Tag Archives: 4stars

Tom of Finland

[3.5 stars]

Many things can define a culture or a group. It can be music, food, fashion…or in this case: art. You may not know his nome de pencil,  Tom of Finland, but you can’t have escaped the images that Touko Valio Laaksonen produced. He defined a great deal of gay culture starting in the 40s up through the 80s, evolving his art from providing a voice to the fantasies of forbidden desire to, ultimately, celebrations of life in the face of illness. Whether or not you were part of the leather culture, his images captured raw sexuality in a heightened way that was an equal response to, and a statement about, how repressed culture was pretty much everywhere.

Beyond his art, Laaksonen himself, had a fascinating life that we pick up during WWII. Yes, he struggled with a repressive culture and horrifying laws and bias, but he also struggled with simply being a veteran of war. His wish to avoid confrontation, to not have to fight anymore, is something universal to soldiers returned from the front. Seeing that play out in his life was an unexpected aspect of the history.

Director Dome Karukoski also told the story in an interesting way, without explanation flipping around the chronologies at times, but always with a purpose that would pay off. He maintains a respectable distance from his subjects, but allows us to invest in them and hope for them. There is an odd clinical feeling to many of the exchanges that is reflective of Finland and Germany, but it never leaves you feeling closed out. In some ways the lack of warmth heightens the brief moments of connection for Touko and contrasts nicely with his later life.

This movie works equally well as a story and as a documentary/biopic. Primarily in Finnish, it also has plenty of German and English dialogue and nothing is so rapid fire as to cause subtitle strain. In fact, a lot of the film is without dialogue, allowing the story to play out with looks and action alone. It is well done and, ultimately, educating. It will also provide you a new appreciation for Tom of Finland, his work and his purpose, not to mention his place in history.

Tom of Finland

 

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)

[3.5 stars]

In the Fade packs a lot of story into its shy two hours. And while I’m not a Diane Kruger (The Host) fan, often finding her stiff and unemotional, she is powerful and painfully exposed in this film; she carries it utterly. In fact, the only other actor that leaves a real impression is Johannes Krisch, who’s super creepy and foul lawyer will twist your guts as he does his work.

Director/co-writer Fatih Akin tackles what is becoming an all-to-common story in the last ten years. However, he focuses the story very personally and small, expertly guiding Kruger and the cast, keeping it paced and under control. The story, however charged, stays ensconced in the painfully mundane, which is part of how it earned the many awards it was was nominated for and/or won last year.

Admittedly, In the Fade is not a light film for a night of simple distraction, but it is a well-done film that should be seen at some point. Because it focuses on the individual rather than the broader societal threads, it is oddly more palatable. We connect with Kruger and invest in her need for meaning, even when her actions are far from anything we may personally identify with…and even more so when they are.

In the Fade

Tully

[4 stars]

In their first pairing since Juno, director Jason Reitman (Men, Women, Children) and writer Diablo Cody (Ricki and the Flash) yet again bring their A-game to the screen. Tully is a glaringly honest look at being a parent with a newborn. It is also a story of trying to survive seemingly insurmountable odds in life.

Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde) last worked with Cody on a story about a different kind of broken woman in Young Adult. Theron, as always, gives herself over to this new character, allowing herself to be as unquaffed and unclean and unpleasant as the story needed at times. It is a great and sympathetic performance that anyone who has felt crushed by life’s events will understand. As her husband, Ron Livingston (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) gets his own interesting path to navigate through this story as well.

Though the two make a solid couple, it is Mackenzie Davis (Blade Runner 2049) in the title role that pulls it all together. She brings a sort of wonderfully twisted Mary Poppins energy to her night nanny.  She sweeps in and sweeps Theron’s family off their feet, working to put them back on track with a focus on Theron’s needs. It is a challenging role, and one she executes with style and craft.

This isn’t an easy film to classify. It is very much a slice-of-life film, but with a broader impact and with more going on that is very obvious at first. It is also a great piece of film-making that should get a lot more attention as word of mouth spreads (or it certainly deserves to). Be on the watch for this one come awards season, particularly for Theron, Reitman, and Cody.

Tully

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

[4 stars]

Bombshell is well named and well punned by first time writer/director Alexandra Dean. She brings us a wonderful examination of one of the best known faces of the 20th Century: Hedy Lamarr. It is all the more poignant is that this arrives in an atmosphere of the #metoo movement and the rising concerns of the potentially eroding position women hold in society.

What Dean makes immediately clear is that while Lamarr’s face was known, and maybe some of her life, who she really was remained ignored till recently. Through interviews with family, friends, and industry colleagues, as well as extensive recorded interviews and footage, we get a sense of the astonishing person behind the tabloid history that dominated her legacy. Which isn’t to say her life wasn’t tumultuous, but it was also full of invention…literally.

Take 90 minutes to learn about Lamarr and how she has shaped your life in ways you have never known. And, while you’re at it, gain an appreciation for both the horror of the studio system and the implicit bias that still pervades the world.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

Gloria (2013)

[4 stars]

Even when a movie like this one earns your attention and trust you aren’t always sure it’s working until the final moments. By the end, however, it most definitely pays off; in fact, the final moments are transcendent for the character and the audience.

