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193 reviews in total 
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A little wonder of a film, 21 October 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Todd Haynes is, first and foremost, a cinema stylist (CAROL, FAR FROM HEAVEN). And WONDERSTUCK certainly gives him ample opportunity to show off that talent: Two time periods (1927 and 1977), each shot as a 'period film' (black and white and silent for '27, and grainy 70s style for '77). Further, the film follows two young people who are deaf so even the 70s 'sound' portion is done with subtitles (including those for sound effects and music cues). The subtitles also work as a way of making general audiences experience this film in the manner in which many hearing impaired do with all media. All of this might be too precious for some (the film has gotten mixed notices), but, what has always distinguished Haynes from most of his style first contemporary directors like Wes Anderson or Darren Aronofsky, is that you never feel that Haynes loses focus on his characters. The style serves the emotion of the films, rather than exist as Directoral exercises.

This isn't to say that WONDERSTRUCK is perfect. The twin stories of young hearing impaired children who run away to NYC (Millicent Simmonds/1927 and Oaks Fegley/1977) has more than a bit of contrivance about it. Further, Brian Selznick's script (adapting his own novel) has a bit of tin ear for dialogue. In that way, the silent sequences often come off the better for their lack of dialogue (Simmonds is a particularly effective mime).

But, Haynes' brings it all together with heart and feeling. The adult performers including Michelle Williams and, in particular, Julianne Moore are fine. The Production Design (Mark Frieberg), Music (Carter Burwell) and, especially Ed Lachman's photography abet the production considerably. The twin stories eventually intertwine (no spoilers here) and it's quite touching. Not everyone will have the patience to go with Haynes' vision, but, for those of us that do, it's quite satisfying.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
The kinky background of Wonder Woman, if a bit embellished, 16 October 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

When the PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN was made last year, they likely felt it would be fortuitous to come so soon after the big budget WONDER WOMAN this summer (there's also a line about the first female President that they figured would have tied in as well). But, virtually all the girls and women dressed like Wonder Woman at Comic Con this July (by far the most popular costume), would be shocked to know the kinky origins of their female superhero as depicted in PROFESSOR MARSTON (Note: the Marston heirs dispute much of the depiction of the personal lives of their ancestors). But, there is no dying the fetishistic B&D and S&M artwork in the early comics themselves.

The movie begins at Radcliffe college where the Professor (Luke Evans) and his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) teach psychology. Elizabeth isn't allowed a full professorship because she is a woman. A new student, Olive (Bella Heathcote) catches their eye and she becomes their assistant. Their work includes the development of the lie detector (which they failed to copyright to their economic detriment) and the Professor's DISC theory (Dominance, Inducement, Submission & Compliance). According to the screenplay by Writer-Director Angela Robinson the trio begin a full-on menage a trois open marriage (again, the descendants resist this interpretation). According to the screenplay, the hanky panky leads to the couples' expulsion from the university. Flash forward to 1947, and Marston is being interrogated by the legion of decency (the movie seems to fudge the date a bit as most of the crusade against comics happened after the Professor's passing).

Regardless of the accuracy of the script, the movie itself is dominated by Elizabeth - partially because of how the movie is written and directed, but largely because of the superb performance by Hall. Luke Evans is decent, but, fairly pedestrian, while one wonders what the couple sees in bland Olive other than her attractiveness and her submission to their needs (that does play out in the movie's theory of the creation of the Wonder Woman comic character). Heathcoate is earnest, but, also rather a cipher - particularly in contrast to Hall's fireball of a performance.

PROFESSOR MARSTON is decently made and pleasant enough if rather bloodless. The big three-way sex scene has all the eroticism of a soap commercial. One also wishes that more were made of the connection between the kinky imagery and the sexual suppression of the era (continuing on into the 50s with it's own S&M sex symbol in Betty Page). One thing the filmmakers couldn't have predicted last year during production was the passing of Hugh Hefner so shortly before the movie's release. In many ways, the wholesome Girl-Next-Door look of Hef's Playboy Playmates overtook the fetishism of 40s & early 50s pornography and shuffled that stuff off as niche. Now that the perfect Playmate could be your neighbor, one didn't need the rough stuff. PROFESSOR MARSTON isn't bad, but, it's fortuitous release date didn't seem to help at the box office despite moderately positive reviews. Folks may want their female superheros in bright splashy blockbuster features, but, they don't necessarily want to know the perverse story behind the story. Consider PROFESSOR MARSTON a DVD extra - strictly for adults.

