for fear of being disowned by his parents and in turn, a secret he keeps from Emily for fear that she woud never understand his family or their Muslim culture. When Emily eventually discovers the truth, and Kumail admits his uncertainty concerning the possibility of a future together, she angrily breaks up with him, leaving him devastated.

Weeks later, Emily succumbs to a serious lung infection and is placed into a medically induced coma. Kumail is not only forced to confront his emotions towards Emily and her medical crisis directly alongside Emily's parents, Terry (an excellent Ray Romano) and Beth (the great Holly Hunter), he is forced to confront the full trajectory of his life, from his comedic aspirations to his trepidacious feelings towards aspects of his own heritage and family.

Michael Showalter's "The Big Sick" is a cinematic rarity, a romantic comedy that is brave and bold enough to weave a tale that speaks to the fantasies and realities of falling in love as well as the ebb and flow that occurs when attempting to stay in love, all the while finding ample room and space to explore the world of stand up comedy, inter-racial dating, a dramatic medical mystery, existential issues of life and death and most impressively, a matter-of-fact depiction of modern day, contemporary, 21st century cosmopolitan life of Muslim-Americans living in Chicago.

What begins as a genuinely witty urban romantic comedy becomes absolutely riveting in its authenticity and overall generosity of spirit as "The Big Sick" is a film that wisely possesses no villains or nefarious, duplicitous characters. Just a collective of individuals who are all simply trying to live their lives as best and as honestly as they are able, especially when and after tragedy strikes. Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani have composed a stunning, beautiful screenplay, as well as a document of the early days of their unconventional romance that also provides exceedingly rich, three dimensional characterizations of both of their families, respective friends and even potential love interests that "The Big Sick" becomes one of the most uniquely humane films that I have seen in quite some time.

Most crucially, and as previously stated, "The Big Sick" pulls off the revolutionary act of daring to showcase a contemporary world of Muslim-Americans through the essential lens of normalcy as we explore a family in which the tenants of their Islamic faith clashes against the influences Americanization. Kumail's romance and eventual devotion to Emily is not presented through any veil of Muslim self-loathing or as a rejection of self. What we are witnessing is a young man who simply wishes to fall in love with whomever he wishes, regardless of race, religion or faith.

And even with that, I was amazed with the depiction of arranged marriages within the film as it is never once regarded as strange, odd, weird or wrong. It is simply seen as being a piece of a culture, one that is upheld by Kumail's parents and his brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) and his wife, Fatima (Shenaz Treasury), a couple betrothed through arrangement, and is also the source of awkwardness, confusion, embarrassment and eve humiliation by Kumail and the assortment of young women who always arrive during family dinners, under the guise Kumail's Mother describes without fail with "I wonder who that could be?" and "Guess who dropped by?"  

All of the sequences between Kumail, his family and potential love interests are presented cleanly, honesty and with the utmost respect and authenticity, making the comedy and even the heartbreaking drama fully earned and believable, ensuring "The Big Sick" presents a rightful document of the Muslim-American experience (complete with elements of racism and post 9/11 fears) while also depicting the similarities and commonalities between Muslim and non-Muslim families as a whole.

And yes, the central relationship in "The Big Sick" is not necessarily between Kumail and Emily, but moreso between Kumail and her parents Terry and Beth, as they eventually bond while painfully awaiting Emily to wake from her coma. Certainly, there is the element of the culture clash but what is greater still is that as Kumail realizes that Emily is the woman he wishes to spend his life with should she awake, he is gathering a window into his own potential future by observing the scenes from the marriage of Terry and Beth, which indeed houses their own issues, complications, frailties as well as their endurance.

The fact that Holly Hunter remains a compulsively watchable and involving actress should come as no surprise to you. But it is the wonderful work of Ray Romano that often nearly brought me to tears with its genuineness and equal status to that of Hunter's work. Together, these two figures truly forged an honest dynamic that provided us in the audience with a history of their romance, marriage and their parenting of Emily that also superbly ran in tandem with the love story of Kumail's parents-a love story that flows between themselves as well as from parent to child.

And of course, what of the film's raison d'etre, the love story of Kumail and Emily? How rare it is to find a cinematic romance that is filled with such maturity, realism, palpable urgency and uncertainty, a remarkable feat especially as we already know the outcome considering the real world Kumail and Emily are indeed married and co-wrote the film's screenplay together.

