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23 Mar



There’s little room for debate that Stephen Soderbergh’s one of the most intriguing directors working (Paul Thomas Anderson and Nicolas Winding Refn are also on that list, to give you a taste). There’s not much the “considering retirement” auteur hasn’t tinkered with: non-professional actors (“Bubble”), a “serious film” staring a porn actress (“The Girlfriend Experience”), a Liberace biopic (“Behind the Candelabra”) and of course more mainstream fare such as “Traffic” that scored him an Oscar. Many of Soderbergh’s films, such as “Magic Mike,” the “Ocean’s” films and “Logan Lucky,” possess a playful wit. He seems to be able to conjure up a hip nod and a wink on a dime and adroitly inject a seam of bleak reality as need be (see “Contagion,” or “Sex, Lies and Videotape”). Here Soderbergh tries something new – not groundbreaking, to be sure, but genre-savvy nonetheless and shot on the down low with iPhones (not new, as Sean Baker did a similar trick for his quirky indie gem “Tangerine”). Despite all those curiosity-piquing tags, the result’s a muddled mix of great performances, edgy atmosphere and infuriating “is this really happening” plot twists.

If you’ve caught any of the trailers for “Unsane,” you might think it’s somewhere between ’80s (well 1979, to be exact) B-roll from “When a Stranger Calls” and M. Knight Shyamalan’s “Split” (2016). It lies somewhat closer to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” with elements of the aforementioned flicks sprinkled in, and it’s a tough movie to discuss without spoilers. We meet up with the gloriously named Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy from “The Crown”) a young woman who works a generic job in a generic office with a married male boss whose mawkish demeanor and suggestion for a team trip – just them two – verges on a #MeToo violation. Sawyer, no pushover, seems to know how to control the situation and exits with an awkward, “I should get back to work.” She also seems to know what she wants, hooking up with a guy on Tinder, telling him the night will go his way, but in the morning he has get out and forget they ever met. Back at Sawyer’s pad just before the event goes down, Sawyer has a breakdown. Said dude, wise to the cloud of dysfunction, exits and then, through late-night Google searches for support groups and therapists, we learn that Sawyer has been the victim of a stalker up in our blessed Boston and relocated to a Pennsylvania burb to escape her pursuer’s reaches. Continue reading


Red Sparrow

7 Mar


Plots within bloody plots fill this thinking person’s spy thriller that’s two parts “Atomic Blonde” and three-fifths “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Forget all the flap about the dress – Jennifer Lawrence is a big screen star. If there was any question (as after 2016’s sci-fi miscue, “Passengers”), “Red Sparrow” should squelch doubts. We all knew the outspoken actress could bring mettle and grit from the “The Hunger Games” series, but here, in this chilly bit of Cold War espionage rewarmed – and aptly so, given the Mueller probe – she takes it up a notch. Much must be delivered to the screen: ballet dancing, full frontal nudity (close enough) and a Russian accent, and Lawrence does it all convincingly so, at least for the most part. Not that she or the film are going to make off with an Oscar, but they may knock “Black Panther” from its box office roost, though the R rating makes that an extra tough go.

Steamy and ever shifting, “Red Sparrow” takes us back behind the curtain, ostensibly of Putin’s Russia, where the commoners live hand-to-mouth and at the mercy of the state. It’s there that Lawrence’s Dominika lives a cut above as the lead dancer of the elite Bolshoi Ballet, but just as we drink her in, up on the stage beguiling a packed house, a freak accident ends her career and she’s suddenly on the cusp of being evicted from her cozy pad and there’s no money to care for mum (Joely Richardson) who’s suffering some kind of illness. No worries, uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), an intelligence officer, steps in and gives Dominika a “one-off” job that will solve her problems. All she’s got to do is lure an admiring fan and enemy of the state into a sting. The grand hotel where it all goes down, draped in red and gold, is regal and inviting; the mark, not so much. Needless to say, things veer off script, but in the end, Dominika gets it done. From there she’s in too deep – an intelligence liability, so to speak – so it’s either back to school or into the harbor. Continue reading

Death Wish

7 Mar


I like Bruce Willis, I do. But, sorry Bruce, you’re no Charles Bronson, not even close, and even more to the point, Eli Roth is no Michael Winner.

Who might Micheal Winner be, you ask. He’s the guy who directed the original “Death Wish” back in the 1970s with Bronson as a New York City architect looking to avenge the death of his wife and rape of his daughter. Winner was also responsible for two of the series’ feeble follow-ups (“Death Wish II” and “Death Wish 3”) and “Won Ton Ton: the Dog who Saved Hollywood” (1976). Weak tea to be sure, but that said, that 1974 collaboration yielded a palpable revenge fantasy chock full of sharp, witty commentary and a Bronson brimming with nonchalant machismo. In the Roth/Willis updating, motive, cathartic process and emotion get tamped down in favor of staging and contrivance.

While much of the narrative bare bones based on Brian Garfield’s novel remains, much has changed as well. The setting has flipped from New York to Chicago, and the avenging Paul Kersey is no longer an architect but a surgeon who’s been witnessing the city’s 20 year high crime rate firsthand via his operating table – the opening scene of a cop rushed into the ER feels a bit heavy-handed and becomes an omen as to how Roth, the gore-meister behind “The Green Inferno” and the “Hostel” films, wants to go. There’s a wealth of technological advancements from the past 40-plus years (PCs, cellphones, social media, GPS and smart cars to name a few) that feed nicely into the plot. Willis’ Kersey too is not an urban dweller, but lives in the affluent ’burbs. The crew that take out his wife and daughter early on are less cruel than the Bronson versions (the incident is on his birthday, but there’s no rape that we see) but the violence that Kersey ultimately dishes out is far more decisive and sadistic. Continue reading


23 Feb


Thrumming, enigmatic strokes drive this riveting followup from Alex Garland, whose 2014 directorial debut, “Ex Machina” put sci-fi fans and cineastes alike on their toes. As a scribe, Garland’s penned such near-future nightmares as “28 Days Later” (2002) and “Never Let Me Go” (2010), and in all has demonstrated a keen eye for character, even as the world disintegrates around those characters. “Annihilation” is more of the same, and pulls in shards from such classic sci-fi staples as “The Thing,” “Alien,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and one or two others that shall remain nameless, because to mention them might just be a spoiler.