The success of the final scene is worth the entire movie to get to…and wouldn’t work without what comes before. Paulina García’s (Narcos) subtle performance holds you and endears you to her over time. And, it must be said, she is certainly helped along in the finale by the 80s hit that shares the same title. (As a side-note, there is a fascinating history to the song and its lyrics and why you may not recognize the translation.) Without question, this is García’s film. While Sergio Hernández certainly gives her something to work off of, she controls the story and screen from start to finish.

Gloria is a quiet film of discovery and life for its main character. The tale is interesting, but not provocative. Like Finding Your Feet, it allows the information to seep out and inform over time. We travel with Gloria through a critical period of her life, starting 12 years after her divorce. It is clear that, up till now, she had drifted through life’s events, shifting directions as they sent her. We aren’t really sure where she’ll end up nor whether anything is going to change as we see her wake up to that reality; the tension of that question and the accessibility of her character pull you along to the end.

Director and co-writer Sebastián Lelio’s (A Fantastic Woman) love of the character and his trust in the material and in the audience is wonderful. He is expert at showing us what we need, and nothing more, while helping us celebrate his characters, flaws and all. You would be excused for not seeing how well its working till the end; but the final scene makes it clear how undeniably good his craft is and why, even with a small opus, he has so many awards nominations and wins. Make time to celebrate Gloria at some point, and keep an eye on Lelio. He is clearly a talent to watch with many more tales to tell.

Gloria

Avengers: Infinity War

[4 stars]

Just: Holy S*%#!

If you were ever worried that Marvel was over taking risks or didn’t have a game plan, this should settle it for you. But avoid all information before you go, if you can. The chance for spoilers is just too high.

We’ve seen all these folks before (me, very recently having rewatched it all)  so I’m not going to take up 1000s of pixels to list the actors and characters.

However, Josh Brolin’s (No Country for Old Men) Thanos does deserve to be mentioned. He, with the help of Makus and McFeely’s script, created a complex villain who, believably, doesn’t think of himself that way. He’s still totally nuts, but what a nice surprise in a world where things are too often black and white to help make it easy on audiences.

I have no idea if this is the film that was planned 10 years ago, but it certainly brings it all together. And in the first five minutes you’ll know you’re into something different. I also have to admit, some of the CG is really subpar (at least on IMAX), which was surprising.

What comes next as Phase Three heads to its final conclusion? Well, I have my guesses…and I’m sure you will too. Thankfully it is only year off till we find out if we’re right (and with a couple films to fill that gap in between).

Avengers: Infinity War

Finding Your Feet

[3.5 stars]

Yes, another tale of late-life discovery and rebirth. But it does it well, with humor, and with a hell of a cast.

The story is led by the incomparable Imelda Staunton (Pride) and Celia Imrie (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) as a pair of estranged sisters reconnecting after more than a decade. The two work brilliantly together both emotionally and with their timing. Imrie’s world is full of other characters that spur Staunton’s rediscovery of herself and life. Chief among these are Joanna Lumley (Me Before You) and David Hayman (Macbeth) as the core of her group along with the most unlikely of the cast: Timothy Spall (Denial). Spall has often carried stories, but rarely, as in this case, as the romantic male lead. Not your typical choice, and yet he manages a sweet magnetism and vulnerability that makes it all work.

The script for this life and aging adventure was from a pair of writers: first-timer Meg Leonard and the more-heeled Nick Moorcroft (Burke & Hare). But as fun as the film is, it falls prey to taking a couple simple “outs” with the plot rather than working toward their goal in a more challenging way. Honestly, it was a bit of a shame as the scope of the story across age, love, and loss was pretty sweeping; perhaps a little too sweeping given how they solved the problems. But, they still manage to land the moments and the point, even if a few of the paths were far too generic and obvious from the get-go.

Regardless of any weaknesses or clichè in the script, Richard Loncraine (Richard III) directed the story with a sure and powerful hand, controlling the leaps in time and emotional evolution well. The story borders on broad comedy, but has just enough of a tinge of bitterness and embarrassment to feel real during the most challenging moments. It is also unafraid to quietly feel pain at its rawest.

As a tale and reminder that life doesn’t end until it does, this is a great couple of hours. It is for the romantic, at whatever age, and the time invested is worth it just to get to the final frame.

Finding Your Feet

The Leisure Seeker

[4.5 stars]

Forgive me, I’m going to kvell a little. It just isn’t all that often that a movie grabs me so completely. Director and co-writer Paolo Virzì (Like Crazy) delivers a heartbreakingly beautiful tale of love and life that will suck you in and wring you dry;  a wonderful, emotional canon which I highly recommend for any movie lover or romantic. It is both obvious and subtle, tackling aspects of age and marriage in wonderfully real ways. But it is relationship that takes the fore, with the ailments that ultimately drive the story very much in the background rather than the front and center focus of other films, like Still Alice or, for that matter, Marjorie Prime or The Memory of a Killer.

