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James Booth as Armand Roulin

“LOVING VINCENT” My rating: B (Opens Oct. 20 at the Tivoli)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Loving Vincent” is work of adoring fanaticism, an investigation into Vincent Van Gogh’s death through animation that mimics his dynamic and instantly recognizable style of painting.

Van Gogh’s portrait of the real Armand Roulin

It is, we’re told, “the world’s first fully painted feature film” in which each  of the movie’s 60,000-plus frames have been rendered in oil by a crew of more than 100 artists.

What directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welshman have accomplished here is, from a visual point of view, spectacularly mesmerizing.

As a narrative their film (co-scripted with Jack Dehnel) has some issues, but ultimately it works its way under the viewer’s skin.

Unfolding a year after Vincent’s death in the small French town of Auvers-sur-Oise, the story centers on Armand Roulin (James Booth).  Armand is a dedicated drinker and brawler living in Arles, where the artist often lived and painted during his last years. (Vincent actually did a portrait of Armand, and  throughout the movie the young man wears then bright yellow jacket in which he posed.)

This handsome ne’er-do-well is sent on a mission by his father, the local postmaster (Chris O’Dowd).  The elder Roulin has in his possession a letter written by Vincent to his brother Theo but never sent.  Now the old man dispatches Armand off to Paris to deliver the letter to its intended recipient.

Alas, he discovers that Theo died not long after his brother.  Hoping to locate Theo’s widow, Armand travels to Auvers, along the way collecting information about Vincent from those who crossed his path.  (Vincent, played by Robert Gulaczyk, is seen only in black-and-white flashbacks painted to resemble charcoal drawings.)

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Daniel Radcliffe

“JUNGLE”  My rating: B (Opens Oct. 20 at the Cinetopia)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

If the movies have taught us anything it is that when privileged young people go carousing in the wilderness, bad shit happens.

“Jungle,” based on Yossi Ginsberg’s 2005 memoir, is jam packed with bad shit.

This grueling tale of survival finds Daniel Radcliffe once again going out on a limb (and distancing himself from his “Harry Potter” heritage) as Yossi, who has fled his native  Israel and grownup responsibilities for a year or so of backpacking around the globe.

Directed by Aussie auteur Greg McLean, best known for brutally violent horror films like “Wolf Creek” and “Rogue,” this real-life misadventure unfolds in Bolivia.

There Yossi (Radcliffe) falls in with a couple of fellow free spirits, the young American photographer Kevin Gayle (Alex Russell) and Marcus (Joel Jackson), a Swiss fellow described as having “the heart of a poet and the soul of a saint.”  These, of course, are qualities of absolutely no use in a South American rain forest.

Out of nowhere they are approached by Karl (Thomas Kretschnmann), an Austrian geologist who claims to know the jungle like the back of his hand. He has tales of lost Indian tribes and rivers peppered with gold nuggets. His semi-mystical rap is so convincing our trio agree to accompany Karl on a hike into the unknown.

Given that this takes place in 1981, well before cell phones, GPS or the Internet, it’s a given that when things go bad — and they soon do — there will be no easy way out.

There’s a sort of Lord of the  Flies element at work here.  Lovable Marcus is spooked by the jungle and soon suffers crippling physical distress. He’s slowing the progress of the other hikers, who hope to complete their trek before the arrival of the rainy season. Tempers flare. Things get nasty.

And then there’s Karl, who gleefully introduces the boys to the delights of monkey meat but seems curiously unschooled in other aspects of wilderness survival. He may not be able to swim, a real drawback once the decision is made to build a raft on which to float downstream.

 

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“78 / 52”  My rating: B+ (Opens Oct. 20 at the Screenland Armour)

91 minutes | No MPAA rating

The shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” required 78 camera setups and 52 individual cuts.

The upshot: The most famous movie sequence ever, equalling and ultimately surpassing the “Odessa steps” montage in the silent classic “Battleship Potemkin.”

Now we have “78 / 52,” a nerdgasm posing as a feature-length documentary about that four-minute shower scene. It’s like a master class in geek cinema obsessiveness.

It’s also pretty great.

Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, “78 / 52” brings together dozens of film types — directors (Guillermo del Toro, Peter Bogdonovich), composers (Danny Elfman) writers (Stephen Rubello, Bret Easton Ellis), film editors, sound artists (Walter Murch), actors (Elijah Wood, Jamie Lee Curtis) — and other “Pyscho” fanatics who analyze Hitchcock’s creepy masterpiece from every artistic, commercial, historic and social angle imaginable.

