Titane

Release: Friday, October 1, 2021 (limited)

👀 Theater

Written by: Julia Ducournau

Directed by: Julia Ducournau

Starring: Agathe Rousselle; Vincent Lindon; Garance Marillier; Bertrand Bonello; Adèle Guigue

 

 

 

*****/*****

Really the best way to follow up a critical success is to make another, while further pushing boundaries to see what you might get away with. Titane certainly tests some limits. This is a potent, unpredictable and morally challenging exhibition that will either have you recoiling or marveling at the audacity of the artist.

A story involving cars, sex and violence sounds pretty mainstream but then this is Julia Ducournau, far from your garden variety director. Thus, gearheads and Fast & the Furious fans need not apply. For the moment, Ducournau seems enamored with transformative narratives that fixate on the body and alienate her protagonists from their own skin. But where her cannibalistic début feature Raw was more literal, in Titane it’s more about skin as one’s interiority, their sense of self. Though vaguely thematically related I suspect not even Raw‘s hard-to-stomach content would serve as adequate prep for the wild and uncomfortable ride she offers with her follow-up.

Titane deals with a young woman named Alexia who we first meet as a child (chillingly played by Adèle Guigue) in the jolting opening sequence — a car crash caused by her distracted father (Bertrand Bonello) which leaves the little girl with a titanium plate in her skull. Jumping forward in time Ducournau’s camera shadows older Alexia (Agathe Rouselle) as she heads in for another shift as a sexed-up model working seedy auto shows. When not writhing around suggestively on top of shiny hoods she’s signing autographs for desperate dudes . . . and murdering them when they try to get cute.

Indeed, it doesn’t take long to appreciate Alexia’s wired differently than most, the scar on the side of her head a kind of red marking to warn off her prey. And her prey turn out to be alarmingly susceptible. Acts that begin in self-defense become upsettingly random. We also quickly learn her sexual preferences are in constant flux and, uh, exotic.

There’s a girl, Justine (Garance Marillier), and a steamy moment where you begin to believe the movie is about to course-correct into a more familiar drama about being lost and desperately hoping to be found. However all bets are off when lovemaking with a car turns out far more productive than with her coworker, the former leaving Alexia pregnant and the latter devolving into a multi-room, multi-victim bloodbath that forces her to go into hiding by committing to an elaborate ruse that will have profound physical and psychological impacts.

Though the surreal, foreboding atmosphere never relents and disbelief and discomfort remain constant companions, Ducournau’s monstrosity (a term of endearment, in this case) evolves as a tale of two measurably different halves, distinguished not by quality but rather purpose as well as a noticeable shift in tone away from something fiercely feminine and toward brute masculinity. All the while this moody, bathed-in-neon head trip also morphs into something that for awhile seems out of reach; it becomes relatable.

French screen veteran Vincent Lindon provides a crucial link and the sledgehammer performance needed to match his co-star. He plays an aging fire chief who continues to mourn the disappearance of his boy Adrien ten years ago while blasting himself through with steroid injections, often to the point of collapse. When Adrien seems to reappear in police custody joy is soon replaced by concern over his son’s mute, sullen behavior. He attempts to integrate Adrien back into society, with mixed results.

In only her second film the 37-year-old provocateur is a rising star in her own right. The fact that she manages to turn so many negatives into a small but notable positive takes serious talent. But let’s not get things more twisted than they already are. There are many aspects that help inform the off-kilter vibe she’s going for — the rattling, industrial score and disturbing make-up work loom large — but not one thing, not one person commands your attention like newcomer Agathe Rousselle, an androgynous actor who burns up the screen, leveraging her lack of A-lister conspicuousness into one of the most compelling characters and performances this year has to offer, one that’s hauntingly human-adjacent.

The Palme d’Or winner at Cannes 2021, Titane might be memorable for timing alone, winning in a year in which the pomp and glam returns to the French Riviera after the event’s first hiatus since World War II. But Ducournau has the bizarre content and undeniable confidence to justify the strong reaction. Titane isn’t a crowdpleaser, it’s a crowd shocker, designed to start a conversation or quite possibly end one.

Not quite Titanic

Moral of the Story: I stop short of saying best movie of the year because ‘best’ is such an awkward term to apply to something so uncompromising and unusual, a movie touting a very challenging character to root for, no less. So to be more accurate Titane sits comfortably among the most unique cinematic experiences you are going to have in 2021. For all that is bizarre and unpleasant, I put it in the category of must-see-to-believe (or not). A stunning effort from a name already making noise in the industry. Spoken in French with English subtitles. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “My name is Alexia!” 

Strap in and hold on for dear life in the Official Trailer from Neon Productions here!

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; www.chicago.suntimes.com

Extraction

Release: Friday, April 24, 2020 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Joe Russo 

Directed by: Sam Hargrave 

The more cynical takeaway here is that Extraction exists for no other purpose than to prove that the three — er, make it four — Marvel Cinematic Universe alums who have made it possible are capable of more hard-hitting, violent movies. The marketing seemed pretty simple: Here’s another Avenger unleashed in an R-rated movie. Chris Evans got The Red Sea Diving Resort; Chris Hemsworth gets Extraction. (On that note, who the heck is Robert Downey Jr.’s agent?)

