The Gentlemen

Release: Friday, January 24, 2020

→Theater

Written by: Ivan Atkinson; Marn Davies; Guy Ritchie

Directed by: Guy Ritchie

The Gentlemen appears as a sight for sore eyes for anyone hoping for Guy Ritchie to return to form. After a string of generic blockbusters that kicked off with Sherlock Holmes in 2009 and then lasted forever, it seemed pretty clear he was not returning to his old stomping grounds — the seedy, criminal underworld of London as depicted in indie hits Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1999) and Snatch (2000). And why would he? Franchise filmmaking has rewarded him. His “hot” Aladdin remake turned out to be really hot — grossing more than a billion dollars at the global box office last year.

Like a sequel, The Gentlemen is not as fresh as the early Cockney gangster films that put his name on the map but it is another example of the transformative effect of Ritchie’s style and process. His movies are litmus tests of his cast’s willingness to separate brand image from the bell-ends they’re compelled to become as well as their ability to adapt on the fly to his extemporaneous approach to shooting. His latest crime comedy features as many plot points, diversions and schemes as it does famous faces, and it does not disappoint when it comes to watching big-name actors trying to wrap their mouths around Ritchie’s barbwire dialogue. Some succeed more than others, but with the sheer size of The Gentlemen‘s roster, it’s a pretty high success rate.

Oscar-winner and proud Texan Matthew McConaughey passes muster as Mickey Pearson, an expat who left his poverty-stricken life in America thanks to a scholarship to Oxford. As many a McConaughey character is wont to do, he becomes a major cannabis advocate. What began as a small business venture selling to the stuffy students evolves into a massively profitable weed empire founded on (technically under) British soil and through violence and intimidation on the streets. When conspiring circumstances force the old man out of the game, he triggers an avalanche of plots and schemes as a long line of potentials vie to take his place upon the throne. But it will take more than pure business acumen to actually oust a king.

In the simplest terms, The Gentlemen boils down to a potential transaction between two savvy businessmen who both happen to be Yankees — Pearson and billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong, who seems least at home in this environment). In Ritchie’s world trust, like political correctness, is always in short supply. There’s borderline none of it here, with Strong’s annoyingly nebbish (but at least well-dressed) Berger possibly in cahoots with even worse people. Rogue agent Dry Eye (Henry Golding, doing good work to separate himself from a recent string of hunky eligible bachelor types) blows through the narrative, utterly unconcerned about the damage he’s doing and whose business he’s worse for. His arrogance makes him a true threat to Pearson’s power and legacy. Themes collide full-force in one of the movie’s signature scenes wherein a hopeful Dry Eye offers to buy Pearson out at an exorbitant price. And it is bad form to decline such an offer when it’s so clear his time is up as ruler of this urban jungle.

The characters are certainly worth remembering but the other big part of the equation is the deliberately convoluted storytelling. The Gentlemen is ambitious to a fault. It’s daunting enough to keep up with this labyrinth of relationships, clandestine partnerships and double-crosses unfolding. But, as it turns out, this whole farce is taking place in the not-so-distant past. The details are relayed to Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), consigliere to the King of Kush, by a gloriously against-type Hugh Grant as Fletcher, a smarmy private investigator who is trying to blackmail those who have wronged Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), the editor of a British tabloid journal. The framing device — “let’s play a game, Raymond,” Fletcher pleads like a school boy with a dirty little secret — overcomplicates an already stuffed narrative.

It’s not as though nothing good has come of Ritchie’s rise to prominence in the mainstream. The Gentlemen is a crime comedy of noticeably increased scale. We’ve outgrown the neighborhood of card sharps, street brawlers and estate agents and moved to the international ring of truly bad blokes and drug lords. Here you’ll encounter everyone from low-ranking British Lords to sons of Russian oligarchs and at least two generations of Chinese gangsters. There’s also Colin Farrell running around trying to repay a debt after his ragtag group of MMA fighters ignorantly steals something they shouldn’t have. For what it cost to make The Gentlemen, Ritchie could have made Snatch and RocknRolla with money left over to blow on van loads of ganja. Bigger doesn’t always mean better, yet from a technical standpoint the movie justifies the price tag — the wardrobes snazzy and the production design a classy, sleek upgrade.

For all that is ridiculous and excessive about The Gentlemen, I can’t really complain. It’s just nice to have our Guy back.

Henry Golding taking the mickey out of Matthew McConaughey

Recommendation: SPOILERS LURK IN THIS SECTION. Come for the cast, stay for the schadenfreude (and the insults). There aren’t too many good people here to root for. In fact, that’s part of what makes The Gentlemen interesting. It’s refreshing to see the villain come out on top for a change. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 113 mins.

Quoted: “There’s only one rule in the jungle: When the lion’s hungry, he eats!” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed  written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

The Marvelous Brie Larson — #6

Welcome back to another edition of my latest Actor Profile, The Marvelous Brie Larson, a monthly series revolving around the silver screen performances of one of my favorite actresses. If you are a newcomer to this series, the idea behind this feature is to bring attention to a specific performer and their skill sets and to see how they contribute to a story.

For the penultimate installment in my Brie Larson spotlight I’m focusing on a black comedy from British director Ben Wheatley. Considering I have seen only two of his seven films — High Rise and Free Fire — I am not what you would call a Ben Wheatley expert. But what I’ve seen of his work so far has been enough for me to consider him a pretty unique director. Again, it’s a small sample size but I’ve really enjoyed how distinctly different these two movies are. Pure, unbridled chaos and pitch-black comedy seem to be the only things these movies from the mid-twenty-teens have in common. Well, that and if getting a lot of high-profile actors to be in your movie is a talent, Wheatley is most definitely talented.

