Monday, February 12, 2018

THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018)



Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, Alex Skarlatos, Jenna Fischer, Judy Greer
DIRECTOR: Clint Eastwood
GENRE: Drama

We're all familiar with the inspirational story of three young American buddies who thwarted a terrorist attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris in 2015, saving the lives of the 500 passengers on board. In The 15:17 To Paris, director Clint Eastwood brings the story to the big screen in a way that no one else likely would have dared--he got the real heroes to portray themselves. The film is peppered with teaser shots of the intense and masterfully done climactic scene in order to tide us over through the somewhat bland but not uninteresting backstory of their lives.   

Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone is singled out to be the fully developed character, ostensibly because he had the biggest--or at least the bloodiest--role in subduing the heavily armed bad guy. We follow Spencer from the schoolyard (he was something of a rebel) through Air Force basic training, and much of the first half of the film plays like a recruitment video for the military. But to Eastman's credit, he's not jingoistic about it. No veiled jabs at Muslims. He's telling a story and everything in the story speaks for itself. 

Eastwood's bold, and as it turns out, brilliant move in casting the real heroes as themselves has likely created more buzz for the film than anything else.  For me, the curiosity factor of how these non actors would do was the major reason I wanted to see it---that and the fact that it's a totally compelling story. 

Eastwood used non actors before in Gran Torino, with some embarrassing results, and I was hoping that these guys could raise that bar at least a bit. No problema. They're not going to win any Oscars, but their chemistry together is quite literally the real thing. It helps that they are affable guys...the kind you'd bring home to mom (or mom might bring home after a night out at the beer joint).

The three of them end up backpacking through Europe together. We're treated to panoramic views of Venice, and the introduction of a comely American girl who decides to tag along with them. If only they could have come up with something more authentically Italian than "Volare" to be playing in the background. That's like going to a French restaurant and ordering a cheeseburger, but then The 15:17 To Paris is tailored to heartland American tastes. Ah, but just when you start thinkin' it's gonna be goody-two-shoes all the way, they throw in a sexy, let-it-loose disco scene with some unmistakably European babes shakin' their booty! 

Stone has premonitions, and the theme of fate has something big in store for us is played up throughout. The train rumbles toward Paris as the film proceeds toward its inexorable climax, the scene we've all been waiting for. The ten minute terrorist take-down sequence, filmed in real time is riveting, soul-stirring cinema at its best. Well worth the wait. And at just over an hour and a half in duration, The 15:17 To Paris doesn't take an interminably long time to get you there. 
Grade:  B +  

JILL'S TAKE

OMG. I can't believe two reasonably intelligent, visually savvy people could differ so wildly. But this is one case where I couldn't disagree more with Tim's assessment of Eastwood's latest faux film. I think he chose to cast the real guys because he realized that, without them, there was no story. (I hate to tell you, Clint, but there still was no story!) Yes, there was an incident on a train that was, indeed, brave and heroic. But since everybody in the audience knew that from the get-go, building a movie around it—with three basically bland characters to work with—was a challenge that would've had even Willie Shakespeare pulling his hair out.

Of the three non actors, I felt Anthony Sadler was by far the most authentic. I had to laugh at the striking physical resemblance between non actor Alek Skarlatos and actor Scott Eastwood. (I'll just bet he was furious that his dad didn't cast him in the role!)

The only redeemable thing in this paean to patroitism was the score which I was certain Clint Eastwood had composed himself. I was shocked to find that Christian Jacob scored the film. (He also composed the score for Sully so he's good at disaster-avoidance flicks.) But one cheap musical shot I just have to point out was a scene in Germany, where the tour guide corrects our third hero Spencer Stone about where Hitler and Eva Braun are buried. As he cycles away, he sings "Springtime for Hitler In Germany...." A song fromThe Producers that was totally out of place. (But Mel Brooks must have been pleased.)

Save your money!

Grade: D- 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

HOSTILES (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike
DIRECTOR: Scott Cooper
GENRE: Western/Action-Adventure

I like a good western now and then. Part of it, I think, is because back then men looked like men. They had facial hair! (And they weren't waxing their chests.) So I was looking forward to seeing Hostiles because not so many of these manly pictures come around anymore. And from some of the buzz about it, I thought there might be a message in there. 

And indeed there is one in the opening two sequences. Some white settlers are slaughtered by Comanches. After that, some Indians are brutally murdered by the paleface. Graphic stuff, and a pretty clear message that war is futile. Nobody's right if everybody's wrong. In retrospect, of course, we know who was right and who was wrong, if defending your homeland against alien invaders is what any noble people would do.   