As if to one-up his own brooding performances in Thor: The Dark World and the opening stanza of Avengers: Endgame, the hulking Australian goes from being superheroic to super-sullen in this straightforward and straight-up bloody action thriller directed by stunt coordinator extraordinaire Sam Hargrave. In his directorial début he is joined by his buddies Joe and Anthony Russo — the fraternal duo behind some of Marvel’s biggest chapters. The former writes the script and serves as a producer alongside his brother. That pedigree of talent in front of and behind the camera ensured Extraction won the popularity contest with housebound audiences earlier this year, becoming the most-streamed title in Netflix’s catalogue of originals.*

To be more charitable — and more honest — Extraction is a throwback to gritty, ultra-masculine action cinema of the past, a one-note drama that knows its boundaries and doesn’t try to cross them. It isn’t gunning for any awards, but if you’re looking for a way to get your adrenaline pumping, this fast-paced adventure of bone-crunching action should do the trick. Based on the graphic novel Ciudad, the movie pits Hemsworth’s black ops mercenary Tyler Rake against multiple waves of bad guys crawling the cramped streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. His mission is to rescue Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal), the teenaged son of a drug lord, from a rivaling kingpin. He’s reluctantly sent in by fellow merc Nik Khan (Golshifteh Farahani), along with a support team who are here mostly to help fill the movie’s dead body quota.

What should have been a simple in-and-out turns into basically a suicide mission as the sadistic and well-connected Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli) gets wind of the rescue attempt and puts the city on lockdown, sending reinforcements to all possible exit points. Meanwhile, Ovi’s guardian Saju Rav (Randeep Hooda) is highly motivated to retrieve the boy himself, with his family being threatened by an incarcerated Ovi Sr. Prison walls don’t make this man any less dangerous when there is this much pride at stake. Saju puts his years as a special forces op to good use, muscling through any and all objects standing in his path and leading us to the expected confrontation with Mr. Rake himself.

The cat-and-mouse game that ensues is more technically impressive than it is emotionally involving. While we get some insight into what drives this brooding badass into such dangerous situations, it’s really just window dressing to the carnage that unfolds in the present tense. If you squint you can see a bond beginning to form between Rake and the blank canvas of a schoolboy in his ward (in fairness to the young actor, he just isn’t given enough to do other than look scared). Joe Russo squeezes the orange hard, until some droplets of juicy redemption emerge finally for Rake, a man clearly being consumed inside by pain from a traumatic past.

The editing team paces the story pretty breathlessly, leaving you with as little time to think as its characters, which can only be a good thing when you have a protagonist this immune to dying. The marquee scene, a protracted mid-movie battle between Hemsworth and Hooda that incorporates car chases, falls from rooftops and hand-to-hand combat, proves why Hargrave is one of the best in the business when it comes to building up an action sequence that remains not just white-knuckle but also coherent. The final showdown on a bridge is also quite memorable, with bullets flying everywhere and vehicles set ablaze as all characters converge on the targets.

Unfortunately it is the epilogue that proves to be the movie’s biggest misstep. For the most part Hargrave assembles a lean, mean and self-contained story but when it comes to finishing things off, he becomes weirdly non-committal. As it turns out, he isn’t nearly as ruthless as his leading man. Still though, lack of character development and emotional depth notwithstanding, Extraction gets the job done in brutal and stylish fashion.

* the game has changed. Netflix’s metric now considers two minutes sufficient time for a person to have ‘viewed’ something. it used to be you had to watch something like 75% of a movie or a single episode for that to be counted as a view. 

Drowning in despair

Recommendation: I haven’t mentioned anything in my review about Extraction‘s reliance upon the white savior trope, and that’s because I’m not entirely sure it’s problematic. This movie has some undeniably ugly moments (child soldiers, for example) and yes, it is clearly a vehicle for star Chris Hemsworth, but in my view it is Randeep Hooda’s complicated family man who is the movie’s most interesting character. Story-wise and thematically this is pretty basic stuff but it certainly succeeds in its capacity as an ultra-masculine action thriller.  

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

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Photo credits: Netflix

Harpoon

Release: Friday, October 4, 2019 (limited) 

→Showtime 

Written by: Rob Grant; Mike Kovac

Directed by: Rob Grant

Harpoon is a horror-comedy set at sea that is bizarrely compelling considering what actually happens in 80 short minutes. It’s a vicious little social experiment concocted by writer/director Rob Grant, who quite brilliantly uses little more than the bare essentials of filmmaking — a couple of good actors, a camera and a smart script — to hook you in to a situation that gets increasingly wild and unpredictable.

As a movie founded upon twenty-somethings dealing with hurt feelings and betrayals Harpoon totally overachieves in the entertainment department. Of course, in this movie backstabbings are refreshingly literal, and I am also skirting around some meta-textual stuff lashed onto the sides — an allusion to a certain Biblical story about a man-eating fish, as well as to some “silly” sailing superstitions.

That’s stuff best left for Brett Gelman to explain though, who serves as our delightfully snarky narrator. He sets up the scene and observes it with a cool detachment and from what turns out to be a safe distance, citing Aristotle as he launches into a foreshadowing spiel about the different types of friendship, their benefits, and which kind best describes the one we are about to witness fall apart spectacularly.

Harpoon begins with a punch — a sucker punch, straight to the chops. This is supposed to be a fun weekend where three best friends, Richard (Christopher Gray), the puncher, Jonah (Munro Chambers), the punchee and Sasha (Emily Tyra), the reason behind the punch, are getting together to celebrate Richard’s birthday. Plans change when Richard badly misreads a text message, assaulting his own best friend and doing something even worse to his parents. To make amends he takes everyone out on his dad’s yacht to celebrate/commiserate. Apparently the mobster life pays handsomely. And also apparently, Richard is just a chip off the old block, prone to violently destructive outbursts.

So obviously it’s not ideal when the least stable person on the open water A) has his suspicions confirmed that his “long-term partner” and his buddy are sleeping together and B) is gifted a friggin’ harpoon for his birthday. Making matters worse, something goes wrong with the boat’s engine, stranding the trio with a breezy afternoon’s worth of critical supplies but plenty of enmity toward one another. As days bleed into each other (and I do emphasize the bleeding), more revelations come to light and everyone’s true nature comes bubbling to the surface.

