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eagle_74151933_82“THE EAGLE HUNTRESS”   My rating: B

87 minutes | MPAA rating: G

It has great cinematography. Deep connections between humans and animals. And a ton of female empowerment.

All good.

Still, “The Eagle Huntress” is troubling when it comes to documentary authenticity: Chunks of this “nonfiction” picture feel as if they were re-staged for the camera.

Set in the mountains and rolling plains of Mongolia, Otto Bell’s doc follows 13-year-old Aisholpan, the daughter of the nomadic herder Nurgaiv. Like countless generations before him, Nurgaiv puts food on his family’s table by capturing and training golden eagles that act like highly skilled hunting dogs.

It’s a father-to-son tradition that is about to get a swift kick in the keister. Aisholpan — with her doting father’s cooperation — is determined to own and train her own eagle. Moreover, she plans on competing in a sort of raptor rodeo that attracts participants from hundreds of miles.

So this sweet, totally inoffensive youngster is about to weather not only the rigors of eagle hunting but the disapproval of the patriarchal society into which she was born.

After an introductory segment that explains the eagle hunting tradition (“Star Wars” actress Daisy Ridley provides the narration) and some of the details of Aisholpan’s life (she attends a boarding school in a regional town and only gets home on the weekends) the film captures the efforts of Aisholpan and her father to descend down a cliff face on ropes to snatch a baby eaglet from its aerie.

The idea is to grab a young bird when it’s strong enough to survive outside the nest but not yet able to fly. (Though it’s not explained in the film, this was the first scene shot by Bell and his crew, who fortuitously visited Nurgaiv’s campsite on the very day the father and daughter were planning the adventure.) [to capture an eaglet.)]

This is followed by months of bonding and practice, a visit to the big eagle festival — where Aisholpan and her bird stun the competition — and on to a winter hunt that will prove once and for all whether this teenage girl has the right stuff. (more…)

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Sonia Braga

Sonia Braga

“AQUARIUS” My rating: B (Opens Dec. 2 at the Tivoli)

140 minutes |MPAA rating: R

On one level, “Aquarius” is about growing old…or older, anyway.

Kleber Mendonca Filho’s film stars Sonia Braga, the Latin American sex symbol of the late ’70s and early ’80s, as a 65-year-old widow living in a Brazilian coastal city.

With its late-in-life-but-still-vibrant leading lady, “Aquarius” seems poised to fall into familiar territory, that of an older woman proving to herself and others that she’s still got some fire down below (see Blythe Danner in “I’ll See You in My Dreams” or Pauline Garcia in the Chilean “Gloria”).

And the film works just fine on that level. It unhurriedly follows Braga’s character, Clara, through the ins and outs of her daily life  — drinks with the girls, time spent with children and grandkids, friendships with the other residents of her beachfront neighborhood…even a hot encounter with a male gigolo recommended by a gal pal.

But there’s a whole lot more going on.

On a second level the picture is what might be called a real estate thriller. Clara is the last remaining resident of a low-rise apartment condo — the Aquarius — whose units have been bought up by a big construction firm. The plan is to raze the old edifice and go with a sleek new skyscraper…except that Clara refuses to sell her condo. (more…)

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Samantha Robinson as "The Love Witch"

Samantha Robinson as “The Love Witch”

“THE LOVE WITCH” My rating: C+ (Opens Dec. 3 at the Screenland Tapcade)

120 minutes | No MPAA rating

Solidly ensconced in the so-bad-it’s-almost-good end of the movie spectrum, “The Love Witch” is a spoof of late ’70s exploitation cinema shot through with feminist philosophy.

Anna Biller’s film parodies cheap horror movies and cheap sex flicks. It features acting that is either very bad or spectacularly good at approximating bad acting.

At the same time, it has been painstakingly designed.  You can see that  from the first scene when the “love witch” of the title, Elaine (Samantha Robinson), pulls into a new town in a Mustang convertible whose paint job is perfectly matched by her lipstick, crimson dress and blood-red luggage.

Elaine is a whack job who uses black magic to find true love…although her efforts have been less than fruitful to date.  She murdered her husband with a homemade potion (she steeps her used tampons in urine). Now she’s come to a picturesque college town for a fresh beginning.