It's 1892, and U.S. army captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) has been charged to lead a mercy mission of escorting a dying Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family from New Mexico back to their native lands in Montana. That's a long ride on horseback. Blocker balks at first. He's seen too much killing, and he hates those "savages" with every fiber of his being. He reluctantly gives in (after being threatened with court martial) and the party sets out. Along the way they'll be attacked by marauding Comanches and nefarious types of his own race. Blocker is quickly faced with the reality that if his little band of soldiers and Indians are to survive, they must all stick together. He must dig down and find the humanity in himself, so he can recognize it in others.  

Christian Bale's Joe Blocker is one of the best fleshed out characters I've seen in some time. We see his internal struggle all the way through. Can't say as much for the rest of the cast, as there are some uneven acting performances--some pretty good, some not so hot. But what really bugged me throughout the film was that many of the characters--especially the Indians in the traveling party--didn't look authentic. Their faces (other than the old chief) weren't weathered enough. Their skin is baby smooth, lacking the character lines that a hard life of subsistence upon the prairie would bring. They look more like...well...like Hollywood actors!  

If little "details" like this don't bother you, and you're willing to trade believability for edge-of-your-seat action and suspense, you'll enjoy Hostiles. As I heard a guy who was heading for the exit after the movie say: Whole bunch of Indians gettin' shot and killed...and white people too!

That pretty well sums it up.

Grade:  C +


JILL'S TAKE


(Ha, ha.) That guy in the audience pretty well summed up Hostiles. I do, however, want to add a codicil to Captain Blocker being threatened with a court martial if he didn't escort those "savages" to Montana. For me, the game changer was when his superior threatened him with the loss of his pension. Something any modern day racist can readily identify with... ("Money talks, bullshit walks.")

This was a long movie. It had to be in order to make the attitudinal changes believeable. But as this was oh-so-slowly happening, I got to wondering how the average western loving movie goer would react to such psychological meanderings. 

The scenery was gorgeous. Those aerial shots made me aware, as every western does, of just how vast this country is. (Or was.) And if I knew how to say 'great job' in Cheyenne, I'd certainly tell Oklahoma native Wes Studi he was terrific. The final words he shared with homesteader Rosalie Quaid (ably played by yet another Brit, Rosamund Pike) really moved me. But they also made me think about how today's Native Americans would react to this retributive film. Forgiveness—like the proverbial rattlesnake—is a slippery creature....

For me, the slowness of this tale got in the way of the story.

Grade: C

Thursday, February 1, 2018

I, TONYA (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan
DIRECTOR: Craig Gillespie
GENRE: Drama

No wonder Tonya Harding was a train wreck. Her nasty-ass, white trash mother may have thought she was dispensing tough love by driving her daughter relentlessly, smacking her around both verbally and physically--all in the name of developing her into a champion--but if the events as portrayed in the movie are anywhere near accurate, it was child abuse. 

It's all there in tragicomic style in  I,Tonya, from the precocious 4 year-old on skates to her rise to international prominence--competing in two Olympic games--and her subsequent downfall resulting from her involvement in the brutal attack that put rival Nancy Kerrigan out of commission. 

Australian Margot Robbie is five inches taller and too pretty to play Tonya Harding, but as the film progresses you forgive these things because Robbie nails this role like a triple axle. But if anybody deserves a perfect score (and her Oscar nomination), it's Allison Janney as LaVonna Golden, Tonya's steely-hearted mom. Man, is she nasty!

The Nancy Kerrigan subplot with hubby Jeff Gilooly (Sebastian Stan)--while essential to Tonya's story-- could have been tightened up some because it slows  down the pace, especially when juxtaposed against the dizzying high of the skating scenes (brilliantly edited) where Tonya Harding triumphed--and what made the story of her fall from grace (which she had in her skating but not in her life) so tragic.    

You'd naturally wonder--as did I,Timmy--how much of the actual skating Margot Robbie did. Kudos to her for learning to skate from scratch, training for weeks to become competent enough to do the more basic moves. Two professional doubles, Anna Malkova and Heidi Munger, were inserted, seamlessly, to land the difficult jumps. 

I,Tonya ain't no Ice Capades, so I wouldn't take the kiddies, but it's a real eye opener into the gritty world of someone who remains to this day a household name--for better or for worse--Tonya Harding. 

Grade:  B + 


JILL'S TAKE

The trouble with co-writing these reviews is that Tim writes his opinions first – so I'm left with the challenge of not sounding repetitive. In this instance, however, I am going to repeat what Tim has already said: Allison Janney should win this year's Best Supporting Actress. Although she's up against some pretty stiff competition (Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird, Lesley Manville,Phantom Thread, Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water), her performance is unforgettable. (On a part with Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter.)