The screenplay by Rob Grant and Mike Kovac crackles with intensity, especially in the dialogue. Their approach is thin on backstory and yet you never doubt that these people have a history, that what you’re seeing is the weight of that history bearing itself in some savage ways in the present day. The young cast are 100% game for the roles they are to play in this farce that becomes fatal, whether it’s Gray fully embracing his inner loose-cannon frat-boy hothead; Chambers, thrillingly deceptive as a sad sack pushover; or Tyra, switching gracefully and gleefully between peacemaker and manipulator.

Their chemistry is critical because in Harpoon the bad guys outnumber the good guys 3-0. These are not likable people and yet throughout, as events take one ridiculous turn after another, the movie has a knack for getting you to invest — perhaps more like a rubbernecker than an audience member — in what crazy, terrible thing happens next. Despite being shot under the blazing sun, Harpoon starts off as dark comedy and trends darker until it reaches a place of legitimate horror. It’s a whacky indie production perfectly content to fly under the radar or at most be a blip on it in terms of 2019 releases — a genre offering very much defined by its own uniquely crazy energy. I, for one, define my relationship with this movie as purely pleasurable.

Recommendation: I’ve said it once but it is worth repeating. To get on this movie’s wavelength it helps to have a weird, possibly morbid sense of humor. For higher budget, more recognizable faces and more action, there’s Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire. More in its vein though is E.L. Katz’ supremely entertaining Cheap Thrills, low-budget and all indie and stuff. If your reaction was positive to either or both of those films, you’ve gotta check this one out. 

Rated: NR (but let’s call it R)

Running Time: 80 mins.

Quoted: “Okay, let’s make a deal. I grovel, and pamper you guys unconditionally, and you just try to remember a time before I went apesh*t.” 

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Photo credits: IMDb 

Coffee & Kareem

Release: Friday, April 3, 2020 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Shane Mack

Directed by: Michael Dowse

I really like Ed Helms. He is an actor I apparently will follow even into the seedier, more desperate corners of Netflix. I don’t know much about director Michael Dowse, other than the fact his résumé is populated with such silly titles as It’s All Gone Pete Tong (2004), Goon (2011) and Stuber (2019). Now there’s Coffee & Kareem, a ridiculous, over-acted (and, at times, ridiculously over-acted) crime comedy set in Detroit where the only things being enforced are stereotypes about white cops and black citizens.

Objectively speaking, this movie is uh, it’s . . . well, not . . . uh, not very good. Did I laugh, sure. I suppose the more accurate word would be giggled, like fans of Anchorman do the first six times they listen to Steve Carell utter random nonsense. That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel kinda bad about it later. Coffee & Kareem is a really crass movie that annoyingly uses racism for the basis of most of its comedy. The crime is that this Netflix “original” casts the likable Helms as James Coffee, a feckless cop who gets swept up in an increasingly violent and ludicrous conspiracy plot involving dirty cops and inept criminals.

The cards are stacked against Coffee from the moment he appears on screen rocking a “molester ‘stache.” He’s the laughingstock of the precinct and Detective Watts (Betty Gilpin) has it out for him. He gets demoted after allowing a criminal to escape his squad car, which, yeah that’s justified. What isn’t justified is the violent plot being fomented against him by his girlfriend Vanessa (Taraji P. Henson)’s bratty teenage son Kareem (introducing Terrence Little Gardenhigh), who already harbors a disdain toward white cops. But this is personal, so he seeks help from a thug to scare away Coffee once and for all. Actually, he wants him crippled from the waist down. He’s a charming kid, one who makes the foul-mouthed child actor from Role Models look like an angel.

In step one of like, a thousand in this grand plan to show his commitment to getting to know the family Coffee reluctantly gives sweet little Kareem a ride to his friend’s in a bad part of town, but really he’s inadvertently expediting his own wheelchair-bound fate. Kareem then witnesses the murder of a cop and soon the two find themselves scrambling to escape a trio of thugs (RonReaco Lee; Andrew Bachelor; William ‘Big Sleeps’ Stewart) and then things go really pear-shaped when Vanessa becomes involved. Hell hath no fury like a mother tased by her own child, and later assaulted by the same thugs after her son.

If cliches were a crime, screenwriter Shane Mack would be doing hard time. If predictability were its only offense, Coffee & Kareem might have gotten away with just a slap on the wrist. I get it; madcap is supposed to be high-energy and kind of crazy, but this particular story just falls apart the further it progresses. The wannabe-gangster kid becomes an irritant while the adult actors flounder. Helms is given few scenes in which he can shine, and Henson even fewer (though she does get one of the film’s highlight scenes in a motel room when she gets to open a can of whoop-ass on her assailants). Meanwhile, Gilpin has to be a better actor than what I’ve witnessed here.

With sloppy attempts at social commentary, ridiculous caricatures and often shockingly violent exchanges Coffee & Kareem is, in the vernacular of kids these days, a bit extra.

Don’t roo-doo-doo-doo-doo it, Andy!

Recommendation: Contrived odd couple comedy shoots for the heart but ends up hitting you right in the crotch instead. Fans of Ed Helms could leave disappointed with what he’s able to contribute. And I think I need to see another movie with some of these other actors (specifically Gilpin and Gardenhigh) in them before I make a decision on them. But on this evidence alone, yikes . . .

Rated: R (for ridiculous)

Running Time: 88 mins.

Quoted: “You f–k my mom, I’m gonna f–k your life.”

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Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb

mother!

Release: Friday, September 15, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Darren Aronofsky

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

No one makes movies like Darren Aronofsky. Then again, does anyone dare?