Of course things go south. She kills a  professor (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) with whom she shares a night of passion and bizarre brews, then goes after the straight-arrow and sexually under-satisfied husband (Robert Seeley) of one of her new friends. Post-Elaine, the poor schlub is a weeping, suicidal mess.

Even the homicide detective (Gian Keys) who comes snooping around isn’t immune to Elaine’s charms.

Men don’t do well in this world. Guys, according to Elaine’s philosophy, are “fragile and can be crushed if a woman asserts herself in any way.”

So she does everything she can to please her victims, to play to their childlike egos and fulfill their sexual fantasies.

There’s some wonderfully dopey stuff going on here, like a girls’ night out at a burlesque club, a tea house where the patrons and employees all show up in Victorian-era dress, and an erotically-charged Renaissance fair that is a cover for a coven of witches.

Not great, but a diverting goof.

| Robert W. Butler

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Shia LaBeouf, Jai Courtney...patrolling an a post-apocalyptic wasteland

Shia LaBeouf, Jai Courtney…patrolling a post-apocalyptic wasteland

“MAN DOWN”  My rating: C (Opens wide on Dec. 2)

92 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There’s enough to admire in Dito Montiel’s “Man Down” that the film’s final reveal — a big fat slice of narrative cheese — feels like even more of a con job than it already is.

Montiel’s screenplay (with Adam G. Simon, who came up with the story) offers no fewer than six different “realities” for its Marine protagonist, Cpl. Gabriel Drummer (Shia LaBeouf).

The first of these realities unfolds in a post-apocalyptic near future. Here Gabriel and his Marine buddy and best friend Devin (Jai Courtney) pick their way through the ruins of an American city.  Bearded and dirty, they are looking for Gabriel’s young son John, who may be the captive of a group of feral survivors.

There are flashbacks to Gabriel’s peaceful home life with his wife Natalie (Kate Mara) and little John (Charlie Shotwell).  Gabriel will soon be shipping out, and he spends as much time as possible with his son.  They even come up with their own military-style code words for “I love you”:  Man Down.

Other passages are devoted to Gabriel and Devin’s basic training under the demanding Sergeant Miller (Tory Kittles), a sado-maso experience that will turn them into efficient fighting men.

One of the movie’s realities takes place in a dusty Marine outpost in Afghanistan where Gabriel is being counseled by Peyton (Gary Oldman), a military shrink.  It appears that Gabriel has undergone a  traumatic experience — and yet another “reality” depicts the day that Gabriel and Devin’s unit was ambushed by enemy fighters.

(more…)

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Warren Beatty

Alden Ehrenreich, Warren Beatty

“RULES DON’T APPLY”  My rating: C

126 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

If “Rules Don’t Apply” is a comedy, why aren’t we laughing?

If it’s a romance, why don’t we feel something?

If it’s a tragedy, why don’t we care?

Warren Beatty’s latest feature as writer/director (his fifth, and the first since “Bullworth” in 1998) might be charitably described as a highly polished question mark.

It’s good looking,  competently acted and mildly affable. Basically it’s two hours of narrative  noodling that never scores an emotional or intellectual point.

Ostensibly the film provides an opportunity for Beatty to tackle the character of real-life  billionaire Howard Hughes — though Beatty doesn’t make an appearance as the nutjob recluse until nearly 40 minutes into the movie.

“Rules…” is, at its most basic level, a love triangle involving Hughes and two of his employees.

Marla (Lily Collins), a virginal Virginia beauty queen, has come to late-‘50s Los Angeles  after being signed to an acting contract by the mysterious Mr. Hughes.  (In addition to his oil and aviation interests, Hughes is a Hollywood producer.)

Lily is but one of two dozen aspiring actresses stashed by Hughes in posh digs all over LaLa Land. These stars of tomorrow — or harem members , if you will — are given a weekly stipend, acting and dance classes, and are ferried around town by a small army of limousine drivers whose behavior is strictly proscribed (no canoodling with the girls, no talking about Mr. Hughes’ business, etc.).

