Thursday, May 16, 2019

THE MUSTANG (2019)



Rated:  R

STARS: Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruce Dern, Connie Britton
DIRECTOR: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
GENRE: Drama


To buy into The Mustang means you gotta buy into the BLM's policy of rounding up thousands of wild horses in western states. Most of them will spend the rest of their lives in long-term holding facilities, while a relatively select few will be trained in a prison program that matches inmates up with horses to break them, train them, and make them presentable for auction--with some of the animals going on to a career in  law enforcement and some going to the public. Personally, I think all horses should be wild and free. We should all be wild and free as well, running naked beside them. That's a Garden Of Eden scenario, but hey, I'm a throwback kinda guy.

So right off the bat, this was not going to be my kind of movie. It's extremely loud throughout a good portion of it--with loud rebellious horses...loud angry men...loud helicopters, etc. And it features a protagonist who's about as unsympathetic a character as you'll find. Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is an inmate at a Nevada prison with such extreme anger issues that he shouldn't be around anybody--man nor beast. But somehow he gets accepted into the horse training program run by crusty old wrangler Myles (Bruce Dern).

What follows is a battle of wills between Roman and his horse--and as it says in the trailers: "Some horses you can break, and some you can't." It's a fairly predictable story of redemption for Roman, who finally comes around to showing his human side in an emotionally charged meeting with his young pregnant daughter--trying to make amends to her for his past misdeeds. The trouble with this character study is that it's only vaguely alluded to that he brutally beat his wife and daughter's mother and made her something of a vegetable, requiring long-term care. But we never learn what makes this ticking time bomb tick. There's no back story. Had we learned that Roman was also abused, as most abusers are, I could have felt something for him. As it is, he's just a loose cannon who gets into a fight with his horse...punching the horse, and getting trampled for it as his just desserts. 

Bruce Dern is in his element here as the curmudgeonly old horse trainer who keeps giving Roman second chances. Schoenaerts is convincing--maybe too convincing--in his role. If I'm going to be totally objective, I have to acknowledge that The Mustang is a very well made film in terms of acting, cinematography, realism, and so on. But personally, I didn't enjoy it. This film rips your heart out, and not in a kind or gentle way. It's sad for the horses, because they're not wild and free. It's sad for the inmates, because they're wild but not free. But the real life program The Mustang is based on reportedly has had a transformative effect on many men when they are reintegrated into society.  

Grade:  B -


JILL'S TAKE

As a consummate lover of horse movies from Thunderhead (1945) to Black Stallion (1979) to Seabiscuit (2003), I was not disappointed with The Mustang. In fact, I was blown away by the story, the cinematography and most especially Matthias Schoenaerts' performance.

Have you ever watched an actor that you're unfamiliar with and, after seeing him, feel compelled to look up every film he's ever been in? Such was the case with me and Matthias Schoenaerts. A few weeks back, I watched a 2014 film titled A Little Chaos on Netflix. About King Louis XIV's chief landscape architect played by Schoenaerts, who falls in love with a commoner (Kate Winslet) hired to help design a lavish garden at Versailles. I was so moved by Schoenaerts' acting that I had to find out more about him. I didn't remember him in The Danish Girl(small part) and his other films were ones I hadn't seen – or didn't remember seeing. (Rust and Bone,BullheadRed Sparrow). Life went on and I soon forgot all about this Belgian-born hunk.

Until I saw Mustang.

If this film had been released closer to Oscar nominating season, I'd bet my last euro Schoenaerts would be up for a Best Actor award. And if they gave those gold statuettes to animals, I'd cast my vote for Marcus the Mustang. I was also impressed by female director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre's handling of this very male movie. Last but not least, I applaud Ruben Impens' brilliant cinematography. The aerial shots at the beginning were breath-taking as well as emotionally heart-wrenching.

So what didn't I like? The secondary plot about drugs and nasty cellies was, for me, a cliche and totally unnecessary. When there's an animal in a film, who cares about secondary plots? The Mustang is not for everyone. But if you decide to see it, I guarantee it will make a lasting impression on you.

Grade: A -



Wednesday, May 8, 2019

THE INTRUDER (2019)



Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Dennis Quaid, Michael Ealy, Meagan Good
DIRECTOR: Deon Taylor
GENRE: Mystery /Suspense /Horror


You won't know what to make of The Intruder any more than the young couple--Scott and Annie--know what to make of the former owner of the opulent house in the woods they just bought. 

Charlie Peck (Dennis Quaid) is having a little trouble "letting go." He's a gun nut and a deer killer who can't get over the sentimental attachment he has to the house he grew up in. Scott (Michael Ealy) and Annie (Meagan Good) are an upwardly mobile African-American couple--he's an executive at a San Francisco ad agency, and she does some writing for magazines. Still, there's nothing to indicate they can afford the 3.3 million price tag of the house. Scott initially balks when he hears that figure, but he soon relents because Annie likes the place so much and he wouldn't want her to pout.