Yes, it is indeed a characteristic of the (more recent) romantic comedy formula that we already know the film's ending from the one-sheet poster, which often makes watching the movie itself a 90 minute exercise in wheel spinning. With "The Big Sick," there is no such monotony on display whatsoever as we are given characters and situations that are as clever, intelligent, awkward, layered, engaging, difficult and as wrenching as real life as the movie's Kumail and Emily are forced to ask and confront hard questions and truths about themselves before they can fully embrace each other as a romantic couple.

In some ways, the film does indeed follow the romantic comedy formula of boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy loses girl and so on but the film never descends into misguided, misbegotten misunderstandings. But for Kumail and Emily, what drives them apart and what could potentially bring them back together all rests within issues of race, religion, and family in addition to honesty, integrity, commitment and newfound maturity, which involves the taking of serious, painful risks in order to achieve a greater sense of personal ascension into adulthood. Please tell me the last romantic comedy that you've seen that has embraced those qualities so explicitly and completely?

Kumail Nanjiani, already a terrific presence in the ensemble on HBO and Mike Judge's "Silicon Valley" series, has made a wonderful, star-making splash as an actor and writer with "The Big Sick," as his wide ranging dynamic felt completely effortless, wholly inviting, comedically sharp and undeniably bittersweet and heartbreaking. Zoe Kazan, who already made a striking impression upon me with Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' criminally underseen, undervalued yet astounding "Ruby Sparks" (2012), which Kazan also scripted, is a formidable presence as well as a perfect on-screen match for Nanjiani as she simultaneously compliments and pushes him to become a better man, just as she is also discovering and re-discovering her own place in the world. Their's is a rare cinematic relationship to actually root for and celebrate and the two are absolutely sensational together--even as the bulk of the film keeps them apart.
As with Judd Apatow's finest film and television projects and productions, including "Freaks And Geeks" (1999-2000), "Knocked Up" (2007), "This Is 40" (2012) and others, Michael Showalter's "The Big Sick" delivered a story and collective of characters that were vastly richer and more humane than I thought would have been possible. Additionally, the characters themselves are all more than deserving of having not only another hour's worth of screen time in this film, they are complex and compelling enough to house either a sequel or their own individual spin-off films. Frankly, I just did not wish for this film to end.

Michael Showalter's "The Big Sick" is a marvelous film, an experience filled with warmth, poignancy, a tremendous amount of empathy and realism that perfectly augments the romantic comedy. It is a film that contains not even a stitch of hyperbole, manufactured plotlines or contrived emotions as Screenwriters Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiami realize that their own real life situation, which they adapted for this film, possesses more than enough inherent comedy and drama that none needed to be forcibly injected.

So beautifully, they discovered ways to mine for the right amounts of comedy and even greater the truth of the proceedings in order to make the entire film resonate deeply.  And furthermore, with everything else that I have expressed to you in this posting, "The Big Sick" also offers a smart, sharp, astute and satirical look at the urban comedy club scene that is the equal to anything seen within Judd Apatow's sprawling "Funny People" (2009) and Mike Birbiglia's excellent "Don't Think Twice" (2016). When was the last time that you saw a romantic comedy film that even attempted to address, and therefore achieve, everything which I have described to you? I sincerely hope that should this film hit the mark with the masses as it already has seemed to accomplish with critics, the romantic comedy genre can look directly to this film as its proper rebirth.

"The Big Sick" is one of the finest films of the year.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

SOUTHERN COMFORT: a review of "The Beguiled"

Based upon the novel A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan
and the film "The Beguiled" (1971) 
Screenplay Written by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp   
Directed by Don Seigel
Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

For Exhibit B in my plea to the cinematic powers that be, as well as to all of you, as to why we still need to have strong, auteur directors and filmmakers creating movies, I gladly turn your attention to Ms. Sofia Coppola and her latest effort, the dark, atmospheric, grim Southern Gothic drama "The Beguiled," her remake of the 1971 Don Seigel directed film starring Clint Eastwood.

Now, of course, we do find ourselves during a period in cinema where originality has taken a severe backseat to all manner of remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, sequels, prequels and so on. But, that is not to say that all of those sub genres possess no value just in an of themselves. In fact, there are some stories more than worthy of re-telling and with "The Beguiled," based upon an original novel written by a man and a film directed by a man, Coppola's uniquely feminine (and I am certain some would say "feminist") perspective forces the material to be seen and experienced through a profoundly different lens, therefore making for an overall different experience whatsoever.