Philippe even tracked down Marli Refro, the 21-year-old model who spent days nude in the shower as star Janet Leigh’s body double. Continue Reading »

Harry Dean Stanton

“LUCKY” My rating: B+ 

88 minutes | No MPAA rating

Late in the sublime “Lucky” our title character, an ancient desert-dwelling reprobate played by Harry Dean Stanton, informs the customers of his favorite watering hole that, in his opinion, all we have waiting for us is nothingness.

“What do we do with that piece of news?” someone asks.

Exactly. What do you do, how do you live your life, knowing  your time on Earth is limited and that there are no guarantees of a hereafter?

If that sounds heavy…well, it is and it isn’t.

“Lucky” is a deadpan comedy about small town eccentricity that morphs into a meditation on mortality.  It’s a classic case of laugh-sob-laugh storytelling.

The screenplay by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja is so solid that it would be a terrific vehicle for any mature actor. That the role of Lucky went to Harry Dean Stanton, who died in September at the age of 91, is one of those made-in-heaven movie miracles.

The script plays perfectly to Stanton’s physicality (sunken eyes, hopeless hair, wraith-like figure) and his tough-crusty demeanor.  How lovely… in an acting career that goes back a half century with films like “Alien,” “Repo Man” and “Paris, Texas,” Stanton’s last big role features what may be his greatest performance.

Add to this the wondrous directing debut of John Carroll Lynch, a much-in-demand character actor (he played Frances McDormand’s stamp-designing husband in “Fargo”), and you have a low-keyed, rib-tickling, heart-tugging wonder.

Lucky — who never married — lives alone on the outskirts of a small town (the setting looks like New Mexico or Arizona). He is a creature of habit.

That means getting up and doing yoga exercises in his underwear, pausing to take a few long drag on a cigarette.  Lucky’s closet contains  blue jeans and identical well-worn red plaid shirts. His diet appears limited to milk, caffeine and Bloody Marys (though he never eats the celery).

He’s got no car, so he walks into town, making the rounds of the diner, Post Office and shops before settling onto his stool at a bar where everybody knows everybody else’s name. He makes a point of baiting the chatty owner (the great Beth Grant), her pretty-boy squeeze (James Darren) and the philosophical bartender (Hugo Armstrong).

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“EX LIBRIS” My rating: B (Opens Oct. 27 at the Tivoli)

197 minutes | No MPAA rating

Less a conventional doc than a sort of kaleidoscopic love letter to the New York Public Library — and by extension, to all libraries — Frederick Wiseman’s “Ex Libris” initially may strike some viewers as a lazy piece of work.

Wiseman’s format is steady and unvarying and, for some, painfully straightforward.

Basically his camera sits in on all sorts of library gatherings, from public forums and lectures to behind-the-scene policy sessions.   Apparently these sequences unfold in real, unedited time, although Wiseman occasionally cuts to a shot of an audience reacting to a speaker.

Typically each sequence runs for three to five minutes. There’s no official beginning or end — we find ourselves plunged into the middle of a discussion about Islam and the 18th century slave trade, then arbitrarily jump to rocker Elvis Costello showing a ’50s performance video of his father, also a pop music entertainer.

We get bits of a talk about Jewish food and its cultural influences, a class where sighted students are learning to read Braille, a book review group discussion of Marquez’ Love in the Year of Cholera, and a disco dance class for senior citizens.

There are well known authors sprinkled here and there — Richard Dawkins and Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example — though Wiseman never identifies them (no narration, no introductory titles).

There’s footage at the library’s telephone information desk where astonishingly well-informed operators steer curious callers to the resources they require (one library employee regretfully informs a patron with a question about unicorns that unicorns are, in fact, imaginary animals). There’s “backstage” footage of conveyor belts delivering thousands of books to the appropriate wheeled carts for delivery.

Nothing tremendously dramatic happens here. But over time — we’re talking three-plus hours — “Ex Libris” delivers one astounding revelation after another. Did you know that the NYPL has the world’s largest circulating free picture file,  folders of photos and artwork that have provided vital research for virtually every major artist to come out of the Big Apple?

We drop by on a library-sponsored job fair, a free piano recital of the compositions of Ned Rorem, and a reading program for grade-schoolers.

Granted, “Ex Libris” may be the year’s least commercial movie, which is not to say that it’s pointless. Just the opposite…in an era of proud numbskulls, it makes the case that a public library — whether as a passive repository of books or as an active disseminator of ideas — is one of the pillars of a democratic way of life.

| Robert W. Butler

Judi Dench, Ali Fazal

“VICTORIA AND ABDUL”  My rating: B-  

112 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Dame Judi Dench — who won an Academy Award for portraying one British monarch (Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love”) and was nominated for playing another (Victoria in “Mrs. Brown”) — now goes for the trifecta with “Victoria and Abdul.”