Free Fire is his first movie “set” in America, though the old print factory in Brighton, England makes for a perfect stand-in for a Boston warehouse. It’s an action-driven movie that plays out as if Guy Ritchie directed Reservoir Dogs, where the schadenfreude is in greater abundance than the bullets and the blood. Best of all, in a movie that features a ton of recognizable names, Brie Larson gets to play a significant role in it and she kills it — quite literally.

If you haven’t caught up with the dark pleasures of Free Fire, it’s streaming on Netflix right now.

Brie Larson as Justine in Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Action/comedy/crime

Premise: Set in Boston in 1978, a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two gangs turns into a shoot-out and a game of survival.

Character Background: Justine, a kind of peacekeeper and one-woman coalition for reason and logic, was originally meant to be played by Olivia Wilde, but she ended up dropping out. I think Wilde is a really strong actor but I can’t see anyone else in this role. Larson’s eye-rolls and natural ability to deliver sarcastic quips are real treasures of this movie. Alongside her American, side-burned colleague Ord (Armie Hammer), she’s here to broker a black market arms deal between the IRA (represented primarily by Cillian Murphy) and a South African gun runner (played deliciously over-the-top by Sharlto Copley), one that goes hopelessly and hilariously awry thanks to an unforeseen event.

The screenplay (by Wheatley’s wife Amy Jump) provides her a really interesting arc. Justine is the lone woman amidst a pack of egotistical, volatile and fairly unsympathetic men. Early on she’s predictably dismissed as just a bit of scenery. When she’s not being referred to as “doll,” she’s being asked out to dinner in what has to be one of the least appropriate ask-someone-out-for-dinner situations ever. While her costars are by and large quick to demonstrate their instability and their sexism, Larson is keeping tallies, and her character’s own ulterior motives under wraps, waiting for the right moment to demonstrate her own penchant for opportunistic scheming.

Free Fire is a very simple movie, and that’s one of its great strengths. Larson describes it as “an action movie making fun of action movies.” The plot is easy to follow and while all the gunfire eventually becomes kind of white noise it’s the characters that make it worth sticking around for. They may be here for different reasons but the thing they will all have in common, sooner or later, are bullet wounds and injuries.

Marvel at this Scene: 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

The Laundromat

Release: Friday, September 27, 2019

→Netflix

Written by: Scott Z. Burns

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

The Laundromat is a new film from Steven Soderbergh that tries to make you mad at the world in a way that will remind you most of Adam McKay’s The Big Short.     Stylistically the two are nearly identical. They both use big casts, sardonic humor and some creative narrative stunts (fourth-wall breaks, eye-popping visualizations) to increase the entertainment value. It’s the subject of the filmmakers’ rage that differs, with Soderbergh shaking his fists not at Wall Street but rather Mossack Fonseca, a massive offshore financial services provider.

Strangely, The Laundromat actually enraged me whereas The Big Short struggled to even engage me. I’m prepared to admit this could well be actor favoritism on my part and nothing to do with the subject matter itself. Because let me tell you, few things in life get me more excited than the prospect of reviewing a movie about tax fraud and evasion . . . excuse me, “avoidance.” So let’s just call it the Meryl Streep Factor — that woman makes everything better, more interesting. Of course she is not the whole deal here but she is a significant piece of this complicated puzzle. She also plays multiple characters, which is fun but perhaps a little on the gimmicky side.

The Laundromat is a pretty hefty undertaking. Writer Scott Z. Burns simplifies by using title cards prefacing the major concepts — chapters that break down into groups of winners and losers, the have’s and the have not’s, or in the language of the movie, “wolves” and “sheep.” To help navigate the viewer through its labyrinthian concepts and relationships the screenplay inserts the unscrupulous lawyers as narrators, with Gary Oldman sporting a sketchy German accent as the founder Jürgen Mossack and Antonio Banderas as his partner, Ramón Fonseca. As they pull you aside to explain how this all works and how they got away with it, they also serve as primary antagonists within the story, interacting with a number of supporting characters and generally playing the anti-Robin Hoods, taking money from the desperate and redirecting it through networks to help the rich become super-rich.

Here’s where Meryl Streep comes in. Her most important (and least gimmicky) role is the meek and mild-mannered Ellen Martin. She’s widowed when a pleasure boat she and her husband take on scenic Lake George capsizes. Ellen, though a fictional creation, is critical because she actually provides a face to the big-picture victims, something The Big Short did not do — at least not explicitly. She attempts to collect damages from the boating company only to discover the reinsurance company they went through no longer exists (technically it’s been bought out by another, bigger company — a trust to a shell owned by Mossack Fonseca). Following the bread crumbs leads Ellen on a wild goose chase to the Caribbean. And those who have answers, like trust manager Malchus Boncamper (Jeffrey Wright), go to lengths to physically avoid contact.

The ensuing storylines making up this triptych involve individuals who are harder to sympathize with, yet they, like Ellen, provide flesh-and-blood consequences to a lot of cold-hearted schemery and technical mumbo-jumbo that can become overwhelming and numbing to the layperson. As Soderbergh’s direction expands the seriousness of the situations escalate, the wealth of cash and resources more vast, the real-world treachery more difficult to stomach. All throughout Oldman and Banderas are terrific twisting the knife in each subsequent episode of people getting screwed over.

Simone (Jessica Allain), the daughter of a Nigerian billionaire, faces a moral dilemma when she comes home to her palatial L.A. mansion to find her father having an affair with her roommate and (former) bestie, and is bribed with $20 million to keep quiet. Surprise, surprise: When she visits Mossack in Panama to cash in, the shares in her daddy’s company are worthless. The third vignette is a dramatization of the ill-fated negotiations between English businessman Neil Haywood (here portrayed by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts as Maywood) and Gu Kailai (Rosalind Chao), a wealthy Chinese businesswoman with connections to the CPC. Maywood learns the hard way what the corrupt will do to keep their secrets safe. It’s a sobering scene, even if it is only tangential to the overriding themes. Oldman sits in a car and outside the story, callously telling us how sometimes it can be our own ambition that screws us over.