0 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Worthy accomplished sequel, if not up to the original, 12 October 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Two basic questions: 1. Yes, BLADE RUNNER 2049 is a good, solid and worthy successor to the original 1982 classic. 2. My interpretation remains that Deckard is a human.

I admit that I was not in the camp that felt that a follow-up to BLADE RUNNER was at all necessary - especially one so belated. Fortunately, the production aligned together a team of top notch talent, and most importantly, one of impeccable integrity. Director Denis Villenueve's 2049 is a direct follow-up, even allowing for the passage of thirty years. It plunges you back into the world of the original, but also adds depth and layers to that world, breaking out of L.A. to expand to San Diego and Las Vegas. Further, the themes of A.I. and humanity are given added layers and meaning. It does a yeoman job of using the time gap as an advantage and not a hindrance. I wasn't expecting such a direct lineage, and it becomes a double edged sword at some crucial junctures.

The bare bones plot is simple enough to follow, but, little is exactly as it seems on first blush. And, again, there are several layers to each section of the movie, the most interesting of which is the notion of what exactly it is to be a sentient being in a world so dominated by technology. Whether you are the newest edition of Replicant, a sophisticated Hologram or a lowly cop, the characters always seem to be striving for answers. There's even a Replicant with a Hologram hook-up 3-way sex scene (I admit, I didn't quite buy the tech involved).

Villenueve and Producer Ridley Scott have brought back the original film's first screenwriter Hampton Fancher (co-written with Michael Green)and a great production team. The world they create is impeccable as, like the script, it builds upon the original while still adding to that world. Still, as wonderful as the look is, I still have a passion for the original film's Production Design by Lawrence Paull, Jorden Cronewerth's Cinematography and Douglas Trumbull's Smoke, Model and Mirrors special effects. There is a warmth to them that still beckons 35 years later which the admittedly top notch new movie can't quite match. Deakins is one of the world's great DPs and he can make digital look as good as it can, but there's a colder edge to it. As I noted vis a vis Deckard - I interpret things very much with human eyes.

Still, despite all the admirable efforts and the multi-layered screenplay, 2049 has substantial flaws. Some of the larger plot points aren't as deep or in need of explication as the filmmakers apparently feel they are. Reveals and twists are drawn out, as are more than a few individual scenes. While the movie's 143 length isn't an issue in and of itself, the pacing and the usage of that running time is. Some of the tonal shifts don't feel as much of a piece as they resemble story beats that must be metered out at given intervals. The 2022 blackout seems at times to be a catch-all rationale to conveniently create and cover gaps in the storytelling. The acting ensemble overall is very good, but the two exceptions are critical. Leto's Wallace never escapes the crazy mad scientist stereotype. It's eccentricity for idiosyncrasy sake. More importantly, the character isn't that interesting. While Wallace didn't have to be at all akin to Joe Turkel's introspective Tyrell in the original, some inkling of an inquisitive scientist would have been welcome to go along with the quirks. Robin Wright is a fine actress, but, unfortunately, her scenes come off as perfunctory and desultory (save for confrontation with Luv). It's as if they needed her character, but never gave enough thought to actually giving her an inner life. Joshi's just a cop, doing a job. It's doubly unfortunate since Wallace and Joshi represent a pair of the few outright fully human characters in the movie. (I'm certain there will be those who argue that the humans are portrayed in that manner by design)