They think Charlie is off to Florida to live with his daughter,  but...surprise! He shows up again uninvited to mow the lawn and putter around and continue to kill defenseless animals on their property. You can't get rid of the guy. Scott begins to figure out that Charlie has a screw loose early on, but Annie thinks oh-the-poor-man--he lost his wife  (under suspicious circumstances), and his attachment to his longtime home is something he'll get over in time. So she continues to blindly indulge his impromptu visits, even when Scott is away at work.

There's nothing we haven't seen before in The Intruder. It employs all the old tricks of the trade in the mystery/suspense/ horror genre. The characters do things that are so clueless and stupid--and the brunt of that lies with Annie--that you, as an audience member, want to take off your shoe and throw it at the screen!  But director Deon Taylor is apparently hoping you'll just enjoy it for what it is, and maybe grin along with the darkly comedic aspect of it-- though we don't know if that part of it is unintentional.  

Dennis Quaid is the saving grace of the film. His portrayal of a guy who is right on the edge, and then goes over that edge into a full-blown psychopath is memorable. How crazy is Charlie? He's the second coming of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. There's even a scene that's lifted right out of that horror classic, where Charlie pops his demonically grinning mug through a hole he's carved in the door. You're half expecting his next words to be: HERE'S CHARLIE!  

The Intruder is over the top, but it does the one thing that any good suspense thriller is supposed to do, and that's to keep you on the edge of your seat for the duration. 

Grade:  C +


JILL'S TAKE

A pox on you, Tim, for stealing one of my cinematic comparisons. The Intruder, like The Shining, has quite a few similarities actually. Aside from axe-wielding Dennis Quaid, the darkly-lit home with so many nooks and crannies reminded me of The Overlook Hotel. And the woodsy isolation of the place was also reminiscent of the Stephen King classic. (Granted, the weather was a lot better in this one!)

Yes, The Intruder held few surprises. But who goes to a scary movie to figure out the plot? The idea of pitting a red-neckish white man against a financially solvent black couple was refreshing. And who doesn't relate to the angst of giving up one's longtime home?

But I have to immediately mention something I truly hated about this movie: the score. Every once in a while, especially in the beginning, some loud gangsta rap would blare forth as if our classy couple were more comfortable in the ghetto than the glens of Napa Valley. Intrusive, to say the least. And very much out of character.

When I got to the theater and I saw how empty it was, I assumed I'd be in for a 'summer bummer.'  I was wrong. Within minutes, I became totally absorbed, inwardly groaning with each hospitable move our heroine made toward her obviously obsessed neighbor. Whether you liked The ShiningPsychoThe Amityville Horror, or a legion of other palpitation-makers, The Intruder is definitely worth seeing.


Grade: B

  

Friday, April 12, 2019

THE BEST OF ENEMIES (2019)


Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Sam Rockwell, Taraji P. Henson, Anne Heche, Bill Riddick
DIRECTOR: Robin Bissell
GENRE: Drama


As the slow march toward summer movie mediocrity begins (as evidenced by the previews of upcoming films I just sat through), The Best Of Enemies is something of a find. It's based on the true story of C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) and Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson)--as unlikely of an odd couple as you're ever going to find.

Ellis was a white racist and leader in the Ku Klux Klan. Atwater was a housing activist for black folks. They were chosen to co-chair a committee on school desegregation in Durham, North Carolina in 1971. The committee was charged with giving the thumbs up or thumbs down to allowing children from a black school to integrate with a white school after the former's building was gutted by fire. Representatives from the KKK and the black community formed a panel that would make the decision after two weeks of public hearings. Something like that would be unheard of today in our climate of nasty political polarization.

As you can imagine, the two leads despised each other in the beginning. But a funny thing happens when circumstances dictate that you must interact with people you hate due to fear and ignorance. Their humanity begins to emerge. Your humanity begins to emerge. Because it's in there. Though it may be buried deep down in some of us and need to be dredged up with heavy equipment.

The Best Of Enemies is the inspiring story of how two people from polar opposites met in the middle and became friends. And it's mostly true to the facts (though if you read the book by Osha Gray Davidson you'd be able to nitpick some things from what I understand). 

The film builds skillfully to a climactic moment that may have you cheering or grabbing for your box of tissue. I didn't know the story of this movie going in, but it wasn't hard to figure out halfway through how it was all going to come down. It's predictability doesn't make it any less of a stirring film. We all figured that The Italian Stallion was going to triumph in Rocky II, but it was still a helluva movie.   

The Best Of Enemies is overly long, but I always forgive that if the payoff packs a punch in the end. Good turns from Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson, and a story that allows us to root for the triumph of love over hate. The Best Of Enemies should probably be in the Oscar conversation, but having come out so early in the year, it may not be well remembered by then. In the same way that the spirit of brotherhood is not so well remembered in America these days. 