The Laundromat is made possible in the advent of the 2016 mass data leak known as the Panama Papers, some 11 million documents that blew the roof open on Mossack Fonseca’s operations. Journalists connected a vast web of fake agencies from all over the globe, implicating the lawyers in dealings with everyone from morally corrupt white-collar criminals to murderous thugs. In one of the many meta-moments Banderas, on behalf of Soderbergh, makes it clear that if they had it their way none of this information would be getting out. Not that it matters all that much; the pair spent a total of three months behind bars. Mossack Fonseca may have been one of the biggest culprits of money laundering on an international scale — they operated on behalf of some 300,000 companies — but they’re not the only ones benefiting from tax havens and hiding behind complicated legalese.

The Laundromat ends with a bizarre and theatrical PSA wherein Soderbergh drops the curtains on his own production. The final frames are comparably more stone-faced serious. We can debate the sincerity of this gesture because I’m sure some will feel it is disingenuous to have famous, wealthy actors soliloquizing on the urgent need for tax law reform and the morality of holding shady corporations more accountable. They are, however, very skilled performers who are perfectly in sync with Soderbergh’s brand of stylish, creative storytelling. He has a lot on his agenda with The Laundromat, and given the complexities of his 2000 drug drama Traffic, he feels more suited to this material than the guy most associated with the antics of Will Ferrell. Perhaps it was the director more than it was the cast that kept me engaged throughout.

Mossack and Go-fuck-yaself

Recommendation: The Laundromat is a very complicated, dense film with industry jargon abounding and a lot of characters involved. Fans of Steven Soderbergh are urged to give it a shot. Those who are better qualified than me to talk about factual accuracy, please feel free to weigh in in the comments below. I felt enlightened by this, but I’m sure some things have been lost in translation while trying to provide a reasonable explanation as to why it worked for me while The Big Short did not. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “Bad is such a big word for being such a small word . . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Dolemite is My Name

Release: Friday, October 4, 2019 (limited)

→Netflix

Written by: Scott Alexander; Larry Karaszewski

Directed by: Craig Brewer

The way Craig Brewer captures the response to Dolemite, the movie-within-his-movie and at least part of its raison d’être, is so warm and uplifting. Yet it’s also quaint if considering today’s cinematic landscape. Cynics like me are tempted to dismiss the ending as too pat and Hollywood but the movie was indeed met with a serenading of sorts from audiences. Dolemitea pulpy, outrageous story about a pimp who breaks out of prison to take revenge on those who set him up, made $12 million on a budget of $100k. It’s gone on to become a cult classic of blaxploitation.

Yet if this heartfelt tribute to pioneering showman Rudy Ray Moore (or Dolemite, if you like) were to be rolled out in a wide theatrical release you wouldn’t struggle to find a good seat today. You can thank superhero movies for your extra leg room and more than the usual choice of good seats. Superheroes (and villains) rule and everything else drools at the numbers they are putting up at the box office. There isn’t a damn thing Eddie Murphy can do about this, even if he is as good as he’s been in years — maybe ever — in Dolemite is My Name, a ridiculous(ly) entertaining ensemble comedy available almost exclusively through Netflix.

Ironically, and despite actually earning a limited run on the big screen (the likes of which won’t draw crowds like you see here, sadly), Dolemite is My Name has perhaps found its ideal stage on your TV screen. Streaming is the ultimate in consumer catering because it gives you a more intimate, “customizable” experience. Imagine sitting in a 200-seat auditorium where everyone has a remote control to rewind their favorite moments in a Peter Jackson epic. Or to back up to try and understand what in blue Hades Sylvester Stallone just mumbled.

I say all of this because this is the kind of movie you’re going to rewind and pause just to bask a little longer in the triumphant return to Delirious-era Murphy. I must have inflated the runtime to something close to two and a half hours as I rewatched his Rudy Ray Moore enthusiastically chop the air around him as he envisions himself not just a star, but a kung fu master in his own movie. The energy Murphy brings and the riffing he does as he becomes his character, a pioneering, wig-donning, cane-wielding motormouth and eventual big-screen star whose name bore the fruit of not one but four Dolemite-centric adventures, is something to behold. And behold again.

Set in 1970s Los Angeles Dolemite is My Name examines the rise of a self-made man as he goes from lowly record store assistant manager by day/MC by night, to the maker of three crass but hugely popular comedy albums, to, yes, “f-ing up motherf–ers” on the big screen. The film divides neatly into two equally intriguing halves. The first hour or so is devoted to the birth of his stand-up persona and his intelligent if profanity-laced sketches that would earn him a substantial fanbase. And credit where credit is due: the writers don’t turn a blind eye to “toastmaster” Rico, a vagrant played by Ron Cephas Jones, who periodically drifts in and out of the Dolphins of Hollywood record store, spitting rapid-fire rhymes about an urban legend named ‘Dolemite,’ an identity Moore assumes as his own alter ego.

The second half focuses on our increasingly spectacularly besuited hero’s ambitions growing beyond touring the Deep South along what was called the “Chitlin’ Circuit.” The narrative blends business and production reality with Moore’s insatiable appetite for nationwide recognition. He gains an entourage, establishes a production facility in the famous Dunbar Hotel and even convinces a big name to direct and co-star in his project-in-making in egotistical yet accomplished actor D’Urville Martin (a scene-stealing Wesley Snipes). Yet it’s not exactly smooth sailing as he attempts to get his ultimate dream realized. Walter Crane (Tip “T.I.” Harris), a film executive, denies Moore’s creative ambition (in appealing to the masses, black actors don’t do camp comedy; they do heart-warming dramas about overcoming their ghetto roots) while the business-savvy Bihari brothers warn him of the grave financial risks of failure.