With mother! the enfant terrible of modern Hollywood has produced quite possibly his most polarizing and interpretive work yet. That does take into consideration his previous effort, the controversial Noah epic. And I haven’t forgotten The Fountain (how could I?) Yet the plunge into absolute anarchy we unwittingly commit ourselves to in his new movie is so intense, so absurdly cruel and caustic that forgetting whatever hells he has put us through before actually becomes easier done than said.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem‘s baptism into the world of Aronofsky has them playing husband and wife, living in an elaborate but lonely Victorian home in the middle of nowhere, USA. They’re working to rebuild after a devastating house fire. Well, “mother” has been doing most of the work, while her Husband — no character is given a name, just a label, one of the film’s many aspects open for interpretation — has been moping around, struggling with writer’s block. Ostensibly we are here to witness the evolution of a seemingly idyllic relationship and the sacrifices one must make to be a part of a marriage. The give-and-take dynamic that makes a relationship both a joy and a responsibility. Or something along those lines.

That’s the impression we’re given with mother!‘s quieter, though never comfortable, opening half anyway. But things take a decidedly nasty turn with the appearance of a supposed “doctor” (Ed Harris) on their doorstep, who mistakenly assumes their grand abode to be a bed-and-breakfast. The Husband, rejuvenated by the presence of an outsider, who also just happens to be a big fan of his writing, decides a sleepover is in order, much to the chagrin of “mother.” “Doctor” then invites his drunk wife (Michelle Pfeiffer in a searing role) to stay. Bizarre complications arise when their sons arrive soon thereafter.

From here, it’s a series of increasingly outrageous intrusions upon the sanctuary that is one’s home, which is then torpedoed into a brutal, often literal, assault on “mother” herself. I liken the experience to those college parties I attended that were simply overwhelmed with bodies. Parties in which anonymity could become dangerous in a hurry. The keggars where you start off recognizing 90% of the room but by night’s end there are strangers diving off the roof into the grass because “it looked like water from above.” Aronofsky takes the concept of an out-of-control bacchanalia to Aronofskian extremes, exponentially increasing the animosity between put-upon host and disorderly guest.

Admittedly, ‘ultimate party movie’ is a pretty basic read of the narrative — one in which elements of creationism, artistic narcissism, the state of the modern celebrity-fan relationship, and climate change denialism (or more generally, angry American politics in the age of Trump) are just as likely to be inferred. Some allusions are of course more debatable than others. mother! is steeped in Biblical references from which you can’t escape. You’ll find Cain and Abel in Domhnall and Brian Gleeson’s fraternal antagony; Jesus in “mother”‘s suffering. The way Bardem slots in between all of this becomes obvious even if you don’t devote all or most of your attention to the religious symbolism.

As much as the entire cast transform themselves here — I’m often left wondering what working with such an uncompromising artist does to those who answer the call — it is Lawrence’s brave (and bravura) performance that provides the lifeblood of the film — a slowly fraying tether between her humanity and the world in which she is forced to survive. During shooting, reportedly the actor had to be put on oxygen in between certain takes, hyperventilating well after the director had yelled “cut.” I suppose, at the very least the extreme conditions of mother! literally took Lawrence’s breath away. That should count for something.

For us, the masochists that we are, the ride is baffling and infuriating and similarly renders us breathless. The slow departure from any conventional sense of reality legitimately defies categorization and, to some extent, criticism itself. Everything you see in the frame can be symbolic or it can mean absolutely nothing. And maybe that’s all the film is, chaos that needs no justification. A giant middle finger to reason and logic. This is a modern Picasso that demands an audience, whoever that may be.

Recommendation: In the interest of full disclosure: using Aronofsky’s almost entirely fresh cast — only Marcia Jean Kuntz, here playing a “thief,” has had roles in previous films of his — as a measuring stick to judge whether the film is something you’ll like might be a bad idea. Better to prioritize director vs. the cast, because come the end of this you’ll no longer recognize Katniss Everdeen. And Anton Chigur was mean, but he has nothing on this guy. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “MURDER! MURDER!”

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 

The White Helmets

Release: Friday, September 16, 2016 

[Netflix]

Directed by: Orlando von Einsiedel

Syria is a nation currently being torn apart at the seams as a multitude of political actors continue to wrestle control of its future away from one another. The better part of the last decade has been spent in bloodshed as coalitions of rebels, extremist groups and other armed entities not exactly sympathetic to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have set their sights on total upheaval. What began in the capital city of Damascus as peaceful protests for democratic reform and the release of political prisoners escalated into a hostile and bitter conflict when al-Assad used brutal force to try to quash the potential uprising. These events, of course, have all contributed to the growing refugee crisis.

Orlando von Einsiedel’s The White Helmets offers a window into this struggle, providing viewers access to ground zero as they follow around a group of Syrian civilians who have taken it upon themselves to search for and recover bodies — dead or alive, friend or foe — from the carnage created by aerial attacks that have been decimating heavily populated cities like Aleppo and Idlib on a daily basis. The 41-minute film won the Oscar for Documentary Short Subject at the 89th Academy Awards, marking the first win for Einsiedel and his second nomination, following his previous feature-length documentary Virunga in 2014.

Incorporating footage compiled by the activists themselves, such as Khaled Khateeb (who was one of several prevented from attending this year’s Oscars by President Trump’s travel ban), into a rather straightforward procession of testimonies delivered directly to camera by a handful of volunteers, The White Helmets proves an unsurprisingly sobering watch. The footage captures the men working in conditions that are bad turning worse. In the wake of Russian intervention — a development since September 2015, one that has sparked humanitarian outcries across the globe on the assertion that their involvement has proven more destructive than the action taken by Syria’s own government and even ISIL — the White Helmets appear to be the last bastion of hope that people living in targeted areas truly have.

