Tag Archives: 5stars

The Salt of the Earth

I’m not entirely sure where to begin with this powerful piece. Perhaps the right way is with the director, which is counter-intuitive, but the result of this movie is directly related to Wim Wenders’ (Pina) involvement.

Making a film about a photographer is fraught with issues. A medium of moving pictures trying to elicit an understanding of a medium that relies on single, frozen moments is practically at odds from the start. Wenders, who narrates a large part of the film, comments on that in a way at the top of this documentary. But Wenders was a perfect choice as a man who could take this story and make the film feel like a Salgado photo from beginning to end. He captured the sense, sensibility, and framing of the great photographer’s works and filmed Salgado commenting on his photos while looking at them. The overall feel is often like an intimate, private show.

Tackling this subject also meant finding the story of Salgado’s life, the narrative by which Wenders captures your imagination and exposes the root of the art. He went with the title as it is now, but it could also have been “The Life, and Death, and Life of Sebastião Salgado” given the shape of his life and tale. Salgado has led a fascinating life both in deeds and trajectory.  His story is as inspiring as his art, not only for its unlikely path but also for its intensity and dedication to the purpose and result. To discuss it would be to rob you of the journey and revelations, so I won’t.

I discovered Wim Wenders as a narrative filmmaker. His power, however, as a documentarian is proving to be equally or more emotionally and artistically impactful for me. He embraces his subjects and holds them close, for years in some cases, before embarking on trying to tell their story in the right way. This movie is no exception and the result is something that has to be seen.

The Salt of the Earth

Arrival (redux x2)

I haven’t written up a rewatch in a long time. In part because there just hasn’t been a reason. However, last night I rewatched Arrival for the 3rd time, and I’m still finding little moments and lines in it that I missed. The script and direction continue to impress me, as does Amy Adams’s performance.

I’ve debated vociferously with folks since last year about the quality of this film. The more I watch it, the more I stand behind my feeling that it was ripped off at the Oscars. It is one of the tightest, most intelligent scripts I’ve seen in a very long time. It certainly was better than anything else up for the awards. The more often I see it the more I am seeing in it from a craft point of view. And, more importantly, it never seems to get boring. The pacing and the emotional run remain compelling on every watch. Joe Walker’s editing drives a  pace and energy that cannot be ignored.

Denis Villenuve may have created his masterpiece with this film, though I am hopeful it is just the beginning of his efforts that were already impressive. Similarly, I’m hoping the script by Eric Heisserer is a beginning rather than a peak (especially if you look at what he did before). 

If you haven’t seen this flick yet, for whatever reason, get it in your queue. Forget the genre, that isn’t the focus. I’ve watched it with folks who normally walk out of the room the second they see a spaceship or have a whiff of science fiction; even they were impressed with the movie. If you have read the original story and weren’t overly taken with it, ignore that and see how this adaptation takes that tale to a whole new level (a rarity in film, to be sure).

Yes, I’m badgering you. You know who you are. See this film… see it more than once and you’ll understand my comments even better.

Colossal

You owe yourself this film before the summer movie scene, full of visual gluttony and silly distraction, kicks off in a couple weeks. It isn’t that I won’t be lining up for some of those films too, but Colossal is a wonderful, small film with layers and humor and some effects to boot. Nacho Vigalondo, who also brought us the unexpected and wonderful Timecrimes, wrote and directed this darkish look at ourselves. He clearly has a sharp eye and a wicked keyboard as he pulls together his stories. (BTW, if you haven’t yet found Timecrimes yet, do. Great fun!)

Script and story aside, without Anne Hathaway (Alice Through the Looking Glass) this film would have been significantly less than it is. Hathaway navigates the narrow line she has to walk brilliantly. It could have easily devolved into slapstick or horror, but she found the border between Kaiju and intimate, personal tale and balanced on it to the end.

Opposite her, Jason Sudeikis (Angry Birds) does a nice job balancing out Hathaway’s character, having his own issues to contend with. Along with his retinue of Tim Blake Nelson (Fantastic Four) and Austin Stowell (Bridge of Spies), many mirrors are held up and struggles revealed. Rounding out the cast and necessary complications, Dan Stevens (Legion) also provides a sounding board for Hathaway.

This isn’t an Oscar worthy film or a Pulitzer prize winning script, but it is clever, complicated, and complete, each cog finally fitting together. More subtle, are the choices and decisions that bring about the finale. Though it is not nearly as Byzantine as Timecrimes, Vigalondo was very careful in the structure of this film. It’s very unexpected nature and solid delivery have me rating it a tad higher than it probably deserves, but I love being happily surprised.