Flaws and all, 2049 is a skilled return to the Blade Runner universe. However, I don't believe it will have the repeat watching fervor of the original. Personally, I am not one who watches the same film over and over - with rare exceptions. BLADE RUNNER is one of them. What has always made the '82 film so eminently re-watchable is the mood and atmosphere that echoes the ethereal story-telling, all scored by Vangelis' synth classic. 2049 can be jarring tonally : The loud sound mix. The grating sound effects in the Replicant tests with K at the police station. I generally like Hans Zimmer, but his score (with Benjamin Wallfisch) is, at times, assaultive, despite a number of effective passages (we may never know why Johann Johannsson was replaced). The CGI is technically superb, but hard-edged and too immaculate. As is the cinematography. Director Denis Villenueve is one of the finest working today (INCENDIES, PRISONERS, ARRIVAL), but he isn't the smooth stylist that Ridley Scott is. He is more visceral (unsurprisingly, it is that aspect that works best in 2049). All top notch technically, but the original BLADE RUNNER was like a warm Audio-Visual bath - one you could comfortably luxuriate in.

In the end, 2049 very much a direct sequel. Unless you are invested in the original, there isn't much here for casual viewers and newbies. The original (especially my preferred cut - the Workprint Version) was one of those films where the more you explored, the more layers and textures you could appreciate. The sequel feels like it asking the viewer to bring those meanings TO the movie, rather than the other way around. It's like the difference between an original or a copy. Or, in Blade Runner parlance - the difference between a human and replicant. An efficient high functioning replicant - but, one lacking the same human touch.

2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
A magic castle, but, not the one in Florida you're thinking of, 8 October 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This takes place at the Magic Castle in Orlando Florida. But, it's not THAT Magic Castle and this ain't Disneyworld! It's a seedy motel with that name (an amusing scene concerns tourists who think they have booked an official Disney property). Like his endearing TANGERINE, Director Sean Baker is focused on the 'invisibles' who live on the edge of society (the former movie was in shadow of tourist Hollywood, CA). Baker makes great use of the local stores that trade on their closeness to Mickey Mouse world. Cinematographer Alexis Zabe captures the images and the color scheme with some eye-catching compositions. Also, not like the Mickey Mouse club are the kids who populate the motel (and the adjourning dump, Future World - an ironic vestige of the space age 60s).

These kids are the focus of the first half of the movie and are quite the camera-family group (even if they sometimes evince 'play acting' from time to time). This is a transient living space and folks come and go, sometimes without consent. The manager of the place is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who is just as much guidance counselor and animal wrangler as he is the steward of the place (the latter, literally at one point). And, for the first half or so, the rambunctious children take center stage.

But, then the focus shifts more and more towards one of the girls Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite). It progresses naturally enough, but, it's frankly a less interesting story than that of the kids' POV. Another wreck-less loser single mom just isn't that fresh. It's played out well enough and there was a need to portray consequences to the out-of-balance lives we see, but, it doesn't gel with the first half. A last second ditch effort to re-focus on Moonee and one of her friends feels forced. THE Florida PROJECT is still a worthy follow-up to TANGERINE, but it isn't as satisfying in the end.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Visually arresting, but only partially successful, 4 October 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

There is practically a cottage industry devoted to Vincent Van Gogh. Not just films, but, music, plays and merchandising. Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman distinguish themselves by making this a Painted animated feature. Employing over 100 artists who undertook the daunting task of creating 65,000 painted frames (much of it painted over conventionally filmed scenes with actors).

It certainly is a visual delight. Of course, there is a frisson in the room whenever a frame depicts one of the master's paintings. But, this isn't just a stunt picture. There is a lot of passion for Van Gogh and his work on display. The frame of the story takes place a year after Van Gogh's death with a man, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), seeking to find out the circumstances of his death. The flashbacks are shown in Black & White and are less overtly 'painted' than the present day fully painted sections. The most famous of the actors is Saorise Ronan as Dr. Gachet's daughter Marguerite. Most of the characters are directly from Van Gogh's work and letters, while others are 'inspired' by them. As visually appealing as LOVING VINCENT is, it's more than a bit unfortunate that the investigation angle comes off as a bit trite at times, and the dialogue is often flat when not downright unconvincing.

Still, this is a unique picture that is worthy of a look by anybody interested in Van Gogh and the art of filmed animation. Fine score by Clint Mansell as well.