While the preservation of hope is what fundamentally galvanizes us to keep watching, if only through our hands, von Einsiedel is careful neither to exploit nor romanticize the role these first responders play. Even still, you should know that the footage is presented in a raw and unedited form, and is often graphic and upsetting. Not that that isn’t obvious, but it bears repeating as it is, to be brutally honest, what makes the film such an essential watch. The savagery that’s been going on for over six long years needs to be acknowledged.

The implications of the violence are also, somewhat sickeningly, more complex than they first appear. While the initial justification behind the bombings was to eliminate rebel and jihadist groups from Syria, over time Russia has become increasingly more involved in the state’s fight to reclaim territory, which has necessarily meant becoming more active in eliminating the opposition, all splinter cells and groups coming to their aid — groups like the Syrian Civil Defense, the White Helmets. It is explained how their presence has actually incentivized Russian and Syrian aircraft to carry out what are called “double-tap attacks” in which an initial strike is delivered, followed swiftly by a second, the goal being to specifically target the White Helmets. Such is the reality these men face each time they “go to work.”

Amidst the barbarity, from underneath piles of concrete and rebar ultimately emerges a powerful testament to real-life heroism, courage and sacrifice. In fact the film metamorphoses into a thing of beauty when it addresses the positive impacts the first responders are making and will continue to make for the foreseeable future. It’s not simply the lives that are being saved, but the relentless determination and indiscrimination of the search itself. The rescuing of a one-week-old infant who had been trapped under a collapsed ceiling for over 16 hours is a scene that defies description — in part due to the incomprehensible hatred that created such circumstances, but mostly because the service that the White Helmets provide couldn’t be any more dramatically expressed.

Of course it’s a film without much in the way of closure. The work of the White Helmets shall continue as long as there is conflict. And at least one in the film makes it clear that their commitment is lifelong. That’s really where the story lies. It’s not about the war and the suffering. It’s not about hatred or religious extremism. It’s actually about the exact opposite of what the bombings are trying to achieve. This is about ensuring that the cycle of life can and will continue, even when the future is this uncertain.

The White Helmets have been credited for saving over 70,000 from the fallout from airstrikes. It has been estimated that since the Russian bombings began in late ’15, over 150 White Helmets have lost their lives as well as nearly 3,000 innocent civilians.

Recommendation: Equally heartbreaking and life-affirming, these will be perhaps some of the toughest 40 minutes you’ll experience in some time. There’s no hiding from the devastation in Syria in The White Helmets, nor should there be. Because of the opportunity it provides us to get an understanding of the victims’ perspectives of the bombings, this becomes a short film that you simply have to watch. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 41 mins.

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

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

Logan

logan-movie-poster

Release: Friday, March 3, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: James Mangold; Scott Frank; Michael Green

Directed by: James Mangold

Logan is a robust superhero film and probably the most violent one we have encountered since Deadpool(Lest we forget that that movie was more than a comedy.) But even in the context of superhero films that have been slapped with the dreaded R-rating, this, The Passion of the Wolverine as it were, doesn’t really feel like a “game-changer.” It just feels like a very angry Marvel spin-off.

Logan is undoubtedly the most masculine movie yet in a universe that’s decidedly male-dominant. The testosterone pumping in its veins is unleashed in lethal doses. Sir Patrick Stewart drops (a surprising number of justified) f-bombs, while Hugh Jackman does his best William Poole impression, butchering his foes with psychotic fervor combined with the anger of ten thousand suns. The film follows a familiar cat-and-mouse blueprint wherein the aging man of adamantium must avoid letting a newly discovered, young mutant fall into the clutches of yet another Very Bad Man, this time, Boyd Holbrook‘s genetically enhanced Donald Pierce.

Fortunately, gore and bloodletting isn’t the only thing the movie excels at. It’s not merely escalating violence that signals the end is nigh. James Mangold successfully elevates the stakes with the way he situates his characters in the narrative. The odious stench of oppression recurs and is reinforced through brilliant location scouting that takes us from one pocket of solitude to another, from the gritty southern US border to the thick pine forest of North Dakota. It’s all the more impressive how real the threat feels given how familiar such tension has become.

Jackman’s ninth and final appearance finds him hobbling and coughing and spluttering around in 2029, a time where mutants are near extinct. A virus produced by the Transigen Corporation, for whom Mr. Pierce works as an enforcer, has played a large part in the crumbling of Logan’s world (and to a less narratively important but arguably just as emotionally significant degree, that of Charles Xavier).

Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a nurse from that very corporation, intercepts Logan in Texas and urges him to get a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen in her first film credit) to safety. The destination is a place called Eden, where supposedly other young victims of Transigen’s terrible experiments are being taken. Logan is loath to cooperate when he discovers that everything he is being told can be found in the X-Men comics. It ought to be noted that in a film so dour, his cynicism is relatively hilarious.

Logan finds a little more levity in the semi-antagonistic relationship that has crusted over between Logan and Charles. Both are now textbook geezers, though Logan is far more gruff and more prone to fits of rage. Charles is suffering from seizures that wreak havoc on those unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity of his powerful mind. Arguably the biggest (and most welcomed) surprise is that the film manages to still find new depths to explore with these well-established characters. Though the hope and promise that once defined the apprenticeship is long gone, the sense of familial responsibility has never been stronger.

That’s a theme supported by Wolverine’s recognition of a new mutant who seems to be more like him than he would care to acknowledge. Laura, who bears the same aberration in her hands, regards Logan as a father figure of sorts, in part by design and in part due to a natural gravitation towards someone who shares in her own uncontrollable rage. The young actor is memorable in a role that’s all too light on dialogue, a role that requires a diminutive physicality to suggest echoes of a young James Howlett.