Enough said. Just go out and see and support this one before all the sugar of the summer rots your brain.

Colossal

Logan

This is the Wolverine you’ve been waiting for. This is the Logan we deserved. Definitely the best of the stand-alone Wolverine movies, and very nearly the top of the X-Men series as a whole (absent Deadpool, which is a class unto itself). It is also a great completion to Logan’s cycle and saga; it is told with heart, humor, action, and even with a bit of real honest-to-god literacy. There are psychological levels to this story that are subtle but very much thought through.

Logan, the character, has always brought a darker edge to the candy-ass PG universe we’ve certainly enjoyed, but was always “lite,” if you will. Logan, the film, is everything you’d expect from this particular storyline, full of pathos and bathos, and a tad of dark humor along with its emotional impact and carnage. And the more adult rating allows it all to feel just that much more real.

Hugh Jackman (Eddie the Eagle) will be able to proudly wear the mantle of this character through the rest of his career without cringing. And Patrick Stewart (Ted) brings out aspects of a 90+ year old Xavier that are great. Completing the main cast, Dafne Keen, in her first major role, kicks some serious butt and shows incredible range for a young actor. 

Director/co-writer James Mangold wasn’t an obvious choice to run this final outing. With the Kate & Leopold script behind him and Knight and Day as director there isn’t a direct line to this kind of production, despite having directed The Wolverine. (His fellow writers Frank and, particularly, Green had more on point, but still not expected matches.) But, without question, he pulled this off well. What we get to experience is something more akin to The Professional or Gloria than the typical tale from this universe. There are high stakes and big evil plans and mutant powers, sure, but they are the window dressing for the plot and I mean that in a good way. There is substance on screen, not just pretty lights and pictures.

If you’ve never cared about Wolverine, this probably isn’t the place to start as so much of it depends on Logan’s baggage. But if you ever liked him, you really can’t miss it on the big screen. It is worth every minute in the seat and Mangold gave it all room to develop and breathe.

[If you want a long, detailed, and spoiler-rich discussion of the source material, “Old Man Logan,” there is a good one over at Vulture. There is also a nice overview of the character’s movies and impact over at Fandor.]

Logan

13th

Seriously, put in your bite-plate before turning this documentary on.

As the natural follow-up to Selma, Ann DuVernay has produced an educational and shocking call to action. I could comment on it as a movie (it ain’t perfect), but that isn’t the point. You should see this… you must see this. Even if you grew up during most of the eras covered, even if you were involved, even if you feel you know a lot of what was going on, you’ll still discover gaps in your knowledge.

The hypocrisy and horror of the post-Jim Crow years is laid bare in this film, as much as it can be in a 2 hour period and still make its point. But if you wonder why so many people have been angered and scared of the current political rhetoric and direction, listen to what it echos from our own recent past. See what it is all rooted in. And then understand that when the film was made, the ship was starting to turn away from private prisons until the current administration reversed that intent (Daily Beast, Fox News).

If you can get to the end of this docu and not want to change something, regardless of your political beliefs, you don’t have an ounce of humanity in you.

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13th

My “Best of” 2016

I don’t usually do this, but too many folks have asked. So, I’ve gone back through my last year of films and tv (and it was a LOT). Here’s what I came up with out of about 280 posts which covered more than 300 films and TV shows over the last calendar year.

Film:
Not all of these are brilliant, but they are all good movies and often unique enough to make them worth the time. Most were released in 2016, but a few may have bridged across from 2015 (or earlier)… and a few have released that I’ve yet to see, but there is only so much time!

The best (in no particular order, but should be seen):

Kubo and the Two Strings
Arrival
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Moonlight
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Deadpool
Anomalisa
A Monster Calls
Marguerite

The rest (again, no order, but unique or well done and deserve a watch):

Sing Street
Remember
Hologram for the King
The Wave
Finding Vivian Maier
Eddie the Eagle
Fundamentals of Caring
Miss You Already
April and the Extraordinary World
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Sticky
Demolition
Therapy for a Vampire
Dressmaker
Swiss Army Man
The Nice Guys
Doctor Strange
Spectral
The BFG

TV:
There is a heck of a lot of good TV out there now, but these were the new ones that caught me off-guard.

This is Us
Class
Night Manager
Magicians
Stranger Things
The OA
Westworld

Gilmore girls: A Year in the Life

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Show revivals are often huge mistakes for a series. You typically end up with a “home for the holidays” vibe or setup. The plot is often forced and all that remains is a sad reflection of what made the original show so successful. This is to be expected… most shows run their course and have little more to say. Actors age, writers change their styles, the producers and executives forget why they did the show in the first place and are focused on ad sales.