Stephen Frear’s comic costume drama finds Dench once again in the glum mourning clothes of Queen Victoria, this time late in the monarch’s reign.

As you’d expect, this great actress eats up the screen, in the process compensating for a screenplay that isn’t exactly sure what it wants  to say.

This Victoria remains the isolated, lonely widow who in “Mrs. Brown” found companionship (and perhaps chaste romance) with her Scottish gamekeeper.  But now, several years down the road, she’s  getting a bit dotty. Dozing off at state dinners is  standard operating procedure. And she’s a voraciously fast diner, posing a problem for others who are expected to stop chewing when she does.

Victoria’s advisers and hangers on (played by a Who’s Who of Brit thesps like Michael Gambon, Tim Piggot-Smith and Olivia Williams)  are running the show in her intellectual absence. The  Queen’s influence is  limited to picking menus.

Based on a little-known historical incident,“Victoria and Abdul” centers on the arrival in court of Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), one of the Queen’s Indian subjects who prior to this has been a humble clerk in a prison.

Abdul is tapped to represent India at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee not because of his standing but because of his, er, standing — he’s a lanky fellow and clueless British officials reason that a tall man will look better presenting Her Majesty with a rare and precious gold coin from the subcontinent.

What nobody counts on is that the old gal will look into Abdul’s Omar-Sharif eyes and strike up a remarkable friendship, one that revitalizes Victoria’s mental faculties, sharpens her interest in affairs of state and threatens the status quo of the royal household.

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Kate Winslet, Idris Elba

“THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US”  My rating: C+

103 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

He’s a neurosurgeon desperate to get back to Baltimore for a big operation.

She’s a photojournalist desperate to get back east for her wedding.

With an incoming blizzard grounding commercial air traffic, they rent a charter plane to take them home.

Nope.

“The Mountain Between Us” is a survival tale/love story set in the Colorado Rockies and starring Idris Elba and Kate Winslet as Ben and Alex, total strangers who must work together to survive when their plane crashes on a remote mountain top.

As an outdoor adventure crammed with drop-dead scenery and a plethora of adversity (hungry mountain lion, freezing temperatures, starvation, a fall through cracking lake ice) this film from director Hany Abu-Assad (an Israeli making his Hollywood debut) works well enough.

As a romance, though, it’s iffy.  J. Mills Goodie’s screenplay (from Charles Martin’s novel) doesn’t really give us that much to work with, character-wise.  Elba and Winslet are charismatic performers capable of suggesting depth where there is relatively little, but the script is skimpy with details, and what there is is a bit hokey. For way too long the state of Ben’s marriage is dangled before us like a mystery carrot.

Speaking of way too long…the movie continues a good 15 minutes after it should have ended; many viewers will develop a case of ants in their pants.

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Ana de Armas, Ryan Gosling

“BLADE RUNNER 2049”  My rating: B 

163 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Making a sequel that will satisfy three generations of “Blade Runner”-obsessed geeks isn’t easy.

What’s surprising is how close director Denis Villeneuve and his screenwriters (Hampton Fancher, Michael Green) have come to pulling it off.

Of course this pronouncement is coming from a guy who admired the original 1982 “Blade Runner” (great film technology and a brilliant evocation of a dystopian future) but didn’t actually like it (one of Harrison Ford’s clumsiest performances…plus the movie should have been about Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty, a vastly more interesting character).

“Blade Runner 2049” finds me reversing my original evaluation — I like it but don’t exactly admire it.

Explaining one’s reactions to this eye-popping, ear-shredding futurist epic (the running time is nearly three hours) is made considerably more difficult by Villeneuve’s request  — read to critics at advance screenings — that we not discuss the new film’s plot in our reviews.

Well, that’s kind of limiting.

But here goes.

Once again we have a film about the conflict between replicants — artificially engineered humanoid slaves who are born as adults with phony memories of childhood — and their human creators.

The film centers on “K” (it refers to the first letters of his serial number), a replicant played by Ryan Gosling. K, like Ford’s Deckard in the first film, is a blade runner who hunts down renegade replicants. (The character’s name may also refer to Josef K., the existentially-challenged hero of Kafka’s The Trial. Allegorical names are big here; the principal female characters are called Joi and Luv.)