And in the case of Coppola's "The Beguiled," she has created a darkly artful, quietly disturbing, almost queasily intense chamber thriller which places the dynamics of the sexes front and center while also continuing to explore her consistent themes of female isolation and imprisonment, either self-imposed or otherwise. For those of you out there who are craving a movie that is decidedly more adult in tone, tenor and presentation, Sofia Coppola's "The Beguiled" will indeed serve as a grim antidote to the summertime superhero movie blues.

For those of you, who like myself, are unfamiliar with the original material, I will keep the plot description brief. Set in 1864 Virginia, three years into the Civil War, Sofia Coppola's "The Beguiled" stars Nicole Kidman as Miss Martha Farnsworth, headmistress of an increasingly vacant and isolated girls school, as all but five students and one teacher, Miss Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), have remained.

One morning as one of the students named Amy (Oona Laurence) is out in the nearby woods picking mushrooms, she stumbles across the wounded body of John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a corporal in the Union army, whose leg was shot and he has since deserted the battlefield. Out of kindness, Amy brings John to the girls school to the surprise, confusion and anxiousness of her classmates and teachers. John soon falls into unconsciousness and Miss Martha reluctantly houses him inside one of the school's rooms and tends to his wounds while all of the other women in the household gather outside of the door in extreme curiosity.

As John regains consciousness and slowly begins his healing process, the girls all take turns visiting him, showering him with attention, curious stares and affectionate wonderment, all of which John reciprocates individually and based upon each woman's particular interests, most notably the more amorous emotions and sexual tensions stirred within both Miss Farnsworth and Miss Morrow.

Conflicts begin to rise as John's health improves to the point where he volunteers to work in the school's garden, as he fears that he will have to return to the war, fears that are intensified by Miss Farnsworth's prompts for him to leave the premises.

And then, one night, after the girls, the women and John share a sumptuous meal together by candlelight, the gradually percolating tensions boil over...

As I have not seen the original film or have even read the original novel from which this material is based, I am unable to make any sort of comparative judgement for you. But that being said, Sofia Coppola's "The Beguiled" is an elegant pot boiler, one whose quietness and subtlety can often be disarming to the point of being somewhat lulling--as is a Coppola trademark. But rest assured, the power and overall disturbing nature of the film is not undone by the film's minimalism. In fact, the sparseness more than works to the film's advantages and definitely showcases Coppola's strengths as a filmmaker who has established and demonstrated her fully developed idiosyncratic voice from her very first film.

I do realize that for some viewers, perhaps even some of you reading this post, may feel that Sofia Coppola's style is artificial at best with a measured, deliberate pacing that can be numbing at worst. I get it. I understand. Yet, for me, that specific quality has never been a bother to me as her films have contained a certain dreamy haze that lends itself to her consistent themes of alienation, isolation and feeling completely remote from one's location or environment as a whole. With "The Beguiled," I felt that Coppola's understatedness and overall restraint--plus Cinematographer Phillipe Le Sourd's cloudy, naturalistic palate, reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" (1975)--were crucial to its drama, making the larger moments truly stand out without any sense of hyperbole.

Additionally, I do realize that there has been some rumbling controversy over Coppola's interpretation of this Civil War set material and the fact that there are no Black actors or characters present within the film, therefore making "The Beguiled" viewed as the latest attempt at Hollywood "whitewashing."  For me, while I do understand the criticism, I harbored no such emotions as I viewed the film as I do feel that the inclusion of racially based subject matter would have altered the story tremendously, opening the experience up to existing as a completely different kind of movie altogether. Essentially, in order to insert such material properly as well as artfully, "The Beguiled" would need to be fashioned into being more of an epic. In Sofia Coppola's directorial hands, her film is a chamber piece and intimacy is the key.

"The Beguiled" fits perfectly within the remainder of films in Sofia Coppola's oeuvre as we are again given a collective of characters who are essentially living life as if under a pristine casing of glass. From the over-bearing restrictive parents in Middle class White suburbia (1999's "The Virgin Suicides"), the fishbowl world of fame, celebrity and (it could be argued) White privilege (2003's "Lost In Translation," 2006's "Marie Antoinette," 2010's "Somewhere," 2013's "The Bling Ring"), wealth and power (essentially all of her films), Sofia Coppola's characters are sometimes victims, architects or even some semblance of both in regards to their collective states of isolation, misery and downfalls.