Thankfully, this 4 show series is the exception to the rule.

When Gilmore Girls first launched, I watched it out of pure curiosity. The launch of the show was covered in the news and its genesis was described as being designed by marketers. I just had to see what awfulness that wrought. What became clear very quickly was that Amy-Sherman Palladino and Daniel Palladino were the closest thing to Joss Whedon in TV at the time; about the highest praise I could heap on a show. (Amusingly, Amy got her start in the writer’s room for Roseanne… same as Joss… and I think just barely overlapped with him there.) The casting of Gilmore was superb, the dialogue snappy and fun, and the comic timing extraordinary. It was still designed by marketers, but that became secondary very quickly. It did have an added fun effect. In addition to just enjoying the story, the game we used to play was “spot the product placement” during the initial parts of the run. Certainly the show found itself challenged later in its run before finding its footing again for its final season, but overall I was sorry to see it end.

What the Palladinos did well for this relaunch was effectively pick up the story believably. Sure, some of the original cast and characters are shoehorned into the plot. The show goes out of its way to try and include everyone, even those who passed away before the revival. It works to varying degrees. The 4 episode arc is trademark Sherman-Palladino, however. Each bit and piece is crafted to come together to the (literally) final moment. Some of it you will see coming and some of it you won’t, but if you were a fan you will love this visit back to Stars Hollow.

There were other gifts in the story as well. For those that caught the Palladinos’ Bunheads, actors show up and comments are made just for you. If you haven’t caught Bunheads, find it. It is a natural sibling to Gilmore Girls, but with a story all its own and some incredible talent to boot. And, as always, there are a ton of topical cultural references to books, movies, shows, etc. These characters inhabit our world.

A Year in the Life is a sweet little gem. Complete unto itself, it, like life, does allow for more stories to be told… maybe… someday. But if they never are, that’s OK too. The tale is crafted to within an inch of its life and stands on its own beautifully. Whether it would work without knowing the previous series, I cannot say. But if you missed the original Gilmore Girls run, catch it streaming now and then come to this add-on. The original series is worth it for the dialogue alone, and the stories rarely shy away from human frailty and reality. Admittedly, the characters inhabit a rarefied world, but they are still people and you will love and hate and be frustrated with them as you would any other set of characters. But in the case of Gilmore, you are often left feeling a sense of possibility in your own life, which is the biggest gift the Palladinos always provide.

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

Arrival

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This is probably the best movie most people will miss this year. It is the antithesis of a popcorn film,  but it is completely compelling and full of visual inventiveness and eye-candy. Arrival is also one of the few must-see films I’ve experienced this year and likely one of the best science fiction pieces ever put to celluloid. Unfortunately, it is also getting buried at the top of the holiday season by a slew of bigger, flashier pictures.

The story of Arrival is intense and fascinating. Even though you may get ahead of it or have read Ted Chiang’s original short it is based on, it is acted well and keeps your interest. And in a world of crazy tension, it is a story that offers hope at time it is needed. In that way it reminded me of the release of V for Vendetta for the political timing and my reaction to it. The stories themselves have nothing similar between them, but they both leave you with a sense of possibility.

The cast, to a person, is solid and focused. Though we’ve seen all of these situations in other movies, everyone in Arrival is soft-spoken, honest to themselves, and they really listen to one another. This doesn’t mean it is a simple road or set of conversations, but it feels more real and displays characters in posts like the military and security services as intelligent, thinking human beings rather than paranoid war mongers.

Amy Adams (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) is wonderful, as usual. In an odd way it is a perfect pairing with the recent Doctor Strange; entertaining but inviting thought. Adams is subtle, intense, intelligent and very much in control of her choices despite efforts around her. It is a performance that probably also needs to be seen more than once given the layers she and the director put into it. This is her movie… everyone else just shows up to support her.

Forrest Whitaker (Southpaw), Jeremy Renner (The Town), and Michael Stuhlbarg (Pawn Sacrifice) are all facets Adams has to reflect on and work with. Each of the men delivers a performance that is a little unexpected. Whitaker is crisp and smart without his usual charm and odd sensibility and disarming humor. Renner is quiet and very much a side-kick without stealing focus. Stuhlbarg is solid and intense, but there is more a sense of thinking to his actions. Admittedly, his performance is the least different from his previous, but it still felt fresh.