In the  years since the events of the original film there have been major societal upheavals:  A “great blackout” that destroyed most digital records; the bankruptcy of the Tyrell Corporation which invented replicants; and the rise of mad scientist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, as irritatingly weird as ever), who has perfected technology to ensure that his new generation of replicants obey their human masters.

But there are still some aging Tyrell-era replicants hiding out in Earth’s less-hospitable neighborhoods, and it is K’s job to track them down and eliminate them.

In his off hours the silently suffering K takes much abuse from his human neighbors, who contemptuously refer to him as a “skin job.”  At least he has a wife at home…well, sort of.  What he is has is Joi (Ana de Armas), a computer-generated hologram who can change her clothing and hair instantaneously to match K’s mood.  She loves him; sexual congress,  though, seems beyond her technology.

No wonder K seems so sad.

Running throughout Fancher and Green’s screenplay are hints that man’s inventions — holograms, replicants — are at least as “human” as their creators, struggling against their programming to express emotional needs and intellectual curiosity.

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Steve Carell, Emma Stone

“THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES”  My rating: B+

121 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Those going to “The Battle of the Sexes” expecting 0nly a bit of lightweight nostalgia had best gird their loins. There’s more going on here than a re-creation of a oddball moment in our cultural history.

Yes, this retelling of the famous 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs has its share of humor and historic earmarks. (Those costumes. Those hairstyles.)

But you’ll leave Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ film (they were the pair behind “Little Miss Sunshine”) struck by how relevant its issues remain, by the anger percolating just beneath the surface, and for its implicit warning that  the bad old days may be making a comeback.

Simon Beaufort’s script wastes little time in setting up the basic conflict.  In 1970 nine of the best female tennis players rebelled against the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association over the disparity between prize money awarded men and women.

Outraged, the reigning women’s champion, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), and tennis journalist Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) corner USLTA head Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) in his exclusive men’s club.

Told they cannot be there, Heldman shoots back: “Why? Because I’m a woman? Or because I’m Jewish?”

Right there “Battle of the Sexes” draws its line.  Progress versus the reactionary status quo.

The upshot is the creation of the all-women Virginia Slims tennis circuit.

In a parallel plot line we eavesdrop on former tennis champ Billy Riggs (Steve Carell), now immersed in post-career boredom.

Riggs fritters away his days at a make-work job at his father-in-law’s business; at night he hangs with his drinking buddies, taking bets that he can beat anyone at tennis while tethered to two large dogs  or substituting a frying pan for his raquet.

His high-society wife (Elisabeth Shue) makes him attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings, which he breaks up by declaring that the problem isn’t that these people gamble, but that they’re bad gamblers. Winners don’t need support groups.

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“IT” My rating: B-

135 minutes | MPAA rating: R

First, let’s all take a slow, non-hyperbolic breath.

Rarely has a mere horror movie gotten the advance raves and widespread cultural attention being lavished on “It,” the new film based on Stephen King’s novel (it was filmed once before, for a 1990 TV miniseries).

Well, it’s a good movie. Not great. It’s way overlong and trips over a few narrative dead ends.

It’s not as interesting or satisfying as either “It Follows” or “Get Out,” two recent groundbreaking examples of the horror genre.

But “It” — written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Doberman and directed by Andy Muschietti (“Mama”) — does hit the sweep spot between jump-in-your-seat thrills and the sort of Spielberg-influenced 1980s adolescent adventure most recently championed by Netflix’s hit series “Stranger Things.”

Basically you’ve got a group of pre-pubescents taking on a supernatural evil that resurrects every three decades or so to snatch unwary children. This creature is a sinister circus clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) who lives in a small town’s sewers and marks his approach with red balloons.

There’s no explanation of Pennywise’s back story; the screenplay presents him as the pure embodiment of every child’s deepest fears (making him a clown was a brilliant stroke on King’s part) and pretty much leaves it at that.

Dramatically, “It” is a deft balancing act between growing creepiness, an often hilarious examination of youthful behavior, and a compassionate (but superficial) look at adolescent angst.

The leader of these young misfits is Bill (Jaden Lieberher, so terrific in “St. Vincent” and “Midnight Special”), whose little brother vanished a year earlier when he ventured too close to a street grating during a rainstorm. Motivated by sibling love, the stuttering Bill is determined to face his own fears to stop Pennywise’s quiet rampage. Continue Reading »

“DUNKIRK”  My rating: B

105 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

Largely jettisoning character development and conventional exposition in favor of a you-are-there immersion, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is clearly a descendent of “The Longest Day,” producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s massive 1962 recreation of the D-Day invasion.