The major developments unfold in a breezy if occasionally lackadaisical way. It’s a pretty familiar underdog story where obstacles are by and large steamrolled over. That’s in part by design, as an homage to the force of sheer will that was Rudy Ray Moore, but it’s also due to the script by Ed Wood writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, one that prioritizes entertainment over profundity. Their story tends to glide over the surface rather than dive into the depths of Moore’s unhappy and impoverished childhood, providing a line or two about his burning desire to be better than his father. Yet (and I’m just guessing here) this is a more fundamentally sound production about the making of a legend — the so-called “Godfather of Rap” — than its namesake movie was. And unlike its namesake, the performances, not big boobs and kung fu, define this one.

While Murphy is going to get much of the attention (and deservedly so) I have to single out Da’Vine Joy Randolph as well. She plays Lady Reed, a former backup singer who rediscovers her mojo when Moore drops into a night club in Mississippi. Her relationship with the former is integral to the story’s focus not just on confidence but identity in a time when Hollywood was not only overwhelmingly white but upheld that only one body type was “beautiful.” Randolph is never less than convincing and inspiring as she becomes not just a confidante to Moore in his lower moments, but entirely comfortable in her own skin — breaking past her fear of having her figure captured forever in celluloid and simply owning her identity in ways she previously thought impossible.

As stylish as it is raunchy, this 70s-throwback is mostly a testament to the indefatigable spirit that erected a movie star out of a stand-up comic. It’s also an amusing, even insightful look into the moviemaking process, compacting several scenes from the Dolemite franchise into a collage that goes to show what can be done with limited funds, some good friends and an abundance of self-confidence.

Pimp daddy deluxe

Recommendation: Safe in terms of its narrative structure but bold in dialogue (families take note: Dr. Dolittle isn’t catering to your kiddies here) Dolemite is My Name is never less than a pure joy ride to the top, especially alongside an endlessly entertaining Murphy, who comes flanked by a number of highly recognizable names, including but absolutely not limited to Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Keegan-Michael Key, Titus Burgess and Kodi Smit-McPhee. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Dolemite is my name; f-ing up motherf-ers is my game.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Release: Friday, May 31, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Zach Shields; Michael Dougherty 

Directed by: Michael Dougherty 

The sequel to Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) is undeniably a different beast, dispensing with its predecessor’s drip-fed action and methodical pacing for more direct, adrenaline-spiking payoff. Edwards had his chance to thrill us and apparently he botched it so in steps Michael Dougherty, the dude who gave us the anti-Santa horror-comedy Krampus. He offers himself up to fans as a most humbled servant, giving the world’s most famous kaiju a few new friends to hang out with, effectively creating a much bigger spectacle that puts primal, brutal showdowns front-and-center.

King of the Monsters may not make any move bolder than killing off its presumed main characters within the first fifteen minutes, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have big things in store. Over the course of an indulgent two-and-a-half hours Dougherty sends us on a visually spectacular journey from the plush greens of the Yunnan rainforest to the blinding white of the Antarctic Circle, establishing the monstrous battles for supremacy against a backdrop of environmental apocalypse and human hubris — precisely the kind of thematic posturing you’d expect from a movie about a creature born of the nuclear age.

From an action standpoint King of the Monsters absolutely lives up to its title, presenting a series of city-leveling confrontations as an epic territorial dispute wherein we lowly humans are caught on both sides of an ideological divide: Do we attempt to force our hand or do we let Mother Nature run her course? The film features several of the classic Toho creations and captures them using all the bells and whistles of breathtaking modern CGI. Behold the luminescent beauty and grace of Mothra as she unfurls her wings; the screaming intensity of the volcanic-born predator Rodan; the sickening size and freaky three-headedness of “Monster Zero” (King Ghidorah, if you prefer) — the latter serving as the film’s primary villain and fulfilling his classic role as arch-nemesis of Godzilla.

King of the Monsters inherits its predecessor’s human problem but that component of the story is slightly more involving this time around, even if the characterization is again pretty generic. But let’s be reasonable here, it’s nothing if not par the summer blockbuster course and it’s certainly not pre-2000 Godzilla, where Roland Emmerich had us all on pins and needles wondering whether anyone would actually pronounce Matthew Broderick’s character’s name correctly. An ecoterrorist named Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) despairs at the overpopulation crisis and humanity’s wanton disregard for their environment and so endeavors to return the planet to a “more natural” state. On a collision course with his special brand of crazy are the Russells, a science-minded family who have helped the secretive government agency Monarch develop technology used to measure the activity of the many known “titans” across the globe, technology Mr. Jonah seeks for his own nefarious agenda.

Stranger Things‘ Millie Bobby Brown may only be 15 years old but in her big-screen début she stands out among her more experienced co-stars, particularly a tired-looking Kyle Chandler and an uncharacteristically unconvincing Vera Farmiga who play her parents now separated after the loss of their younger child. At least their anti-kaiju stance advances the modern narrative in a way that’s believable. They are remnants of a world that didn’t quite know how to negotiate a 390-foot-tall, upright-walking reptile who also spits nuclear radiation. A world that didn’t really understand what his relationship was to us, what his purpose was.

Brown’s Madison convincingly bridges those eras. She doesn’t share her parents’ hatred for the big guy. Her compassion proves an evolution of understanding. With her mother held hostage physically and ideologically by Mr. Jonah she emerges as one of the few voices of reason in a world gone mad. Well it’s her and Ken Watanabe, who reprises his role as Monarch scientist Dr. Ishiro Serizawa. As one of the elite few Japanese actors who got to take part in these big American event films, it’s about damn time he gets more of a say in these matters, his arc not only emotionally resonant but vital to the story.