The success of this film and cast really comes down to the director, Denis Villenueve (Sicario, Prisoners), and the adaptation by Heisserer (The Thing). Neither man allowed cliché to trump logic or audience expectation to drive decisions. The story has a particular shape and the result is original, entertaining, thought provoking and, yes, worthy of awards mentions later this year. In a sea of vacuous offerings, there is meat on the bones of Arrival. I don’t mean to imply this film is perfect, it isn’t, but it is amazing and effective and enjoyable.

There are plenty of utterly empty experiences out there to help you let go of your week or survive the holidays. Make sure that you slot this in while it is still on the big screen. It deserves the large format and it will, eventually, be considered a classic.

Arrival

Doctor Strange

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This is the kind of action film you get when you hire great actors and give them a chance to imbue complex characters. I can’t say if it is the best in the Marvel series yet, but it is way up there as a movie on its own and has plenty to sate the senses. Sure it is a bit Inception and a bit The Matrix, but they also found the perfect fit of arrogance and intelligence in Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) for the title role.  In addition Tilda Swinton (A Bigger Splash) brings just the right amount of other-worldliness and precision to her role as his mentor.

The rest of the new and motley crew, from Chiwetel Ejiofor (Z for Zachariah) to Mads Mikkelsen (Spectre) to Benedict Wong (The Martian), each brought their A game, though they were all just a little cliche… but only a little. Mikkelsen, more than most, had very little explanation for his motivation, which made him a weak adversary. We only know him to want destruction for descruction’s sake, regardless of his stated reasons which make little sense. Ejiofor, as always, has strong presence, but this was a reprisal of his Serenity role in many ways. That doesn’t make it a bad thing for this movie, but I’d like to have seen him do something new.

Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) probably has the most thankless role of the tale. She is there simply as a foil and assistant to Strange. Hopefully she will get more to do in the sequel.

Scott Derrikson did fine directing the piece. He keeps the histrionics to a minimum and the pacing solid. The script he co-wrote is another matter. Much like Sinister, which he co-wrote with previous collaborator Cargill, there are some shortcuts in understanding that are cleverly glossed, but which still raised my eyebrows before I was willing to move on. Adding Prometheus writer Spaihts to their mix did none of them, or us, any favors. The eye candy and the scope of the story will keep you distracted enough during the story to have fun, but as this is a cerebral tale, once you start thinking about it you’ll notice where the carpet is thin. Not enough to ruin the story, but perhaps just enough to keep it from being the best of the Marvels yet.

However you slice it, there is some great rollicking fun and another solid origin tale that pushes the current cycle forward. And, in case for some reason you are still not staying for the tags, there are two of them… both essential, so hang out through the credits.

Doctor Strange

Kubo and the Two Strings

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Magical; from beginning to end.

In a sea of very pretty, but pretty ridiculously predictable animation like Zootopia, Inside Out, and silliness like Minions, Kubo provides something new and wonderful. Even taking into account its anime and cultural roots, it forges its own path, in large part due to the stop-motion work that brings the story to life. It isn’t just the type of humor or the story, it is the depth of the characters and the complexity of the relationships. This is animation fit for older kids through adults. It isn’t reliant on pop-culture recognition (with one minor inside joke) or music. It is about people, family, and the journey of life in a surprisingly openly discussed way. Only Anomalisa comes to mind as being a worthy comparison of achievement, but that is for a very different audience.

Art Parkinson (San Andreas, Game of Thrones) lends voice to Kubo. He manages to be both serious and wide-eyed, self-composed but also young. It is a great performance without reverting to sappiness, even though you’ll cry more than once during the tale in joy and sadness. Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) provides a great foil for Parkinson as he grows up all too quickly. Likewise Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar), though at times he is a bit more like The Tick than I’d have liked. Aligned against Kubo, Ralph Fiennes (Spectre) and Rooney Mara (Carol) are suitably honeyed evil… logical and focused, but with a good story to sell to their grandson/nephew. Two delightful surprises in the cast were George Takei (To Be Takei) and Brenda Vaccaro, both of whom have some great moments.

Laika has continued to evolve since its initial Coraline, which was differently wonderful in its own right, to the sweet, small-town tale of ParaNorman, which then shifted into the high fantasy wonderfulness of The Boxtrolls, and now to the adult depths of Kubo. Kubo, whose themes and subtlety, art direction and script beat them all. And Travis Knight, who was lead animator on the previous two Laika films took his lessons well in his first directing gig. If it doesn’t win him an Oscar, I may well scream. 

This is a film you not only should support, but if you don’t see it on a big screen you’re cheating yourself. It is a magical fantasy you can fall into, and when you surface a couple hours later you’ll find the world a more dull but loving place. As a gift to animation and as a great way to end a summer of sequels and generally weak movies, I can only hope this film finds its audience.

Kubo and the Two Strings