It moves swiftly and explains little, weaving together three story lines in a chronologically jumbled narrative that covers a week’s worth of history as the British nation rallies to rescue more than 300,000 troops trapped by Germans on the French coast in the early years of World War II.

Nolan’s unconventional storytelling is simultaneously confusing and compelling.  It’s disconcerting to jump back and forth between a daytime aerial dogfight and a nighttime sea illuminated by fires and explosions. Don’t expect an explanation of what’s going on.

But by eschewing a linear narrative Nolan is able to ramp up the tension, zigging and zagging between cliffhanger moments as various characters fight to survive.

The first of these tales is set among the soldiers crowded on the beach, sitting ducks for the German pilots who seem to control the sky.

A British naval commander (Kenneth Branagh) desperately coordinates an evacuation that relies on the Mole, the sole pier in water deep enough to accommodate a large ship.

Most of this sequence centers on a young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) who is desperate to save himself. He poses as a stretcher bearer, hoping to get aboard a medical ship being loaded with the wounded. He’s fortunate enough to take refuge in an evacuation ship, but it is torpedoed and he must return to shore. He eventually joins another unit taking refuge in the hold of a beached trawler…they’re hoping for high tide to take them to sea while the boat becomes a target for Nazi marksmen.

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Zoe Kazan, Kumail Nanjiani

“THE BIG SICK”  My rating: B 

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Romantic comedy is so ubiquitous — so familiar and overworked and recycled — that nobody expects originality from the genre.

Then along comes “The Big Sick” to take us by surprise.

Directed by Michael Showalter, produced by Judd Apatow and penned by stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, the film starts out in familiar boy-meets-girl territory only to take us to unexpected places.

Nanjiani, a regular on cable’s “Silicon Valley,” is a Pakistani who came to the U.S. for college. Here he plays a slightly fictionalized version of himself, also named Kumail.

The film’s first hour will seem more than a little familiar to fans of “Master of None,” the much-awarded Netflix comedy from Aziz Ansari, the son of Indian immigrants.

While working as an Uber driver, Kumail struggles to make it on the comedy circuit, determined not to rely too much on his ethnicity for laugh fodder. His deadpan persona is belied by the dry hilarity of his zingers.

His mother and father (Zenobia Shroff, Anupam Kher) expect him to be a good Muslim (when visiting them, Kumail dutifully retreats to the basement with his prayer rug but spends his time there digging through boxes of childhood belongings).

Moreover, our hero is subjected to a steady stream of available Pakistani woman (they exhibit everything from firm self-confidence to embarrassment and desperation) who just happen to be in the neighborhood when he’s having dinner with the folks.

Kumail hasn’t the heart to announce that he’s not interested in a traditional arranged marriage.

Romance intervenes with Emily (Zoe Kazan), who gently heckles Kumail during a show then sticks around for a little intense cross-cultural interaction.  In one of the film’s goofiest moments, she decides to end their night of passion by calling for a ride; since he’s the closest Uber driver, his cellphone goes off. Continue Reading »

Christian Friedel

“13 MINUTES” My rating: B

114 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Can a murderer be a hero?

That’s just one of the perplexing questions posed by “13 Minutes,” the fact-based story of Georg Elser, who in 1939 planted a bomb in a Munich auditorium in order to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

Der Fuhrer exited the building 13 minutes before the timer ignited the device, killing a half dozen and maiming another 60.

Elser was picked up as a suspect within hours of the blast and underwent interrogation and torture.

(There’s a devastating scene in which the young woman stenographer recording the interview realizes it is time for her to leave the room. She sits outside in the hall, reading a book, and trying to ignore the screams and whimpers of pain coming through the closed door.)

Initially Elser refused to give even his name or date of birth, breaking only when the authorities announced they would begin enhanced interrogations of his parents and mistress.

Later the Gestapo tried to get Elser to confess to being part of a conspiracy; he maintained (and eventually proved even to his dubious captors) that he had designed, built and planted the bomb unassisted.

Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film explains why a pacifist would turn to killing.

Elser wasn’t crazy.  He wasn’t homicidal. He deeply regretted that his failed assassination attempt resulted in death and injury to bystanders. And yet he believed his actions — criminal by definition and immoral according to many — were absolutely necessary.

The screenplay by the father/daughter team of Fred and Leonie-Claire Breinersdorfer alternates scenes of Elsner (a quietly intense Christian Friedel) in Gestapo custody with passages from his past.

These flashbacks depict an apolitical humanist — a carpenter by trade and a musician for the fun of it — who is gradually radicalized by the slow creep of Naziism into his sleepy provincial town.

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