A few weeks ago, I saw a documentary on TV about the real Tonya Harding and, as much as the interviewer tried to make us like and sympathize with her, Tonya came off as a bona fide bitch. True, her mom was no saint (the real mom looked a lot prettier than Allison Janney) but there's no doubt in my mind that Tonya played a big part in the Nancy Kerrigan debacle.

I liked this movie. A lot. The filming was imaginative; the skating sequences breath-taking; the violent scenes visceral. I especially enjoyed the bumblers who committed the assault on Kerrigan. Even though his part was minimal, I tip my hat to the crowbar-wielding Ricky Russert for his scared-as-shit performance. I also loved the portrayal of a fat-kid-gone-wrong by Paul Walter Hauser, as well as Bobby Cannavale's interpetation of local reporter Martin Maddox.

As disgusting as the real life events were, I, Tonya makes you laugh in spite of yourself. But if colorful language isn't your idea of fun, I'd stay clear of this foul-mouthed film...


Grade: B +

  

Monday, January 29, 2018

PHANTOM THREAD (2017)



Rated:  R

STARS: Daniel Day Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
DIRECTOR: Paul Thomas Anderson
GENRE: Drama

There is a mindset that we should indulge the "mad geniuses"--and all of their idiosyncracies--because of the contribution they are making to their art, or whatever their chosen field of endeavor may be. Phantom Thread is two plus hours of such indulgence--a character study of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis), dressmaker and designer for the rich and famous in 1950s London, who reveres his deceased mother in a way that suggests he might have been a mama's boy--and that may provide some insight into his difficult nature. He's obsessed with his work, and therefore annoyed by anything that distracts him from it, and will lash out at you on the slightest provocation. 

Woodcock, a confirmed bachelor, is easily bored with women. Until one day he is smitten by a young girl named Alma (Vicky Krieps), whom he brings into his world as his muse and companion. She's an extremely patient girl--she would have to be--and puts up with his crap because she sees something in him that anyone on the outside--such as the film viewer--would miss. But his petulance wears on her after a time, and she discovers a clever but dangerous way of cutting him down to size--of making him human again and realizing how much he really needs her.  Who wears the pants in the family isn't always apparent upon first glance.

Phantom Thread is all about the characters, and they are richly drawn. Daniel Day Lewis goes out with a bang (he says he's retiring from making movies) with this portrayal of a man at war with his own obsessions. Vicky Krieps, a 34 year-old find from Luxembourg, is perfectly cast in her role as his feisty paramour. She has the face of a Madonna (not that one), and she has the rare ability to convey emotion with economy...the long gaze that gives nothing away initially, but indicates the wheels are turning furiously inside her head. And Lesley Manville, as Woodcock's sister and adviser, Cyril. Behind her prim demeanor, she's tough as nails.  

But not having the same emotional investment in Reynolds Woodcock that Alma did, and still having to put up with all of his boorish behavior, I found Phantom Thread to be as tedious as was the relationship between the two of them...just wishing that he would bite the big one so I could scoot out of there and go get some lunch. 

Grade:  C +

JILL'S TAKE

I had the pleasure of seeing this film with, not one, but two shrinks who enjoyed these characters' skewered psyches a lot more than I did. The first half was so slow that I feared I'd fall asleep and disturb the audience with a loud and unladylike snore. (But they were probably nodding off, too!)

If Phantom Thread had started the moment our young lovely discovered (and acted upon) a culinary way to chill out her unpredictably cruel lover, I wouldn't have been so droopy-eyed. Still, I would've found more than a thimble full of flaws. My shrink friends were able to enjoy the way the director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson captured the true essence of OCD and sado-masochism. But even they disagreed over whether certain scenes were fantasy or reality. Me, I don't like murky messages; endings that leave the viewer puzzled. (Or, in my case, pissed off!)

Two things I did like: Jonny Greenwood's score (eclectic and a definite mood-setter); and whoever was in charge of the sound. I especially appreciated it when Woodcock would fly off the handle at breakfast because of the noise, i.e. bread being buttered, coffee being poured. These sounds were heightened so we heard them from his ears. A brilliant touch, really.

Still, I'd much rather watch "Project Runway."

Grade: C -



Tuesday, January 23, 2018

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017)



Rated:  R


STARS: Timothee Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Esther Garrel
DIRECTOR: Luca Guadagnino
GENRE: Drama/Romance

Northern Italy. Music...wine and...sex!  I'm on board!