For me, "The Beguiled" fits best with "The Virgin Suicides" and "Marie Antoinette," as Coppola places her focus squarely upon women often trapped in worlds not of their making but are attempting to exert some sense of control regardless. For this film, I loved how that even though the film is set three years into the Civil War, we never see any of the battle whatsoever. We solely hear the gunfire and see the rising smoke from battlefields far, far off in the distance. Aside from John McBurney, we greet a few Confederate solders who pass by the schoolhouse where McBurney is hidden in secretive convalescence and that is really all we gather of anyone from the outside world. Coppola gives us a large school, surrounded by a gate and removed from absolutely everything pertaining to the war and inhabited by seven girls and women, who are mostly viewed from the indoors gazing out of the windows at the larger world they are not even connected with.  

The surprise arrival of John McBurney, a Union soldier no less, perfectly sets up the initial sense of conflict and distrust between the man and the females, plus within the females themselves. But when faced with their Christian values--a nice touch--the woman find themselves tested by the constructs and expectations of their own existence as Southern girls and women. Once the "other" has breached the threshold of their environment, the differing, conflicting emotions of simple curiosity and fascination soon flow into areas of sexual tension and dominance of one gender over the other.

And yet she gives men equal time to explore societal constructs and expectations. I found it fascinating how Coppola and Colin Farrell framed the McBurney character as one whose war wounds have clearly altered his feelings about his participation within the war, therefore making his character conflicted with his own feelings about his manhood. As tensions escalate and explode in the later sections of the film, Coppola slyly addresses male psychological fears of castration into the mix, therefore allowing McBurney to question his manhood regarding sexual power. But it is in those earlier sequences in the film, as the women of the school house visit McBurney one by one, how effectively he plays into their affection and attention through zeroing in on a certain attribute, fully specific to each female, therefore making the women feel as if they are the sole female figure in the house to have the entirety of his gaze and desires.

This is where "The Beguiled" finds its strengths, within Coppola's measured tone and meticulously perceptive examinations into male and female vanity, and as the film continues, the levels to which each gender will ensure their own sense of self-preservation.  

The entire cast of "The Beguiled" is first rate. Nicole Kidman, already raising her own bar through her searing work on HBO's "Big Little Lies," has turned in one of her most accomplished performances as the severely pragmatic Miss Martha Farnsworth. Colin Farrell also provides another high mark in his career, with a performance that is by turns sly, charismatic, polite, sincere, fearful, monstrous and even comical as the Union soldier who soon discovers that life inside of the female inhabited schoolhouse is more perilous than the Civil War battlefield. Kirsten Dunst, working with Coppola for the third time after "The Virgin Suicides" and "Marie Antoinette," again serves us an engaged, honest and empathetic gaze into the inner world of another of Coppola's "butterflies under glass."  

Dear readers, the movies are reaching a most critical period. Now I am not about to admonish any of you for desiring to see all manner of superheroes, sequels, and mainstream genre films, certainly not because I see the same films too. But as I have been expressing for the entirety of this blogsite, what troubles me is the increased focus upon those films at the expense of any other films being made, especially ones from filmmakers who clearly have a personalized viewpoint that they wish to create and share. Sofia Coppola is such a filmmaker, and especially within an industry where there are so shamelessly few prominent female filmmakers with Coppola's influence, clout and ability to get her projects made and released, she is someone I feel that we should treasure unquestionably.

Sofia Coppola's"The Beguiled" is an adult artistic statement from a filmmaker who has always been fortunate and skilled enough to create, explore and critique her cinematic worldview. We need filmmakers like her and what a shame it would be to have a voice like hers snuffed out in favor of the vacuously uninspired, the mindlessly gargantuan, and the blatantly anonymous.

Monday, July 3, 2017

JOYRIDE: a review of "Baby Driver"

Written and Directed by Edgar Wright 
**** (four stars)

May the Gods of Cinema forever bless Edgar Wright!

As recently as yesterday, I have been struck by articles pondering the end of the Director as we know it, essentially reducing cinematic artists to hired hands randomly picked to work for the desires of the true visionaries, so to speak, the Producers.

Now, truth be told, in some respects I can understand the hows and whys Producers may be more in control than the actual Director, especially when using movies to build interconnected film universes. In those situations, consistency within the brand is paramount. But that being said, to have an industry where movies are only created to devise mere product therefore pushing any potential filmmaking artists to the fringes if not out of the system altogether, it is a potential future that seriously troubles me, for without those visionaries, the movies will undoubtedly be doomed to becoming uninspired, homogenized, ultimately disposable and worst of all, anonymous.