Spettacolo (2017)
Tuscan village puts on a show: Tradition vs Modern World, 1 October 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The tiny village of Monticchiello in Tuscany Italy has been putting on a play by (and usually) about the villagers themselves for decades. There are some great photographs and even some video and film clips from past productions. The Documentary by MARWENCOL filmmakers Jeff Malmberg & Chris Shellen follows the producing of the play over almost a full year. But, it soon becomes apparent that the Doc isn't really about the 'putting on the play' aspect as it is about the struggles of keeping up traditions in the modern world. (emphasized by a pretty daring editorial choice near the end)

Monticchiello has little over a hundred residents. One rueful core group member wistfully looks at an old program and notes that a third of his fellow members have passed on. The younger generation, more mobile and 'busy' with their lives,are losing interest. As Tuscany has become a major tourist destination,old homes are being bought out by outsiders as investments. And, financial burdens seem to get worse every year (the movie was mainly shot in 2012), with Italy in particular suffering just about as much as any Western European nation. Government arts funding is slashed, and the biggest financial backer pulls out.

While tourism helps the locals a bit, here they represent an outside force that may be too much for a quaint tradition like an annual Spttacolo to survive. Invariably, whenever tourists are on screen, they are on the cellphones and iPads - after all, how can a little amateur play compete with that cat video one of their Facebook friends just posted? The good news, is that the play was still put on this summer!

3 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Mildly diverting...mostly, 30 September 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The movie starts with "Based on a true story...mostly". The card serves as both a heads up about the facts -- and a sort of inoculation against criticism. The tale is based on the story of an unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria and an Indian commoner Abdul Karim. Through happenstance, Abdul is ported to late 19th Century England to bestow a gift from her ruled subjects in India.

The movie takes liberties with it's details. And, how. Adopting an almost frothy tone from the beginning, you can't help but think that is an outright fairy tale. Specialty films often like a little exoticism and picturesque settings (BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL, THE QUEEN) to make any uncomfortable truths go down much easier. Little reason to worry here, as VICTORIA rarely digs very deep below the surface (the fact that India is tightly ruled over by the British Empire comes off as little more consequential than a disagreement over what tea to have at breakfast).

But, if you are making a movie about monarchy you can't do better than go with the reigning queen of screen queens - Judi Dench. Excuse me, DAME Judi Dench. Abdul is played by Bollywood star Ali Fazal. You can see his charisma despite a lack of true depth to his role. When the movie finally begins to take itself seriously in the last act, it is fortunate that Dench and Fazal help smooth the bumpy transition. It's unfortunate that you see in those final scenes, the movie VICTORIA AND ABDUL could have been. Director Stephen Frears has certainly shown the ability to bring more gravitas to his films (THE GRIFTERS, DANGEROUS LIASONS), but, like last year's Meryl Streep movie FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, he saves most of it to small passages here and there.

VICTORIA AND ABDUL is mildly diverting...mostly.

1 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Entertaining if liteweight, 28 September 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The title is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, the epic televised match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) is the climax of the film, however, this is really King's tale with Riggs as a significant supporting player. And, it's quite the enjoyable ride.

Right from the start, we are plunged into King's battle to give more equal stature (and pay) for women tennis players. We begin with King leaving the governing tennis body and striking out on her own to form her own tour with many of the then top tennis pros on the circuit. As is that weren't enough of a burden, a hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) puts the moves on her forcing King to have doubts about her sexuality. She is married to Larry King (NO! not that one), who, it turns out, is the most understanding of cheated on husbands. During the meanwhile, Riggs is stuck in a marriage to Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) that is being torn apart by his wreck-less gambling.

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton guide the film along in an enjoyable and reasonably brisk pace. Simon Beaufoy's script compliments their style. The period details are fine, and shooting it on 35mm & 16MM film adds to the authenticity (and, even the old TV footage aspect ratios are respected - an increasing rarity). The climactic match is engrossing even if it can't quite transcend the standard 'Big Game' clichés. The whole film is a fairly old-fashioned style bio-pic with a few modern touches. The actors are all good even they are more than a little hamstrung by some pretty obvious story contractions, hard to swallow coincidences, stereotypical behavior and character traits (did we really need the supportive gay friend?).