Elio (Timothee Chalamet) is a precocious 17 year-old music prodigy, staying with his parents for the summer at their posh Italian villa. He kinda likes a local girl, Marzia (Esther Garrel), and they end up having some naked fun together. But then a bit older American scholar working on his doctorate arrives to intern with Elio's father, the archaeology professor (Michael Stuhlbarg). At first, Elio is somewhat passively/aggressive hostile toward Oliver (Armie Hammer). But as they spend time together, biking around and playfully feeling each other out (no, what you're thinking of comes later), a mutual attraction develops. It's pretty clear the door to Elio's heart swings both ways. Over the course of the summer, Elio discovers that he has indeed found his first love. 

Call Me By Your Name is a beautiful film on many levels. The cinematography, the achingly poignant music score, but most of all the expressiveness and depth of emotion that young Timothee Chalamet is capable of displaying. (He's earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.) There is "one of those scenes" near the end--a conversation between Elio and his father--that I think is destined to be shown in college acting classes as a way of inspiring students to be all that they can be.  

There is nothing terribly graphic in Call Me By Your Name, other than some female breasts (go figure), though the make-out scenes between Chalamet and Armie Hammer--two purportedly straight actors?-- are extremely convincing, and I could have done with fewer of them. There is one scene with a juicy peach that you will either find cringe-worthy or hilarious, depending on how much you liked the warm apple pie bit from American Pie!  


Grade:  A -

JILL'S TAKE

I found it interesting that not one male—gay or straight—was in the audience when I went to see this painfully long, painfully self indulgent film. I realize director Luca Guadagnino is trying to be sensitive about a somewhat touchy (and I don't mean touchy-feely) subject. But the lengths he goes to not offend any possible homophobes—who wouldn't be caught dead seeing this film—seems like overkill. The developing 'friendship' between the 24 year-old student and his mentor's 17-year-old son takes forever. (In reel time, at least an hour and a half in a movie that last for two hours and twelve minutes!)

If I had to say something positive about this languid love story it would be to praise the score which almost feels like an actual character in the movie. Interestingly enough, no scorer is listed in the credits. Just a music consultant, a music coordinator and a music supervisor. Hmmmm...

I wish I had liked Call Me By Your Name more.(That title makes absolutely no sense, by the way.) But to sound perfectly cynical, I think the only reason it got a Best Picture nod from The Academy was to be 'politically correct.' (Who wants the gay community picketing outside the Kodak Theater on March 4th?) Not to take away from the Best Actor nomination Timothée Chalamat received which he richly deserves. Still, it ain't no Brokeback Mountain.

Grade:  C



Thursday, January 18, 2018

LADY BIRD (2017)



Rated:  R

STARS:  Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges
DIRECTOR: Greta Gerwig
GENRE: Comedy/Drama

The gap between who we are and who we aspire to be never looms larger than during the waning days of high school, when we courageously decide to follow our dreams...or not. Lady Bird is a coming-of-age tale that almost aspires to be a musical--sort of a cross between Pretty In Pink and Glee

Lady Bird (the girl--whose real name is Christine), is on the cusp of graduation, and has ambitions beyond her local Sacramento area colleges, where her obsessive and controlling mom (Laurie Metcalf) wants her to go. The girl has set her sights on some prominent east coast schools, and the conflict this sets up between mother and daughter is at the heart of Greta Gerwig's impressive directorial debut. They have a complicated bond. They can be fighting one minute and the next going ga-ga together over a dress Christine is trying on. Lady Bird also has to contend with a snarky brother and his girlfriend, who provide some deadpan comic relief in the midst of tense situations. And then there's the issue of losing her virginity, which she seems determined to accomplish before moving onto "bigger" things. 

 Saoirse Ronan--in the title role--is the female Jesse Eisenberg. Forever young. I loved her in Brooklyn, where she assumed a more mature persona, and that was three years ago. Now, at twenty three, she's a high school kid and is so totally believable you'd think that yes, she is seventeen, if you didn't know better. She's already scored a win at the Golden Globes for this performance, and we can safely assume an Oscar nomination will follow. 

Laurie Metcalf, as the mom, deserves kudos as well. She's so goddamned irredeemable in her relentless criticism of her daughter--she's the character you love to hate. (You may have trouble deciding if you hate her or Christopher Plummer in All The Money In The World more!) But she's human after all, and that sets up the ending, which of course I won't give away.


Jon Brion's soundtrack is also worth mentioning. It's right on the mark in terms of bringing out the desired emotional effect of every scene. 

If you like a good coming-of-age story as I do (prolly cuz I'm still somewhere in the middle of that transformation), then Lady Bird won't disappoint.