King of the Monsters is an old-school-feeling, globetrotting smashing adventure that prioritizes big time fun over mood and pathos — kinda the opposite of Godzilla of five years ago. Not that that movie wasn’t entertaining, of course. I miss the discipline Edwards showed in building up to that incredible, vertical-panning shot that gave us our first good look at the main star. I miss that raw power of adrenaline. The sequel, however, offers its own excitement. The action is revved up to more crowd-pleasing levels, while the sheer amount of effort poured into the creature design and indeed the fights justifies the price of admission, whether that’s the sound engineers edging Godzilla’s roar closer to the original 1954 sound, or Dougherty urging his visual effects team, led by Guillaume Rocheron, to really imbue the creatures with their innate animal-like behaviors and physical traits — Ghidorah memorable for not just having three heads but those heads each moving independently like cobras waiting to strike.

King Ghidorah, and indeed King of the Monsters overall, makes a fairly strong case for bigger (and more) being better. It left me eagerly awaiting what comes next and in my opinion that’s what a good movie, a good second chapter, should do.

“Count your blessings. Your lines are better than mine.”

Recommendation: If you haven’t seen this movie yet, don’t be a nunce like me and miss the end credits! (Is this movie still even playing theatrically?) 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 132 mins.

Quoted: “Goodbye, old friend.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Velvet Buzzsaw

Release: Friday, February 1, 2019 (Netflix) 

→Netflix

Written by: Dan Gilroy

Directed by: Dan Gilroy

Beauty is in the eye of the soon-to-be-murdered in Velvet Buzzsaw, the new film from writer/director Dan Gilroy, who made his mark back in 2014 with the sensationally gripping Nightcrawler. His third directorial feature following 2017’s collaboration with Denzel Washington on Roman J. Israel, Esq., Velvet Buzzsaw is an apt title for a movie that leans fully into creative madness.

Gilroy’s latest is advertised as a mashup of horror and dark comedy, something that makes it immediately stand out from his previous genre-specific efforts — Nightcrawler a distinctive thriller and Roman J. Israel, Esq. firmly a legal drama. What also makes it stand out is its unapologetic strangeness. As you are no doubt aware by now, Velvet Buzzsaw is the movie where people get killed by artwork. But these are no ordinary schmucks who can’t tell a Renoir from a damn Monet. These are art profiteers who slowly get seduced and then offed by the very works they try to profit from — paintings whose fictional, beyond-tortured artist Vetril Dease seemingly imbued them with a strange and haunting power. As the story progresses, events only become more outlandish — so much so you’re all but compelled to disregard the horror part of the label and embrace the comedy inherent in all the (occasionally bloody) wackiness.

The art of the satire stems from a real-world experience Gilroy had back in the 1990s when he devoted significant time developing a screenplay for a Warner Bros. project called Superman Lives. It was set to star Nicolas Cage as Clark Kent. Try to digest that for a minute. Burp it back up if you need to. Unfortunately for anyone drawn to the image of Nic “Crazy Face” Cage donning the cape and tights they will never get the satisfaction as the studio shut down the project over budgetary concerns. That frustration informs the thematic core of Velvet Buzzsaw, a scathing criticism of the modern L.A. art scene and those who are only in the game because of the money.

The film is set in an alien environment of esoteric taste, haughty opinion and generally unpleasant personality and follows multiple perspectives through a tangled web of relationships, from rivaling art gallery owners — Rene Russo’s icy Rhodora Haze and Tom Sturridge’s creepy, conniving Jon Dondon — to influential outsiders like art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal, reuniting with Russo from Nightcrawler) who has the power to not only sway pricing but as well make or break careers. At the ground floor you get contrast in artistic philosophies in Piers (an unfamiliarly sympathetic John Malkovich), an old-schooler struggling to find inspiration versus Damrish (Daveed Diggs), a hot new street artist reticent to display his work in a gallery. Keep an eye out for rogue players like Gretchen (Toni Collette), an art curator and close friend of Morf’s, who is also itching to make a big career move, as well as the highfalutin Josephina (Zawe Ashton), Rhodora’s frequently under-appreciated assistant, and an art installer named Bryson (Billy Magnussen) with an agenda of his own.

Granted, that is a long list of characters to keep track of. The good news is that we aren’t meant to form an emotional attachment to these creatures. Natalia Dyer’s character, a meek and mild-mannered Haze Gallery intern named Coco, is an exception. As someone rather out of place in this world — she hails from the East Coast and doesn’t seem to have much of an artistic inclination other than balancing multiple Starbucks cups on her daily coffee run — she is best positioned as an audience surrogate. By virtue of how frequently she stumbles upon the gruesome aftermath of paintings come to life, Coco gives us the key to enjoyment here. Go with the flow, absorb the imagery but don’t get too close.

Almost everyone else is disposable, many of them in a literal sense. These are near parodies of people who pontificate over artistic merit for a living. With a couple of exceptions these characters are either completely self-absorbed or cutthroat opportunists, finalists for the old “I can’t wait to see who goes down first” competition. The way they go down certainly makes Velvet Buzzsaw visually pop and feel edgy, while Gilroy’s screenplay, dripping with foreshadowing and cliché-riddled dialogue, tend to align the production with something decidedly more mainstream and predictable.

It’s a frustrating experience because as the film careens towards the absurd it delivers on its promise of comeuppance and in so doing entertains in a strange, almost perverse way. At the same time Gilroy gets so loosey-goosey with his direction the critique itself threatens to lose all meaning. The domino effect of bodies dropping ends up feeling like a gimmick after so many instances, yet undeniably the art of the kill is something to behold. And if this nobody blogger is taking note of some sloppiness, I can only imagine what Morf would do.

“Who are you to judge me?”