This is why when we have a filmmaker of the caliber and breed of Writer/Director Edgar Wright, we should rejoice, for when he finds himself behind the camera, the movies look, sound and feel like no one else's as they are so often dazzling, head spinning, propulsive, eye popping and outstanding pieces of art, that I would truly fear a day in which we would not be able to experience what his seemingly endlessly creative mind has dreamed up.

With "Baby Driver," Edgar Wright more than continues his personal winning streak, which has included nothing less than the likes of "Shaun Of The Dead" (2004), "Scott Pilgrim Vs.The World" (2010) and "The World's End" (2013). I think he has quite possibly topped himself while also helming one of the very best films of 2017 by a mile.

Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver" stars Ansel Elgort as the titular, reticent, headphone earbud wearing getaway driver whose devotion to the music he blasts into his ears not only drowns out the tinnitus he received from a childhood tragedy, it provides him with a supreme focus and connection to the car and his reflexes as he speeds away from one heist after another.

Baby is under the employ of the crime kingpin named Doc (Kevin Spacey), and he often runs alongside a collective of increasingly psychotic criminals, including the hotheaded Bats (Jamie Foxx), Darling (Elza Gonzalez) and her husband, the ferocious Buddy (Jon Hamm), all the while earning money which he squirrels away in the tiny abode he shares with his deaf and disabled foster Father, Joseph (CJ Jones).

While visiting a local diner one morning between getaway jobs, Baby makes the acquaintance of the lovely waitress Debora (Lily James), with whom he quickly strikes up a friendship, bonds over their shared devotion to music and falls in love.

Yet, when one last job after what was presumably Baby's last job threatens to collide with his new plans for escaping his life of crime for a blissfully endless journey of love, music and the road with Debora, he is forced to face the music as never before.

Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver" has fully re-invented the car chase/crime film/action thriller and ingeniously re-fashioned it as the most lavish, deliriously inventive movie musical you are bound to see for quite some time, and yes, that even means you "La La Land" (2016).  The very best thing that I can say about this film is the following: once it was over, there was noting else that I wanted to do but to walk to the back of the ticket line to buy a ticket and see it all over again immediately.

Now certainly, as far as plots go, the storyline of "Baby Driver" is as old as the hills. But, trust me, it is only utilized as a starting point from which Edgar Wright and his superlative cast and crew can all take a deep dive into the whirlpool of Wright's inventive imagination as he re-contextualizes all of the chases, crashes, shootouts and mayhem with the expertly conceived choreography of a major movie musical.

Dear readers, I just have to explain at this time that after watching movies avidly for 40 years there are things that I need never need to ever see again and one of those cinematic constants is the car chase. Certainly, when it is done well, car chase sequences can be thrilling and the very best that I have seen are still etched into my memories and excitedly so.

I think of the truck chase in Steven Spielberg's "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" (1981) or the extended road rage sequences in George Miller's "The Road Warrior" (1981) and "Mad Max: Fury Road" (2015). Or how about the elegant motorcycle chase in Jean-Jacques Beineix's "Diva" (1981), or the wrong way freeway chase in William Friedkin's brutal "To Live And Die In L.A." (1985) or the dazzling freeway extravaganza in The Wachowski's "The Matrix Reloaded" (2003). And there is no way that I could write about movie car chases and not mention the granddaddy of them all, in my humble opinion, John Landis' "The Blues Brothers" (1980), a film which truly took car chase pyrotechnics to a transcendent level. With "Baby Driver," Edgar Wright has now joined this exclusive company as he has made such a tired sequence in the movies feel almost as if I am seeing it for the first time.

As with all of his films thus far--especially with "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World"--I wondered just how oh how Wright would be able to keep up his creative momentum for the entire duration of the film as it felt to be so impossible. Within the film's first 10-15 minutes or so, we have been blown backwards from a ferociously paced getaway car chase plus another sequence where Baby walks the morning streets of Atlanta to obtain four coffees for his partners in crime. And throughout it all, the movements and motions of the people and objects are all in exquisitely timed sequence to the songs that Baby pumps through his earbuds...and I mean absolutely everything! Gunshots occur right ON THE BEAT. Car skids and slides flow right with the songs. Just even watch how characters walk from time to time and once all is said and done, it is as if Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver" was imagined as the cinematic love child of John Woo and Busby Berkeley and again, never for a minute designed to assault your senses and bludgeon you but to whisk you away in two-fisted, speed of light and sound entertainment.