 Grade:  B +  

JILL'S TAKE

Titles can be misleading. Two different friends asked me if Lady Bird was a biopic about Lady Bird Johnson. Far from it! The rebellious teenager in this flick is nothing like our 36th president's progeny Lynda Bird or Lucy Baines. It's a quirky film and one that reeks of originality. But you'd better be on your toes when you watch it. Those quick cuts and edits can sometime leave the viewer asking "What just happened?"

As a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim, I loved the first musical they put on at the very Catholic high school Lady Bird was attending. God bless Gerwig for letting the cast actually sing a lot of the score from "Merrily We Roll Along." ( It got my Broadway toes a'tapping.) There were moments of hilarity alongside moments of pathos. And every character evoked some kind of reaction. From the Mother Superior whose ability to take a joke was refreshing, to the priest aka drama coach whose past finally caught up with him. (I always assume priests don't have pasts!)

If I were to categorize Lady Bird, I'd call it this year's "sleeper." For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a sleeper becomes successful gradually, often with little promotion. Of course now that it's won two Golden Globes (Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy; and Best Perfomance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy), they will be promoting it like crazy!

It was hard for me to take Lady Bird's constant brattiness and her mom's unending negativity but high marks go to both Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf for their painfully real performances.

Grade: B







Monday, January 15, 2018

THE POST (2018)



Rated: PG-13

STARS: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
GENRE: Docudrama

In 1971, the Nixon White House tried to quash the publication of what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers--a classified report on the Vietnam War that was leaked to the press--revealing that the public had been lied to about the war and America's prospects of winning it going back, essentially, to day one. It's no coincidence that in 2018, as history repeats and the free press has once again come under  attack from the oval office, that a blockbuster film, The Post-- drawing parallels between then and now--should come along to strike a blow for truth, justice, and the American way.

Taking up the mantle of Clark Kent back in '71 was Ben Bradlee, executive editor at the Washington Post--played here by Tom Hanks in what surely will be regarded as the role of his career. Co-starring with Hanks is Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham, the widowed inheritor of the Post, whose decision it will ultimately be to put her livelihood and even her freedom on the line if she defies a court order that halted the New York Times, which originally broke the story, from further publication of the report.

 I won't be surprised if  Hanks and Streep  both get Oscar nods. Her name is always there come Golden Globes and Oscar time, but she hasn't collected the hardware in a while, and this may be her best shot to get back in the win column. 

The Post has all the earmarks of a Steven Spielberg film--it's high drama drenched in the authenticity of the era, and it's playing to sold out performances. Not so good for claustrophobics like me, but I managed to keep some space between myself and the guy a couple of seats down who had his feet propped up, shoes kicked off (it's these new comfy adjustable seats the theaters are installing now) and halfway through the movie I heard snoring. I expect to see filmgoers showing up in their pajamas soon. 

The Post, however, should keep most viewers wide awake and glued to their seats--it's riveting stuff that also serves as a much needed reminder, in these precarious times, of why freedom of speech and a free press appear at the very top of the Bill Of Rights. 

Grade:     

JILL'S TAKE

While we're on the subject of lean-back movie seats, I want to kvetch about the overwhelming smell of french fries and the loud chewers sitting next to me.... I realize that movie theaters are bending over backwards to woo customers—although the first time I tried to see The Post it was sold out—but how I long for the good old days when movie theaters were for watching movies!

I pretty much agree with everything Tim says about this film. The attention to detail that Spielberg is so famous for was outstanding. It made me miss phones you could dial, typeset, the whir of printing presses, etc. And I especially loved the authentic outfits, i.e. Hank's striped shirts, Streep's conservative dresses.  High marks go to costume designer Ann Roth, a veteran of Broadway, whose movie credits include other Tom Hanks/Meryl Streep films such as The Bonfire of the Vanities and Postcards From The Edge.

Not only will the leads in this film garner nods from The Academy on Sunday, March 4th. I'll go out on a limb here and say Hanks will win his third Best Actor Oscar. I might also predict a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Bob Odenkirk, who plays Ben Bagdikian, Bradley's right-hand man at The Post. Odenkirk ("Better Call Saul") is one of my favorites.

I might have cut a bit more of The Post(especially the bedroom scene with Streep and her daughter), as I felt it dragged in spots. And I definitely felt Sarah Paulson's acting talent was wasted as Ben Bradley's dutiful wife. But the audience clapped at the end and people are packing the theaters in southern California. So it's definitely worth seeing. And if you want to be sure of getting a seat? Order one online!


Grade: B +