Still, one can't help but be stirred by the finale. Women in the theater were weeping with happiness. Some, not doubt having watched the actual TV show back in the day. Others, just grooving to the history lesson. No since HIDDEN FIGURES has there been such a feel good major release on the big screen. It may not be a three set sweep, but, it's still a winner.

Mother! (2017)
1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Whatever metaphor you go by, mother! doesn't work as a film, 27 September 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Ever since mother! got a mixed critical reception and downright rejected by general audiences (earning a rare 'F' on Cinemascore) there has been a cottage industry of folks trying to decify what the central metaphor is. Everything from Parenthood to Fame to Creativity to global warming and 'mother earth' itself. To me, the bottom line always is, not matter the intentions and 'hidden meanings' - does it work as drama? mother! fails that test - even if prodigiously so.

The cast and tech credits are all top notch. Shooting on 16mm film gives the film a hazy grainy look and feel that heightens the horrific atmosphere. Shooting in tight hand-held style works in spots, but, gives it a cramped crowded flavor that works against many of the sequences. You have this gorgeous huge mansion - use it, rather than work against that strength. Casting Michelle Pfeiffer gives a nod to the successful creepy house thriller WHAT LIES BENEATH. More to the point is the ad art that tips it's cap to Polanski's ROSEMARY'S BABY (but, in many ways, it's more like that famed Director's REPULSION). Horror fans may also think of Cronenberg's THE BROOD.

While the film begins with some clear allegorical references to motherhood (there's a lot of womb and vagina imagery), it soon becomes apparent that Aronofsky's focus is more on Javier Bardem's character than Jennifer Lawrence's (a more accurate title would be father!). Is it any surprise that a male filmmaker would make a film ostensibly about motherhood, but shift the focus? Again, no issue if the film works on a dramatic level. Unfortunately, Aronofsky has never been a subtle or supple filmmaker (he also lacks any discernible wit). The metaphors get piled on so heavily, relentlessly and in such an over the top manner (Aronofsky's signature "style") that long before the dual climaxes the film has devolved into self-parody. If the imagery weren't so grotesque, it could almost be enjoyed as a 'laugh at the screen' entry. And, again, if Aronosky ever evinced a genuine sense of humor, he might have realized that. Oh, what Polanski or horror-period Cronenberg could have done with the material. Aronofsky seems in need of a strong collaborator, or, at the very least, a producer willing to say no to some of his cock-eyed ideas. Of his films, THE WRESTLER works the best because it follows a distinct story and was written by an independent screenwriter (Robert Siegel). Whatever metaphor you choose to go by, mother! is a failed film, lofty intentions and all.

Charming if overly chummy portrayal of Behind The Scenes Tinseltown, 26 September 2017

This sweet documentary has garnered a lot of love in Tinseltown. It depicts the long marriage between Harold Michelson (Storyboard artist, Production Designer) and Lillian Michelson (Researcher) and their work behind the scenes on many a motion picture going back decades. Harold has unfortunately passed on, so it is Lillian that is front and center with her recollections.

There are some nice clips and photos not only of their union, but, of the many films they worked on. There are some wonderful illustrations by Patrick Mate, but since Harold was an illustrator himself, I would have preferred more of his work. A minor point. A larger issue is that the movie gets a bit chummy with the subjects. It's a common issue with docs where one or more of the subjects is an active participant. While Harold & Lillian certainly were key behind the scenes players, they weren't quite as critical as the Doc makes them out to be. And, Harold's long history on Television is almost completely ignored in order to focus on his feature films (certainly the main focus, but, 100 episodes of TV is a pretty significant thing to bypass; it also explains the feature film gap in the chronology that isn't fully explained here). Fairly minor quibbles, but worth noting. This being a Doc about the business, expect it to be a player come awards season (Hollywood loves nothing more than patting itself on the back).

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