From even conceiving of a film such as this, Edgar Wright more than deserves any kudos and awards that happen to flow his way. And for that matter, he is assisted tremendously through the efforts of his superlative team from Editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, Cinematographer Bill Pope, most definitely Choreographer Ryan Heffington and for the love of Pete, the entire Sound Department has more than earned every industry award they can get their collective hands upon!!

Of course, you cannot have a musical without the music and Wright had loaded his film from end to end with a wildly eclectic mix of 44 songs, a tactic that instantly places him to the front ranks of filmmakers who utilize songs to serve as an additional character within the film and not solely as sonic wallpaper. Over the course of his previous films, Wright has already displayed his impeccable taste, placing him the same league as Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Cameron Crowe, the late John Hughes and Jonathan Demme and most notably, alongside his contemporaries with Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola and Quentin Tarantino. But now, with music serving as the film's engine, so to speak, Wright is able to delve even deeper and more extensively into the music of  his mind.

Now much has been written and celebrated about the soundtracks that augment James Gunn's "Guardians Of The Galaxy" series (2014/2017) and trust me, I am not about to rain on your collective parades if you cherish them.  For me, I was most underwhelmed. Not with the songs for I love them as much as you do. But, to me, within the interstellar context of those movies, they felt to be so obvious and even safe instead of creatively innovative.

I bring up Gunn's films as his work shares a certain conceptual theme with "Baby Driver" as both Gunn and Wright have conceived of youthful anti-heroes  mourning lost Mothers and have maintained emotional connections through the music they are each obsessed with. But where Gunn's choices felt to be market researched to me, Wright's choices felt distinctly personalized and feverishly hand-picked, making the conceptual connective tissue carry a much more significant weight to the proceedings.

With all of the action, thrills, razzle-dazzle and the music, I again applaud Edgar Wright for ensuring that Baby Driver" would exist as so much more than an exercise in style--no matter how high flying of style it is. Wright indeed has a story to tell and some larger themes to carry along with it and primarily, he has used "Baby Driver" as another exploration of his consistent theme of male arrested development.

Just as Shaun possesses an unhealthy attachment to his prized neighborhood bar as well as commitment to his longtime girlfriend in "Shaun Of The Dead," and Gary King's alcoholism and desperate sense of nostalgia for his lost youth sits at the core of "The World's End," Edgar Wright utilizes the music of "Baby Driver" to signify what is ultimately Baby's fuel and his crutch. Baby's rigid dependence upon music serves as a means for him to simultaneously connect and retreat from the world around him, thus blurring his overall sense of reality, which is finally tested once Debora enters his life and the savagery of the criminals around him at last begin to rattle his sense of humanity.

In some ways, I think that Baby comes closet to the character of Scott Pilgrim regarding the level of disconnect from the real world as Scott's narcissism was presented through his choice of viewing life as being one endless video game as a protective measure from real, human relationships and the inevitable emotional wounds that occur.

With "Baby Driver," I loved how Baby carried this tendency to essentially channel whatever emotions he carries into the technology he surrounds himself with. From cars, certainly, to the music he pours into his ears and then, to even the conversations he obsessively records and then re-contextualizes into his own music, therefore reducing human beings and relationships into song lyrics, recording equipment, instruments, synthetic beats and a case of cassette tapes.

And you know, just as a casual thought, I am curious if some of you who see this film would argue if Baby mentally exists somewhere upon the autism spectrum. Wondering...Yes, I may be completely off base here but even so, "Baby Driver" does indeed lend itself to such interpretation and that only adds to the fun. Oh, I have gone on long enough and I certainly do not wish to delay you any longer from racing out to go see this film, this restless, relentless and rapturous film that only made me want to rejoice.

Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver" is exhibit A evidence of precisely why we still need to have actual Directors when it comes to our cinema. The ones who have the ability to harness their vision and craft it so exquisitely through the language of film giving us movie experiences to celebrate and cultivate as we receive a perspective that we have not heard before and enlivening the movies in the process.

Just look at this year alone as we are indeed drowning in superhero movies but it took Patty Jenkins to crack the code and make a transcendent one in "Wonder Woman." Look at what Jordan Peele accomplished with the horror genre with "Get Out," a film we really have not ever seen before. The individuals have the potential to be cinematic artists to carry movies further into the future and I believe that these figures should not only be celebrated and appreciated, they should be more than encouraged to continue reshaping what the movies can actually be and inspiring us all to boot.