Recommendation: How you respond to Velvet Buzzsaw I think really depends on how you interpret the tone. I found it far more funny, albeit darkly satirical, than it was horrifying. Though I did find a few elements that were horrific, like the aftermath of The Sphere sequence and Toni Colette’s hairpiece. Either way you look at it, the premise is pretty out there — but that’s something I’d rather have than a formulaic/half-cooked Netflix Original. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 113 mins.

Quoted: “These are heinous.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.deviantart.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Release: Friday, November 9, 2018 (limited) 

→Netflix

Written by: Joel Coen; Ethan Coen 

Directed by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen

For a fleeting moment The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the new Coen brothers film — a big shiny red apple waiting to be plucked from the ever-growing Netflix tree — was also available for more traditional consumption in theaters. But who wants to be a traditionalist when what is most conveniently available to you is a dingy theater chain down the road called Cinépolis — a place where the box office is no longer used, the employees couldn’t care less about making patrons feel welcomed, the quality of the projection is appalling and the seating choices you’re given are either Sticky Seat A or blown-out Chair B. I don’t know about overrated, but when one weekend outing to this crumbling facility costs you the same as if not more than a one month subscription, “tradition” is inarguably overpriced.

Netflix and the like will never replace the wow factor of the big screen, yet they are making life a little cushier, providing more viewers more direct access to more quality offerings. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a prime example, a six-part western anthology soaked in the Coen aesthetic — it’s equal measures funny, strange and morbid, features spectacular landscape photography and it’s all pulled together by a wonderful cast, not to mention the filmmakers’ deep, abiding love for the genre. Their latest marks a return to ingenuity following 2016’s rather forgettable Hail, Caesar! and has garnered Oscar nominations in the Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design and Original Song categories, firmly placing Buster Scruggs among the better streaming options of the New Release variety.

The Coen brothers’ 18th collaboration provides a collection of independent stories ranging in tone from playful and romantic to macabre and downright weird — one chapter tickling your ribs before the next punches you in the gut. Speaking of tradition, the narrative style draws attention to what has consistently set the Coen brothers apart from the rest, their ability to merge the farcical with the fucked-up not only on display within each scene but as well highlighted by structural juxtaposition (right now I’m thinking of the contrast between “Near Algodones,” featuring James Franco as a bank robber who gets more than he bargained for when he comes up against Stephen Root’s bank teller, and “Meal Ticket,” with Liam Neeson playing a traveling entertainer willing to do anything for a better paying gig).

Like the Coens’ previous effort, Buster Scruggs is a lovingly crafted ode to a historically significant time in Hollywood — the era of the great western. Unlike Hail, Caesar!, however, here you’ll find a more harmonious balance of style and substance, the film literally bookended by the opening and closing of an old hardback, each segment segued by page-turning, complete with colored illustrations and a few sentences that clue you in to what is about to unfold.

Meanwhile the production design is brilliantly realized, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel adapting different color gradients and tints to coordinate with the predominate colors in any given vignette. Take for example the pastel yellows of the opening movement, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” featuring Tim Blake Nelson as a fast-talking, even faster gunslinging outlaw who has to his name one of the most creative kill shots of all time; the piney greens of “All Gold Canyon,” featuring singer Tom Waits as a lonely prospector; and the dusty browns of “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” the film’s longest segment and arguably most emotive, with Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh, a young maiden whose 1000-mile journey to Oregon is complicated when she meets a true gentleman along the way, a wagon train leader named Billy Knapp and played by Bill Heck.

Despite the lack of common characters and an array of different outcomes the arrangement is hardly random. The action contained within each chapter — some of which are more loquacious than action-driven, admittedly — address a motif of survivalism, or more accurately, the fatalistic way life and death often intersect on the unforgiving frontier. The final segment — “The Mortal Remains,” which finds five strangers en route to Fort Morgan, Colorado via stagecoach debating the “two types” of people who exist in the world  — wraps both the physical and the philosophical journey up on a decidedly weird note, addressing not just the mortality of man but his morality as well.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may not be the best Coen brothers film — it’s not even their best western (that honor still belongs to No Country for Old Men with Bad Haircuts). Yet the overall experience is never less than intriguing and more often than not surprisingly hard to predict.

The best daggum chompers you ever did see on a cowboy

Recommendation: What’s most appealing about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the variety of experiences offered up. If one part doesn’t quite grab you, you won’t have to wait another year or two for something better; sit tight for another 10 to 20 minutes and you might find yourself more at home. No two stories feature the same characters and each present unique conflicts. Each have their own charms and quirks. It may not be among the Coens’ most original works but it may be one of my personal favorites, packing a hell of a lot of intrigue into two-and-a-half rather fleeting hours. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “There’s just gotta be a place up ahead, where men ain’t low down, and poker’s played fair. If there weren’t, what are all the songs about? I’ll see y’all there. And we can sing together and shake our heads over all the meanness in the used to be.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Month in Review: October ’18

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

October is a tough month to survive if you aren’t as into horror as others are, and if you don’t necessarily make your blogging bread-and-butter out of talking about scary movies. As long time readers of this award-winning blog (I’m not bullshitting you — I got a Liebster Award, ya’ll!) are aware, I have slowly but surely been gaining an appreciation for the genre over these years, in part thanks to a number of great sources whose awareness of what’s actually out there has inspired me to do some digging myself. In the years since doing this, my definition of horror and what’s “scary” has evolved, and I really like that.

With that said, I don’t think I produced one single horror review this past month. It wasn’t like I planned this, or that I had no options (the resurrection of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode in David Gordon Green’s Halloween: The Great Retcon, or can I interest you in a new Jeremy Saulnier picture in Hold the Dark?) Man, I really messed this thing up this month, didn’t I? I think the scariest thing that happened was the backlash following Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a movie about astronaut Neil Armstrong and his successful Moon landing. The number of ignorant comments I read regarding that movie was truly frightening. It’s one thing to not like the way the film was made — in fact that’s understandable — but it’s quite another to dismiss First Man as a work of fiction or the omission of the flag planting symbolic of “typically Hollywood revisionist history.”