Virzì gifts us with a set of performances and story that quietly grips you from the moment it begins and refuses to let you go until the last, triumphant moment. It is both a tragedy and a comedy, a love story and a tale of glory (in its way). It is inevitable and unavoidable, but the path and the revelations are constantly surprising. The resulting film and performances are already up for awards this year, but will likely be forgotten for the majors since it released so early though I hope it won’t be.

Though Helen Mirren (Winchester) dominates the screen throughout, it is Donald Sutherland’s (The Calling) quiet performance and moments of shift that make this a devastating and emotional film. In a wonderful bit of direction, Janel Moloney (American Crime), as their daughter, delivers a performance that mirrors Sutherland’s in many ways.

I will admit, it isn’t quite a perfect movie, though it is close. It chooses to nail itself down in time to the summer of 2016 irrevocably for reasons I never quite puzzled out. And Christian McKay’s (Florence Foster Jenkins) turn as Mirren and Sutherland’s son is just slightly off, never quite fitting into the movie as a whole. Neither choice ruins the movie, but it knocks it down just a notch in my rating and recommendation.

But this is a must-see film for film lovers and anyone with either elderly family members or those in or above middle-age. It is a reminder of why we struggle and why we love. It is, above all, an homage to marriage and relationships, with all their warts and shine. You will laugh a lot, cry a lot, and ultimately smile as you leave the theater.

The Leisure Seeker

A Quiet Place

[3.5 stars]

A tight, post-apocalyptic family drama, told with real skill. From the beginning, you are made aware that while the story is familiar, the rules you know may not apply. It is also a beautifully appointed tale of deaf child coming into her own in a world of imposed silence, which makes for some great, if never spoken, contrasts.

The danger of this film was really with writer, director, and one of the three main actors, John Krasinski (The Hollars). That is a lot of hats to wear and not screw something up. As you might have guessed, he didn’t. He builds a level of tension through scenes that few other directors have pulled off without cheap tricks. This is very important as some of the key moments you’ll see coming, but the editing and performances will keep you gripping your armrest. And, sure, you’ll recognize some of the moments and where he learned them from, but this world is very much his own. I was so involved with the story on screen that it was only afterwards that the echos came to the surface for me.

The story is entirely about Krasinski’s small family trying to survive together in a near-impossible situation. With Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train) as his wife, she again proves her mettle on screen. It may not be her kick-ass warrior from Edge of Tomorrow, but she brings the energy and determination. Millicent Simmonds (Wonderstruck), on the other hand, brings the tragedy and strength that you would have normally expected one of the adult actors to take on. It is a complicated role that succeeds enough for its purpose. It will be interesting to see how her career progresses. The last main cast member I expected a bit more subtlety from given his turn in Wonder, but Noah Jupe’s tackling of the family’s son was a bit ham-handed for me at times. Honestly, that was Krasinski’s mistake more than Jupe’s, but it stood out for me amidst the other more contained performances.

All that said, this taut, 90 minute science-fictionesque/family/horror/drama is really fun and worth your time to see with an audience. When the whole room gets tense and groans and jumps with you, the experience is heightened even more. And while there are certainly brief moments of contained gore, it is really more all about the tension and release.

Isle of Dogs

[4 stars]

It’s hard to believe, but it has been four years since Wes Anderson brought us the near-perfect Grand Budapest Hotel.  Since then he has been working on this piece of stop-action magic, his second effort in the art after The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Isle of Dogs, by luck or incredible insight on the part of Anderson and his various co-writers, is a mirror of today’s politics and growing xenophobia, but in a fun way. It is, to say the least, quirky, but full of heart and humor. One thing it isn’t, it isn’t for kids. These characters lead rough lives and live in a corrupted and selfish world, but they remain driven and hopeful throughout. You could say they’re dogged, but that might get you slapped.

If you’ve seen the trailers, you may have noticed that the voice talent for this movie is extraordinary. In fact, it is far too long to even try and list. But Bryan Cranston (Why Him?) leads the story with Ed Norton (Collateral Beauty), Jeff Goldblum (Thor: Ragnarok), Bill Murray (The Jungle Book), and Bob Balaban (The Monuments Men) poking him from the sidelines. All, in Anderson’s style, just let the story unfold and show itself. Scarlett Johansson (Ghost in the Shell), Greta Gerwig (Maggie’s Plan), and Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) balance them all out with quiet performances of their own. However, this is very much a male dominated story.

There is something magic about this movie. Like Budapest used music, Dogs uses Japanese stage-craft to pull you into its world and set up the approach. And it also plays with keeping you in the dog’s perspective. For instance, one of the main characters speaks only untranslated Japanese, but yet you understand him.

It is hard to explain why this film works, but it does. If you like Anderson’s work at all, this is a must-see. If you enjoy stop-action animation, it is also worth seeing, though it isn’t up to the standards of Laika studios (e.g., Kubo and the Two Strings). But it is delightful, adult, and emotionally satisfying which still providing a good story and a point. As it expands its number of screens, find a theater and go see it. If nothing else, it will be one of the  most unique films you see this year.

Isle of Dogs