Marla and her driver, Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), have enough in common — including a shared religiosity — that Marla’s hovering mom (Annette Bening, aka Mrs. Warren Beatty) warns her daughter against any attraction to the handsome young chauffeur.  (more…)

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Joel Egerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving

Joel Egerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving

“LOVING”  My rating: A

123 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

An emotional powerhouse that will leave audiences drained and exultant, “Loving” is the best film I’ve seen so far in 2016.

This latest film from Jeff Nichols, the poet laureate of rural Southern life (“Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” “Mud”), is a lightly fictionalized depiction on the lives of Richard and Mildred Loving, who in 1959 were convicted of violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws.

Eventually their case led to a Supreme Court decision that dismantled legislation banning mixed-race marriages.

“Loving” works so well as much because what the film isn’t as for what it is.

Writer/director Nichols eschews courtroom maneuvering and big speeches about civil rights. “Loving” is almost exclusively told from the vantage of the Lovings, two unremarkable individuals in extraordinary circumstances.

The film may be about big issues, but it is a spectacularly intimate experience.

Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter (he’s white, she’s black and Native American) grew up in a corner of Virginia where different races were united by limited educational and economic opportunities.

Richard (Joel Edgerton) is a crew-cut bricklayer who spends his weekends backroad drag racing with his African American brother-in-law.

Mildred (Ruth Negga) is an expectant mother radiating quiet grace and dignity.

They know Virginia law bans mixed-race unions, which is why they drive to nearby Washington D.C. to be married. But, really, who in their bucolic backwater cares?

That complacency is rudely shattered one night when police officers storm into their rural home, drag them from their bed and lock them up in the county jail.

Richard — shy and unassertive — is shamed by the sheriff (Marton Csokas) for betraying his race and violating God’s law: “He made a sparrow a sparrow and a robin a robin. They’re different for a reason.”

Richard can only hang his head and take the abuse. He hasn’t the intellect or the words to defend his love. (more…)

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handmaiden“THE HANDMAIDEN”  My rating: B+ 

145 minutes | No MPAA rating

Profoundly disturbing, shockingly kinky and filled with “Sting”-worthy plot twists, “The Handmaiden” is a seductive/repellant tale of debauchery, betrayal and sadism.

In other words, a good time at the movies.

Those familiar with the work of Korean auteur Chan-wook Park (“Oldboy,” “Lady Vengeance”) know he’s got no problem shocking his audience. With “The Handmaiden” he metaphorically throws us up against an electrified fence.

Adapting Welsh author Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith, Park has moved the action from Victorian England to the 1930s and Japanese-occupied Korea.The story is told in three parts, each one concentrating on a different character’s point of view.

Our tale begins in a literal den of thieves.  Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is a young woman working for a gang of criminals. Though illiterate, she’s ambitious and dreams of great wealth.  So she’s instantly on board when one of her colleagues (Jung-woo Ha) recruits her for his plan to infiltrate an upper-class home and make off with a king’s ransom.

It seems there’s a perverted old Korean widower, Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo), who is planning to wed Hideko (Min-hee Kim), his Japanese ward and niece-by-marriage.  A collector of rare pornography, Kouzuki has little money of his own and cannot wait to get his hands on Hideko’s fortune. This won’t be difficult because the girl is an emotional and mental wreck.

But he has competition.  Sook-Hee will take a job as the young lady’s handmaiden, working behind the scenes as her colleague, posing as the Japanese nobleman Count Fujiwara, seduces Hideko and elopes with her.  Then the unstable girl will be committed to a madhouse and the crooks will divide up her inheritance, which now will be controlled by her betraying new spouse.

Part I follows Sook-Hee as she enters the household — a vast estate dominated by a mansion that is half traditional Japanese home, half Victorian castle. Over time she befriends her new mistress and starts to feel sorry for the emotionally-tormented Hideko.  While during the day the Count woos the young woman under the guise of giving art lessons, at night Sook-Hee becomes the girl’s lover.

Big question: When the time comes, will she be able to put aside her romantic inclinations and condemn Hideko to a life of insanity?

(more…)

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