With that off my chest, it’s time now to take a look back on what films I did review this month on Thomas J (plus two bonus blurbs on things I ran out of time on). Let’s do it!

Beer of the Month: 21st Amendment’s Back in Black IPA

New Posts

New Releases: A Star is Born (2018); First Man; mid90s


Another Double-Header 

Bad Times at the El Royale · October 12, 2018 · Directed by Drew Goddard · Boasting a talented and inspired ensemble cast and an atmosphere rich in foreboding, Drew Goddard’s Agatha Christie throwback mystery-thriller, set at the titular El Royale — a once-happenin’ travel destination set on the California/Nevada border now falling to the wayside — follows multiple perspectives as a group of guests become caught up in a fight for survival as slowly but surely each one’s true identity becomes revealed. A film packed with fun performances, including Jeff Bridges as Father Flynn, Jon Hamm as a “vacuum cleaner salesman” and Chris Hemsworth as a cult leader with a Thor-like physique (but far less in the way of David Koresh-like credibility), Bad Times‘ true gem lies in Cynthia Erivo’s Darlene Sweet. I flat-out loved that character. One of my favorites of the year, in fact. The central mystery keeps you engaged, even if you might sniff out who the survivors will be sooner than Goddard might have intended. (3.5/5)

The Sisters Brothers · October 19, 2018 · Directed by Jacques Audiard · A modern western that fails to draw you in in the way it really could have, the star-driven The Sisters Brothers is still worthy of your time. But with great star power comes great responsibility. With characters brought to life by the likes of John C. Reilly (as the elder Eli Sister), Joaquin Phoenix (as gin-soaked Charlie Sister), Jake Gyllenhaal (as John Morris) and Riz Ahmed (as gold prospector Hermann Kermit Warm — what a freakin’ name!), it’s a frustration that the film never builds enough energy and intrigue around the obviously committed performances. The story emphasizes character over traditional western shoot-’em-up action. Over the course of two REALLY LONG hours, the ideological divide between its leads takes center stage, with one Sister wanting out while the other brother is resolutely all about this life. Survival is dealt with in a more grisly manner than what many might expect, particularly of a movie that also bills itself as a comedy. Aside from a compellingly subversive ending, I think my biggest takeaway from The Sisters Brothers is that there is no substitute for good, honest, hard labor when it comes to looking for gold during the height of the Gold Rush. Chemistry has never seemed so . . . gross. (3/5) 


ANYWAY. How was your Halloween? 

Operation Finale

Release: Wednesday, August 29, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Matthew Orton

Directed by: Chris Weitz

Operation Finale takes audiences on a top secret mission into the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, following a group of Israeli spies as they attempt to capture a high-ranking Nazi officer who fled Europe at the end of the war to seemingly escape without consequence. While the broader historical significance of the mission objective cannot be overstated, the drama is at its most compelling when it gets personal, when it explores the emotional rather than political stakes.

In 1960 the whereabouts of SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolph Eichmann, the man responsible for deporting hundreds of thousands of European Jews to ghettos and extermination camps 15 years earlier, had finally been confirmed. Having bounced around the region in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Nazi Germany, Eichmann eventually obtained the necessary emigration documents and under his new identity “Ricardo Klement” he eked out a quiet existence in South America from 1950 until his arrest a decade later.

This is where we pick up on the trail. We follow closely behind members of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, as well as those from Shin Bet, the internal security service, as they decide to finally pursue a lead that surfaces in Buenos Aires, fearing a public outcry if they don’t. They are tipped off to a young Jewish refugee named Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) who has become intimately involved with a Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn). Her father becomes suspicious of Klaus’ background and bravely alerts the proper authorities. Shin Bet’s chief interrogator Zvi Aharoni (Michael Aronov) soon confirms the identity of Klaus and his father.

Complications arise in part due to environmental factors, with a rising Nazi sentiment gripping post-war Argentina (represented by Pêpê Rapazote’s intimidating Carlos Fuldner) leaving the team with little support from local government. In fact the film draws most of its tension from the air of secrecy in which business is conducted. There’s also a lot of emotional baggage to check at the door. Even though the war ended more than a decade ago, the knowledge of what Eichmann did is a constant burden, one that threatens to undermine the team’s professional objectivity.

The respectfully told story is bolstered by a strong ensemble that includes the likes of Oscar Isaac, Mélanie Laurent, Sir Ben Kingsley and a refreshingly solemn Nick Kroll. The international cast also includes Lior Raz, Ohad Knoller, Greg Hill, Michael Benjamin Hernandez, Greta Scacchi and Torben Liebrecht. While each is given a juicy supporting role, replete with moments of earnest introspection, the bulk of the film’s psychological and emotional weight accrue to two thespians who are in seriously high performance mode here.

Matthew Orton’s very first screenplay takes a humanistic approach to creating characters on both sides of the equation. On the side of the good guys you have Isaac‘s highly-qualified but just as vulnerable Peter Malkin, whose mind keeps taking him back to what he lost in the Rumbula Forest, where Eichmann personally oversaw the mass shootings that took place there in November and December of 1941. Opposite him sits (often literally) a disturbingly convincing Kingsley as the notorious war criminal. Sure, he physically looks the part, especially in make-up-heavy flashbacks, but it’s when he speaks lucidly on matters related to his past that confesses to the depths of his depravity — his “aw, shucks” reaction to labels like ‘architect of the Final Solution’ being particularly difficult to process.

As we progress through this deliberately paced timeline, one thing becomes increasingly clear about Operation Finale. This isn’t a flashy production, though it certainly looks good from a costuming and, occasionally, cinematographic perspective. While its lack of action punch may be a sticking point for viewers seeking a more immediately gratifying thriller, and the climactic chase sequence at the end threatens Hollywood cliché — that which the film thus far has done an impressive job of avoiding — there’s no denying the film carries the weight of history responsibly and gracefully.