Edgar Wright is unquestionably a filmmaker of that caliber, whose euphoric aesthetic has left me increasingly ecstatic over the years and I sincerely hope that he is able to continue making the types of films that leave me happily slack jawed and breathless. If there is anything negative I can say about "Baby  Driver," is that now, I'll have to wait all over again and for however many years for Edgar Wright's next film.

But until then, I cannot wait to get behind the wheel of this film again and again and again.

Saturday, July 1, 2017


"JOHN WICK" (2014)
Screenplay Written by Derek Kolstad
Directed by Chad Stahelski & David Leitch
*** (three stars)

I don't know why but sometimes, I just cannot resist a good shoot 'em up.

Sometimes, when I decide to watch a movie, I just may go for one that is more seemingly fitted to whatever mood I may find myself in. And truth be told, some of those times involve the classic shoot 'em up crime/action film genre. Granted, I do genuinely like those sorts of action thrillers but usually to  point. I mean--there is only one "Die Hard" (1988) for a reason, as it is rare when that type of a film is able to transcend its own genre and truly become something classic...and therefore, making other, lesser films in the same genre irrelevant and not worth watching.

But still...there are those times, when I just happen to need something with flying bullets and some level of  ultraviolence. For that is precisely the reason that I saw a film like the Quentin Tarantino scripted and Robert Rodriguez directed thriller/horror film mash-up "From Dusk Til Dawn" (1996) or the slightly more obscure heist film "Killing Zoe" (1994) from Writer/Director Roger Avery.  More recently, I found myself surprisingly and wildly entertained by the preposterously enjoyable autistic hit man concoction "The Accountant" (2016) starring Ben Affleck in the titular role and on this lazy Saturday afternoon, and after an extended stressful period in my life, I found myself in need of something potentially like that film and that was how I happened upon making my acquaintance with "John Wick."

Starring Keanu Reeves in the titular role, "John Wick" spins the bloody, brutal tale of our eponymous anti-hero who, at the film's start, is mourning the loss of his beloved wife to a terminal illness and is just only beginning to etch out a new life with his wife's final gift, a beagle puppy. named Daisy.

Just days after his wife's passing and the arrival of Daisy, Wick is taunted at a gas station by some young Russian ruffians led by Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), who are ogling the sights of Wick's classic 1969 Boss 329 Mustang, and is later attacked in his own home by the same ruffians, who finally steal his car and kill Daisy.

Upon taking Wick's Mustang to a chop shop run by Aurelio (John Leguizamo), Iosef is informed that he has crossed paths with the wrong man, a fact further confirmed by his Father, Russian crime boss Viggo Tarasov (the late Michael Nyqvist), who proclaims that John Wick is not The Boogeyman...John Wick is the man you would hire to kill the Boogeyman!

And so it goes, with this tale of revenge and intended redemption transformed in to inevitability as John Wick hunts down Iosef and Viggo with a relentless (and even quite fashionable) approach, littering New York City in a hailstorm of bullets and blood.  

"John Wick," as conceived and directed by Chad Stahelski & David Leitch (who was actually uncredited as a co-director due to the rules of the Directors Guild Of America but was listed as a producer), is a lean, bare-bones, yet highly stylized  action thriller that never really takes itself too seriously but is also deeply steeped in its variety of cinematic influences, from Asian action cinema, of course, to filmmakers as diverse yet cut from the same conceptual cloths as Sergio Leone, Walter Hill, John Woo, and Quentin Tarantino.

Unlike the hysterically convoluted plot of "The Accountant," Stahelski and Leitch ensure that their film's storyline is just this shy of skeletal, a tactic that actually works in the film's favor as it informs the proceedings as we, in the audience, are left to devise of the backgrounds and histories of Wick and his adversaries. That being said, a double feature of "John Wick" and "The Accountant" does not seem to be terribly far fetched.

What Stahelski and Leitch do bring to the table is a high style that feels simultaneously gritty yet elegant, due to the exclusivity of the film's New York locations, the high fashion wardrobes of the film's criminal underworld and the slyly humorous politeness to all of their dialogue exchanges and the euphemisms utilized to covertly describe their dirty deeds.

Keanu Reeves, who has long carried a  mighty screen presence yet has often been saddled with a limited acting range, has again found a conceptual sweet spot to explore as John Wick. His verbal reticence combined with his still impressive physicality, again, informs his character's grief as well as his existential drama with returning to a life he felt that he had long left behind, the skin he thought he had forever shed. This quality does indeed give the film some necessary (but not too much) weight, a quality that was reminiscent of themes housed in Tarantino's "Kill Bill" series (2003/2004), Tony Scott's "Man On Fire" (2004) and definitely in Clint Eastwood's revisionist Western "Unforgiven" (1992). 