Perhaps it is this dynamic that makes Logan “feel different;” we haven’t yet considered the Wolverine as a potential father figure. Between that and the downright shocking violence (particularly the conclusion), something that I’m either not seeing or giving enough credit to has struck a chord with audiences and critics alike. I’m not quite satisfied that Logan‘s superior craftsmanship qualifies as wholesale innovation.

The struggle to stay one step ahead and to avoid becoming exposed (again) is the sum total of what Logan‘s plot has to offer. This is yet another glorified man-hunt. This is Midnight Special more than it is The Dark Knight. But sophisticated writing matters less when the film’s true appeal lies in the emotive, in the opportunity Logan provides both diehards and casual fans alike to say their goodbyes. After all, this is a character Jackman has spent the last 17 years molding into something he can proudly call his own. He will be surely missed. Why does that sound like an epitaph?

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3-5Recommendation: It’s a bittersweet send-off for an iconic character, but a game-changer this most definitely ain’t. You’re going to want to call a babysitter for this one. Because another thing Logan ain’t is kid-friendly. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 137 mins.

Quoted: “Nature made me a freak. Man made me a weapon. And God made it last too long.”

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 

Bleed for This

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Release: Friday, November 18, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ben Younger; Angelo Pizzo; Pippa Bianco

Directed by: Ben Younger

Bleed for This is an intense title for an underwhelming boxing movie. Its hyperbolic nature suggests a scream-o/punk-rock band’s new single when really it’s meant to describe the mentality of one Vinny Pazienza, a boxer from Providence, Rhode Island who returned to the ring after being involved in a car crash that brought him within inches of total paralysis.

Ben Younger’s third directorial feature takes a rather subdued, psychological approach in retracing “The Pazmanian Devil”‘s remarkable return to the championship ring, a transformation that has been widely regarded as one of the most remarkable in all of sports history. It offers viewers the chance to share the headspace of a boxer who managed to hold world titles in three separate weight classes — one of an elite few who have ever managed to do so — all while making them acutely aware how heavily the odds were stacked against him in his mission to “come back from the dead.”

Going into a film with these sorts of things in mind, it’s difficult not to set expectations high. Plus, star Miles Teller has proven that his scintillating performance in 2014’s Whiplash wasn’t a fluke. He may not have been captivating us quite as intensely since but he continues to give the impression he’s turning a corner in his career, taking on characters more complex than your hard-partying teenage waster. Frustratingly, Younger sets about presenting Vinny’s miraculous story in a very workmanlike fashion, and while it is true many boxing films are genetically similar, the best of them know how to work within the confines and use tropes to their advantage. Bleed for This is unable to rise to that challenge by featuring a narrative that, rather than being complemented by a few clichés, ends up drowning in too many of them.

We first get an impression of the kind of theatrical, charismatic performer Vinny was in his prime in the opening scene, set in Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. Teller, who underwent extensive physical training and dieting to look the part — he dropped from 19% to 6% body fat — swaggers his way on to the scene, late for the weigh-in and nearly becoming disqualified for the next day’s match. He’s fun to watch from the get-go and one of the few aspects of the film that actually feels inspired. Throughout much of the picture Vinny’s flanked by his (many) fleeting girlfriends, a revolving door of Italian stunners — and his father Angelo (a very good Ciarán Hinds), whose level of emotional support is matched only by his blue-collar boorishness.

In the aftermath of another embarrassing ass-kicking and in spite of the consensus opinion that Vinny is washed-up, he begs to be put into another fight. He seeks the support of Kevin Rooney (thank goodness for Aaron Eckhart, who looks like he’s having some fun playing a really, really out-of-shape trainer), whose first appearance tells us everything we need to know about how his career has been trending. Kevin believes Vinny can succeed in a different group and the two set out to prepare for an upcoming light middleweight match, which turns out to be a victory. Things are now looking up for both parties. And then, of course, the accident — by all accounts a fairly tough thing to watch given that this really happened.

I don’t need to tell you what happens from circa the halfway mark onward because if you have seen just one boxing movie you already know. And even if you haven’t, you still already know. Bleed for This, like its star, wears its heart on its sleeve and in so doing advertises the Big Payoff in bright, flashing casino-style lights that are impossible to ignore. What we’re provided en route to Fight #3 (a.k.a. The Moment of Redemption, which always comes last and typically off the back of the fighter’s lowest moments) manifests as little more than tiresome filler material aimed at exposing that which made this athlete unique; that which drove him to the edge of potential destruction — had Vinny actually paralyzed himself in the process of training I hate to think of what would have happened to him then — and how his attitude more than anything helped him overcome.

On that note of positivity, Bleed for This isn’t totally without merit. Dramatically speaking it may be underachieving and formulaic, but the story’s not without heart and some compelling ‘twists.’ For one, it is refreshing to watch a boxer (read: any athlete protagonist) who doesn’t come completely undone at the seams when things do not go their way. When the darkness comes, there’s very little wallowing in self-pity, and that much can be appreciated even by non-sports fans. I mean, the guy returns to his work-out bench in his basement a mere five days after leaving the hospital having broken his neck, for crying out loud. And the screenplay, while far from original, impresses when it deals in specifics, such as the inherent difficulties of a boxer transitioning from a lighter weight class to a heavier one. (Fair warning: there’s also some pretty squirm-inducing stuff if you don’t like medical procedures, particularly when Vinny decides to forego anesthesia for the removal of the Halo, the apparatus that has been keeping his spine from breaking.)

In a nutshell, Bleed for This would be more appropriately titled Determination: The Movie. That’s certainly more generic — laughable, even — but after my experience, that would be more faithful to the style and tone of this would-be heavy-hitter.