Recommendation: A product of emotive power, Operation Finale adds further proof of the talents of Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley. Equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring, this is historical drama done right. It feels organic, earnest. Quietly profound. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “My job was simple: Save the country I loved from being destroyed. Is your job any different?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Isle of Dogs

Release: Friday, April 13, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Wes Anderson

Directed by: Wes Anderson

When it comes to Wes Anderson, ‘more of the same’ is absolutely a compliment. I don’t find myself saying that about many other filmmakers. Now nine films deep into a career that has netted him an ever-growing, passionate and devoted fanbase it is clear he isn’t changing tacks. On evidence of his latest effort, a visually dense yet lucidly told saga about a young Japanese boy in search of his lost pup, it is clear he doesn’t need to.

With Isle of Dogs, it is more than just a case of absence making the heart grow fonder. (It has been four years, apparently, since The Grand Budapest Hotel.) Isle of Dogs has the distinction of being only the second animated feature film on Anderson’s résumé. Like 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, it is rendered in stop-motion animation, an aesthetic choice that on its own attests to a profound commitment and love for the craft of telling stories in moving pictures. His live action films feel restrictive by comparison in terms of the number of aspects he can control and customize to his completely obsessive liking. This new offering is so meticulously crafted you can easily take its beauty for granted.

Set in the fictitious metropolis of Megasaki City in a near-future Japan, trouble begins when the new, authoritarian, cat-loving mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) orders the exile of all dogs from the city to an off-shore wasteland called Trash Island following an outbreak of “snout fever.” A brief timeline of events is immediately established, tracing the downward trend in the public repute of our canine companions. The relationship has deteriorated from dogs being subjected to harsh verbal treatment from their owners to being flat-out persecuted. So when I say this film is beautiful, I suppose I’m being shallow because if you do a little thematic digging you are sure to find some things that are actually quite ugly. Elements of immigration, of second-class citizenship and racial prejudice, even slavery are touched upon.

In the present/future/future-present/whatever, a young boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin), who happens to be the nephew and ward of Mayor Kobayashi, flees the city in an attempt to reunite with his best buddy. His dog Spots was the very first to get booted to Trash Island. Upon his crash-landing there several months later Atari meets a group of abandoned mutts — Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) — who prove surprisingly willing to aid in his quest. After mistakenly identifying the remains of another dog as Spots, they seek the advice of wizened old fools Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and Oracle (Tilda Swinton) who point them to the remote reaches of the island where they might have luck finding him amidst the cannibalistic tribes rumored to be living there.

Luckily, a post-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston isn’t in his first Wes Anderson movie just to give a whimper of a performance. He has real bite here, playing a tough pooch who must break free from his habit of distrusting others, especially he who walks upright. This is his movie more than anyone else’s, and that of course means sacrifices on the part of Anderson regulars in order to elevate his status. Good for fans of Cranston, but perhaps a disappointing revelation for those wanting more Bill Furr-ay.

Isle of Dogs is a very busy place, a fully realized environment bustling with activity and overloaded with imagery that pays tribute to Japanese culture and iconography. To this viewer, that effort comes across as sincere and respectful but that hasn’t been the case for everyone. If your experience was anything like mine you may have spent more time and a frustrating number of scenes trying to figure out which famous actor was voicing which animal rather than all the ways in which this movie appears to reinforce negative stereotypes. My head hurts already from overthinking things.

And then there are those obligatory subplots to contend with as well, which are considerably less interesting this time around. More often than not these asides tend to chop the central conceit up into annoying bits and pieces of doggie chow. One involves the predictable repercussions of Atari’s disappearance as his uncle vows to bring him and his newfound friends to justice. The other, also an attempt to balance perspectives, finds an outspoken animal rights activist (Greta Gerwig with HUGE hair) stumbling upon a potential conspiracy involving the corrupt mayor and a group of scientists featuring Yoko Ono. (Like I said, there’s just a lot going on.)

Much of the ambition pays off. How can it not when you have a filmmaker as uncompromisingly idiosyncratic as Wes Anderson, and especially here, when he is in complete control? Unfortunately not all of it succeeds and a few bells and whistles feel unnecessarily tacked on. Frances McDormand’s inclusion is a shining example of Anderson trying to do too much. The talented actress fulfills this really weird-bordering-on-condescending role as an English translator in select scenes where Japanese is spoken. She more often than not just gets in the way, neither becoming an interesting character nor a necessary plot device. In fact her function is borderline insulting, not simply to the few Japanese characters who actually do get speaking roles, but to those of us who are even decent at reading body language and facial expressions. Never mind the fact that the movie stops dead in its tracks just to explain such superfluity.

Ultimately though, Isle of Dogs does a lot of good. It is as uplifting in its action sequences as it is saddening in its darkest trials, of which there are quite a few. The whimsical spirit of the adventure and the often comical physical renderings — the scrappy dog fights are true highlights — go a long way in making a somber reality more palatable. The film is perhaps the darkest one yet in his filmography, yet it is perpetually buoyed by its fascination with the simple but unconditional love a dog has for his owner. Isle of Dogs may not be Anderson at his narrative best, but its flaws are not enough to stop me from asking for more of the same. Please, just. More.

Dog day afternoon

Recommendation: Isle of Dogs represents only the second time Wes Anderson has gone the way of stop-motion, but it is a welcome return to a form that I find he actually excels even more in. Barring a few niggling detours here and there, Isle of Dogs is consistently entertaining, surprisingly dramatic and a visually enthralling experience. Four barks out of five.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “You’ll meet a bitch named Nutmeg. Tell her Chief says, ‘I’ll see you in Megasaki.'”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com