But even still, "John Wick" is a film where it strongly feels that the visuals and action are indeed the heavy lifters as far as storytelling is concerned and with that Stahelski and Leitch succeed greatly. We happen to live in a cinematic age where action sequences are seemingly devised and executed via a blender rather through any cinematic creativity and imagination.

Fight sequences that are often shot too closely via the dreaded shaky-cam and then edited together in a randomness making audiences fully unable to follow the story of the fights, chases and shoot-outs and are therefore subjected to being bludgeoned rather than legitimately excited and exhilarated. Stahelski and Leitch avoid all such errors as they allow the camera to follow the copious action sequences cleanly, with purpose, attention, skill and focus, ensuring that every set piece is one that will fully satisfy while also setting the stage for whatever is to follow.

Now, all of that being said, there are many reasons for me to actually hate a film like this and I am wondering why or even how I could have enjoyed a film so much that did employ a sickeningly cheap tactic of the killing of a cute little beagle (thankfully, shown very briefly but even so..) as the film's catalystic plot point. It is more than a shallow thing to hinge and entire film upon and it does call into question for us as film-going audiences about what do we even need to find ourselves to be entertained these days. Honestly, is there absolutely nothing that is off limits anymore? Did that dog really have to be killed in order to spring Wick into action? Could having been attacked in his home and having his car stolen be enough for a film this conceptually scant?

But maybe...I know that I just  might be reaching here, but maybe Stahelski and Leitch have tapped into something akin to what was tapped into Luc Besson and Pierre Morel's especially nasty, sadistic and at times borderline racist yet efficiently effective "Taken" (2008)--frankly, I wont even count the later two sequels as those movies are essentially comedies as far as I am concerned.

I really do not wish to make too much of this but I am wondering that considering the increased vitriol, violence, precariousness and overall uncertainty of our 21st century American landscape, where so many of us are indeed feeling up against it, trapped under it or fearing that all could be lost in an instant and through no fault of our own, there is this need to lash out and provide ourselves with some sort of individualized frontier justice against our foes, whether real or imagined. In many ways, I could see a film like "John Wick" serving as a safe way to vicariously act out upon our basest and more violent tendencies as this is quite the primal little film.

In some ways, aren't we all just kind of lashing out against those who would or could potentially take away the most vulnerable like John Wick's beagle? Admittedly, living in Wisconsin, I have felt like that for the last five to six years and even moreso now with who is currently occupying the White House. If I am feeling like this then certainly, I would think it is safe to assume that others are as well. Again, I don't want to make too much of this small slice of pulp fiction but I can't help to wonder if this film has inadvertently touched a cultural nerve.

Regardless, "John Wick" was indeed effective enough that I am not only willing to give this year's "John Wick: Chapter 2" a whirl, I am not-so-secretly hoping that we can have a cinematic mash-up featuring John Wick....VS. The Accountant!!!!

Now THAT would be heaps more entertaining than Batman Vs. Superman!


The Summer Movie Season of 2017 rolls onwards with its standard rapid pace yet I am already feeling that I have fallen behind, feelings that may be more fully described to you in a future posting that I am still mulling over writing or not. But for now, the month really looks packed and I am hoping that I am able to get myself to this new batch of films that have all captured my attention.
1. The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand with the arrival of "Spider-Man: Homecoming," a film that I have to admit I was more than skeptical about and possibly filled with the most fatigue regarding the comic book movie genre as Spider-Man has been rebooted twice now. But after his high flying appearance in "Captain America: Civil War" (2016), where Tom Holland filled the role with a whip-smart engagingly awkward youthful exuberance as well as some fine comedic chemistry with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) himself--plus the positive early reviews certainly help--I guess I'm going to join the wall crawler one more time.
2. "Atomic Blonde"--I know nothing about this film other than what I have seen in the trailer and I'd like to keep it that way, because for this one, I'm there!
3. Director Matt Reeves returns to the elegantly presented moral darkness of the richly re-booted "Planet Of The Apes" series with "War For The Planet Of the Apes," another sequel that will hopefully show that extended episodes of a film series need not be artless money grabbers. 
4. The new film from Christopher Nolan. 'Nuff said.

So, with that and some holdovers that are just now arriving in my city, I hope to be cinematically busy and happy. As always, please do send me your well wishes and I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!