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Recommendation: Sensational true story isn’t done proper justice by a mediocre screenplay and a dearth of predictable elements. Good performances keep it just above totally forgettable. Fans of Miles Teller, boxing and sports movies in general will probably come to appreciate something about this film while others are probably going to need to keep on browsing for something else. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “I know exactly how to give up. You know what scares me, Kev? It’s that it’s so easy.”

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 

Hacksaw Ridge

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Release: Friday, November 4, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Andrew Knight; Robert Schenkkan

Directed by: Mel Gibson

Unlike the hero at the heart of Mel Gibson’s first directorial effort in a decade I went into battle fully protected by a weapon: my overactive imagination. Turns out, psychological preparation is kind of necessary as you enter the gauntlet of Hacksaw Ridge‘s final hour. Things become real, and in a hurry. Of course there is violence and gore characteristic of war films but this is Mel Gibson we’re talking about.

But this is also the Mel Gibson I’ve been waiting to see for a long time. In spite of the way he once again seems to enjoy flagellating audiences with punishing sequences of human cruelty Hacksaw Ridge ultimately is worth the toiling. The paradoxical sense of uplift we feel in the moments where we are also suffering the most makes his return to filmmaking a welcomed one. I was so moved by this I couldn’t help but applaud during the credits. Meanwhile everyone else quietly filtered out. Did I feel awkward? Yes. Yes I did. But it was still the right thing to do.

Desmond Doss (portrayed by Andrew Garfield in one of the most sensational performances of the year) felt a tremendous sense of moral obligation — a sense of doing what is right not just for himself but for his country — when he enlisted as a medic in World War II. Hailing from a humble community tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, Doss became the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor after pulling 75 men off of Hacksaw Ridge during the Battle of Okinawa, one of the bloodiest confrontations in the Pacific Theater. A devout Christian whose violent upbringing at the hands of his alcoholic, war-scarred father irrevocably changed him, Doss’ enlisting became the stuff of legend when he told his commanding officers the Sixth Commandment forbade him from lifting a weapon; that he could serve his country by saving lives as opposed to taking them.

Hacksaw Ridge is somewhat a tale of two halves — one is noticeably stronger than the other and unsurprisingly the drama genuinely becomes compelling in the latter half, when we dive headlong into hell with Private Doss, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and a company of men who haven’t exactly taken a shine to the Bible-thumping pacifist. Like the brave men who took to the cargo net for the Ridge, Gibson’s cameras charge into battle with a gusto that’s immediately met with some of the most grisly war action you’re likely to ever see. It’s a breathless, chaotic and disturbingly realistic account of the bloody affront to the Japanese who were slowly losing control of the island, despite heavy losses on the American side.

While the film that precedes the fight itself feels much more compressed — particularly the budding romance between Doss and the nurse he meets at the town hospital where he decides he will donate blood, the beautiful Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) — there’s enough there to build a foundation for empathy. Perhaps this is a convenient time to forgive a film for being so contrived, but Palmer and Garfield’s chemistry feels appropriately based more upon a certain Look and Feel — both actors look of the era and their sweet romance feels unpretentious, genuine. They’re wonderful together. And while their passion for each other is palpable it’s more about the way the soldier was raised that offers the most compelling angle.

Gibson zeros in on two pivotal moments in Doss’ childhood — moments that, aside from his unwavering devotion to God, inform almost every decision he makes as an adult. One is an early scene in which Desmond and his younger brother Hal get into a play fight that turns ugly when the former smacks his brother in the head with a brick in an attempt to claim victory. Young Desmond, haunted by the fact he could have killed Hal, instead of taking a long hard look in the mirror takes a long hard look at a picture on their living room wall, a list of the Ten Commandments in a moment of silent and sincere repentance. Then, later, Doss finds himself stepping in between his father (a heartbreakingly good Hugo Weaving) and mother (Rachel Griffiths) during yet another bout of domestic violence. A pistol becomes involved. Plagued by his experiences in World War I, Tom Doss embodies the soul-crushing effects of survivor’s remorse. Desmond seems to take more after his mother, who is a strong and positive influence, despite her suffering at the hands of an unstable husband.

There’s an argument to be made against Gibson injecting blood and violence into almost every possible scene — did we need to see the needle pierce the skin? Ditto the leg injury sustained by the local mechanic, did we really need that? Words like gratuitous, self-indulgent and perverse frequently have popped up, but I’d wager this grim foreshadowing is actually not only creatively inspired but it helps prepare the viewer mentally as we leave behind the quaint Virginian town and journey out onto a smoky battlefield. Those spurts of violence are perpetuated as Doss’ idealism is met with hostility by his fellow soldiers and his commanding officers at boot camp. Watching him getting harassed unmerciful isn’t exactly pleasant.

In fact much of Hacksaw Ridge is far from comfortable viewing. As it should be. Gibson brings the horrors of war, and particularly this violent confrontation to life in a stunningly authentic and emotionally robust portrait. His first film in 10 years reminds us what made him a compelling filmmaker: his passionate touch, his ability to channel emotion through the lens, his eye for the beautiful as well as the barbaric. Amidst the loss of life there grows a flower. Doss’ heroic actions deserve to be celebrated and it would be something of a disservice not to show us precisely what kind of odds he was up against. What a powerful story.

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Recommendation: As both a tribute to a real war hero and a bloody depiction of war, Hacksaw Ridge manifests as one of the most punishing but ultimately rewarding film experiences of the year. The emotional and visual components match up favorably with Steven Spielberg’s seminal war film Saving Private Ryan, though I personally stop short of saying it tops that epic. I just have to recommend you bear down and watch this one. It’s an important film and a remarkable true story of courage and remaining true to one’s self.

Rated: R

Running Time: 131 mins.

Quoted: “Lord, help me get one more. One more.”