In “Ex Machina,” the ladies get the last laugh on the guys; here too the tale’s more about female resolve than male bravado. The five women who venture into Garland’s void exhibit plenty of steel under fire, until they start losing their minds – literally. After a brief glimmer of a meteor striking a coastal lighthouse, the film dotes on the emotional throes of a widow (Natalie Portman) struggling with accepting that her husband (Oscar Isaac), a special forces officer missing in action for a year, is likely dead, as well as the guilt of the affair he unearthed on the eve of his departure. Things feel like a dramatic downer, but one night he shows up, something of a zombie, a bit washed-out, disoriented and unable to give answers other than “I don’t know.” We’re hooked. Continue reading

Black Panther

20 Feb


So does it live up to all the hype and the “revolutionary” tag? Well … somewhat, and no. “Black Panther” is definitely a different kind of superhero film, imbued with the trappings of the Bard while hitting all the usual superhero pratfalls for the fanboys and delivering the requisite wham-bam smackdowns fueled by a glut of CGI FX. In short, it’s a game go, with some nicely layered-in barbs about the state of race relations, and there’s a mound of Oscar gold to be found among the impressive (mostly African-American) cast.

As far as the latest Marvel entry being the first superhero flick to revolve around a black hero, and thus a beacon of hope for young African-Americans seeing iconic representations of themselves on the screen: In the wholesome, square-jawed, side-of-good sense (think Superman or Captain America), that is so, but there have been other black superheroes to grace the screen. Take “Spawn” (1997) or “Hancock” (2008), though those films featured conflicted and tormented protagonists who didn’t fit neatly into the kind of archetypal superhero cape that most want to wrap themselves up in. Messy and flawed is not the way to go for blissful escapism.

“Black Panther” revels in its celebration of African culture and pageantry but also digs at social blight in America (though not deeply enough), making it a mainstream engagement clearly marked by the color and culture of its hero.

The film, based on the comic serial by Stan Lee (who conceived it in 1966, before the similarly named U.S. activist group lead by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton seized headlines), begins with a quick, cool animated rewind of how the fictional African country of Wakanda came to be. Hit by a meteor of vibranium (the stuff Captain America’s shield is made out of), Wakandan tribes have leveraged the all-powerful material to build radically advanced technology (supersonic transports that look like something from a “Guardians of the Galaxy” chapter, a train system that rides on a magnetic field and comm devices that are tiny little gumdrops behind the ear) and use it to remain invisible and impervious to the rest of the planet, even as world-shaping events (slavery, world wars and so on) carry on around them. Think of the cloaked island of Amazons in “Wonder Woman,” off the grid and out of sight until Steve Trevor crash lands there during the Second World War, and you have it. Continue reading

The 15:17 to Paris

11 Feb


Much will be made of Clint Eastwood’s decision to use non-actors to play themselves in “The 15:17 to Paris,” a story of American heroism abroad, when two servicemen on leave and a friend thwarted an August 2015 terrorist attack on a train. The trio acted unselfishly, out of genuine concern for the lives of others – it’s the kind of stuff movies are made of.

Eastwood, who’s heading toward 90, has seen it all before, starring as the “Man With No Name” in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, then making his own westerns (“Unforgiven”) and other films with subject matter ranging from the afterlife (“Hereafter”) to female boxing (“Million Dollar Baby”) and the end of Apartheid-cum-rugby (“Invictus”), as well as engaging in jingoistic flag waving, as many said of his depiction of American marksman Chris Kyle in “American Sniper” (2015) or his appearance at the Republican National Convention to help presidential candidate Mitt Romney challenge Barrack Obama, talking to that now infamous “empty chair.” Continue reading

The Post

18 Jan


This Steven Spielberg flashback to tumultuous times of government transparency and freedom of the press as hot-button issues is not only a nostalgic and cautionary rewind, but a haunting reflection of where we find ourselves today. Before it broke Watergate, The Washington Post (“The Post” of the title) found itself on the edge of extinction in the wake of the publisher’s suicide and his widow’s struggles against a chauvinistic landscape and lure of corporate cash.

As dire as that all may sound, the core of “The Post” concerns itself more with journalistic integrity and the onus to inform the public. Shades of “All the President’s Men” (1976) and “Spotlight” (2015) run deeper than just sheer thematic similarity – there’s an actual blood tie in Josh Singer, an Oscar winner for “Spotlight” who partners with Liz Hannah on the “Post” script, and the Watergate break-in, the source of much journalistic scrutiny in “All the President’s Men,” is where “The Post” so poetically ends. Both “Presidents’s Men” and “Post” prominently feature legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee who, no matter who’s playing him, commands the newsroom with dignity and a wry dash of tough love. In the 1976 film he’s played with gruff, stoic smoldering by Jason Robards, who rightly won an Oscar for the portrayal; in Spielberg’s prequel of sorts, he’s played with equal effectiveness by the affable Tom Hanks. The Hanks Bradlee soaks up more screen time, but, like Robards, the two-time Oscar winner is blessed with a meticulous script and a top-notch cast to play off – an embarrassment of riches, if ever there was one. Continue reading