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 

The Magnificent Seven

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Release: Friday, September 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Richard Wenk; Nic Pizzolatto

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua

Try as they might, Antoine Fuqua continues falling well short of the benchmark set by his 2001 smash hit Training Day and Chris Pratt can’t quite make this the Guardians of the Galaxy of the ole wild west. Despite bear-dressing-like-people jokes he is merely one silly pawn in a story that doesn’t deserve them. Not even the all-star roster can lift this generic western crime thriller from the dust of its superiors. The title is The Magnificent Seven, but for me that really just refers to the number of scenes that are actually worth remembering in Fuqua’s new shoot-’em-up.

Here’s all I really remember:

Magnificent Scene #1: The ‘badass’ that is Bartholomew. Billed as a drama, the film opens promisingly with robber baron Bartholemew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) besieging the sleepy mining town of Rose Creek circa some month in the late 1800s. The film’s dramatic thread for the most part sags like a dilapidated tent between two strong points, and the dramatic opening is one of those strong points. Tension is palpable as Sarsgaard’s cold, lifeless eyes survey the room. Haley Bennett‘s Emma Cullen becomes widowed by his murderous spree (or, to be brutally honest but more accurate, her husband’s foolish actions that do nothing but further incense Bartholomew), an act that supposedly establishes the film’s emotional foundation.

Magnificent Scene #2: The Actual Badass that is Denzel. Introducing Denzel Washington is something that needs to be done sooner rather than later and his swaggering cowboy/”dually sworn peacekeeper”/bounty hunter Sam Chisolm walks in at just the right moment (i.e immediately). A fairly typical stand-off inside Rose Creek’s saloon ensues. Everyone in the scene puts on their best ‘Not To Be Fucked With’ face. Rah-rah. Guns. Liquor. Seconds later Chisolm walks out of an empty saloon leaving everyone but a semi-impressed, semi-drunk loner for dead. That loner is none other than Peter Quill Josh Faraday. Chisolm is soon approached and persuaded by a desperate Emma Cullen to gather together some men to take a stand against Bogue and his men to avenge the death of her beloved Matthew and reclaim the town.

Magnificent Scene #3: The Avengers this ain’t . . . but this is still fun. Movies in the vein of Fuqua’s adaptation, those that spend more of their bloated running time assembling rather than focusing on the ensemble itself, are really more about that journey of coming-togetherness than they are about the destination. It’s too bad The Magnificent Seven really only offers one or two strong first impressions. One is a shared introduction between Byung-hun Lee’s knife-wielding assassin Billy Rocks — a name that somewhat confusingly belies the actor’s South Korean heritage — and Ethan Hawke’s sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux, with whom Chisolm shares some history. Billy and Goodnight come as a packaged item, apparently; one never goes anywhere without the other and they are swiftly drafted into the ranks without complaint.

Magnificent Scene #4: There’s always at least one crazy. Vincent D’Onofrio also qualifies as one of those memorable introductions. He plays a vaguely mentally unstable (or perhaps he’s just a simpleton) tracker named Jack Horne, a physically imposing presence who clearly hasn’t had much human contact in a long time. His soft, nervous line delivery initially gave the impression the actor wasn’t comfortable in the role and/or that he was about to deliver a career-low performance but the character really ended up growing on me. Of course it would have been nice if he had more to do but when there are seven actors competing on screen I suppose sacrifices must be made, especially when one of them is Denzel Washington.

Magnificent Scene #5: Preparations not reparations. Heeding the warnings of Chisolm and his band of misfits, Emma and her fellow townsfolk prepare for the return of Bogue and what is likely to be many more nasty men on horseback in an obligatory, if not genuinely fun, fix-it-up montage. Rose Creek becomes retrofitted with all kinds of booby traps and hideouts that are sure to give the enemy fits and a mixture of excitement and dread for the bloodbath that is to come starts to build in earnest. Granted, the end results are all but a foregone conclusion: some will survive the ordeal and others will not. We know almost for a certainty that the Magnificent Seven will be reduced in number after this fight. And we also know that ultimately this last battle is just another good excuse for directors who like to blow stuff up, to go ahead and blow a quaint little set right the fuck up.

Magnificent Scene #6: Say hello to my little friend! For all of the film’s lackadaisical pacing and story development from essentially the 20th minute onward, The Magnificent Seven seems to wake back up again at the very end with a rousing gunfight that will demand every rebel’s sharpest wit and shot. It even comes close to earning our empathy as numerous dead bodies hit the ground à la Fuqua’s goofy assault on the White House. The editing becomes frenetic but remains effective and while Fuqua shies away from excessive blood-splattering the violence is still pretty confronting as a gatling gun makes its way into the mix. Ultimately this is the same kind of joy I get out of watching Macauley Culkin outwit the nitwits in Home Alone every Christmas.

Magnificent Scene #7: The end credits. A movie that runs about 30 minutes too long and that fails to make any real emotional connection is finally over. (Though not for a lack of trying: Fuqua awkwardly asks us to pity the lone woman in the group because she has lost her husband — she’s not there because of her individual strengths and in fact many of the rebels can’t or refuse to take her seriously; likewise Hawk’s last-minute cowardly act feels cheap and fails to make us care deeper about him.) I enjoyed the famous faces in by-now-familiar roles and their natural gravitas cleaned up some of the script’s blotches but there is only so much goodwill I can show towards something that feels so well-trodden, so ordinary, so un-magnificent.

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Recommendation: A superb cast barely manages to keep The Magnificent Seven from being a totally and utterly forgettable and disposable movie. The people who you expect to shine, shine — those on the roster you don’t recognize as much don’t turn up as much. Simple as that. Some delicious scenery to chew on, though, and the soundtrack is hilariously overcooked. So all in all, I don’t really know what to make of this movie. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “What we lost in the fire we found in the ashes.”

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.esquire.com