 Grade:  A -


JILL'S TAKE

Here's a personal antonym, that describes (for me) The Best Of Enemies. Outstanding,Superb, Captivating, Awesome, Relevant. (But despite both leads definitely deserving Academy Awards, the film's early release will probably kill any chance of that happening.) I was familiar with the story beforehand and, ever a fan of built-in conflicts, I couldn't wait to see the movie. I wasn't disappointed.  Neither was the the audience, applauding as the ends credits rolled.

So many great things about this movie!  But since Tim didn't mention the musical score—the irony of what we were seeing on screen as opposed to what we were hearing—I will start by heaping tons of praise on Marcelo Zarvos. Well done!

I hate to use this term, considering the subject matter, but if there's one thing The Best Of Enemies proves it's that nothing in this world is black and white. C.P. Ellis may have been a devoted Klansman but early on we see his tender side when he comforts his mentally challenged son. Sam Rockwell plays bigots so well. His cocky strut, his sneer. Since he's originally from San Mateo, California, I doubt he's had much white-sheet experience. Still, if I was in the same elevator with him, I'd feel slightly unnerved....

Yes, the movie was long and with all those town meeting scenes it could have felt endless but it didn't. If I had to find something to criticize—and, believe me, I'm seriously nitpicking here—I'd say the final turn around seemed a bit too sudden and unbelievable. Still, if you don't seen another movie all year, do not miss this one!

Grade: A+





Tuesday, March 26, 2019

GLORIA BELL (2019)



Rated:  R

STARS:  Julianne Moore, John Turturro
DIRECTOR: Sebastian Lelio
GENRE: Drama, Comedy, Romance

There are plot driven films and there are character studies. Plot driven films typically don't have much character development. Character studies are not heavy on plot. Gloria Bell, a remake of the 2013 Spanish language film, Gloria, is a character study. So the whole thing rests upon the likability and the nuance that Julianne Moore brings to her role as Gloria--a middle-aged woman with two grown kids who is putting herself out there again and is looking for love--a bit too eagerly--in all the wrong places.

In this case it's a Los Angeles area disco she likes to frequent--which gives us the opportunity to groove on some good dance tunes--and where she gets picked up by Arnold (John Turturro), an ex-marine and as unlikely a guy that a still hot woman such as Gloria is likely to go home and jump into bed with as you'll find. But that's what they do. The sex seems okay, but not earth-shattering from what we can see.    

Both Arnold and Gloria have this wistful look in their eye throughout the whole movie. They seem haunted by their pasts and somewhat baffled by the present. Gloria feels dissed when Arnold repeatedly takes calls from his ex or his kids while he is with her and doesn't give them the scoop about his new relationship. He has reasons for not acknowledging her to others, but it' s the kind of stuff guys always give out as a smoke screen when they like you but they're not totally committed. And Arnold has a baffling and frustrating habit of disappearing on her at odd times, ostensibly to get his head together. 

Director Sebastian Lelio obviously thinks if a little of something is good, then a lot more of it is better. So we get multiple scenes of Gloria singing off key while she's driving. We get multiple scenes of Gloria moving to the beat on a crowded dance floor. We get multiple scenes of Gloria's unclothed body (which Moore still likes to show off a la Boogie Nights) before, during, or after sex with Arnold. (I'm not complaining, mind you, about the latter.)

On the up side, there are multiple chuckles in Gloria Bell as well, as two damaged people try to figure out what love is all about when love is no longer as simple as a white picket fence and 2.3 kids running around in the yard beating the crap out of each other. It's a film about the melancholy state of people who are constantly searching for something or someone outside themselves to heal them. They never find it. But that doesn't stop them from looking.

With any luck, Gloria may find herself in the end.

Grade:  B +

JILL'S TAKE

Readers of our reviews often tell me they much prefer when Tim and I disagree. Well, get ready, folks! The two best things about this dreary, seemingly endless film are the music and the trailer. (That was what made me want to see it in the first place!) My mistake. I know I've made this point before but I strongly believe movie-goers must either love or hate the characters they're watching on screen. Or at the very least feel something about them. But both Gloria and Arnold are so...uninteresting, really. And the story, so predictable.

Okay, I've had my rant. As Tim already mentioned, Julianne Moore has—at age 58—well-maintained breasts. And she's been in some first-rate films. One for which she won a well-deserved Oscar. (Still Alice, 2015). But this role wasn't worthy of her. And while I'm on actors, John Turturro was terrific in the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink. In Gloria Bell? Not so much. His sad-eyed, creepy performance was pretty much the same throughout. As the end credits rolled, I was amazed how many well-known actors participated in this movie: Sean Astin, Jean Tripplehorn, Michael Cera, Brad Garrett.

I did love the score, though. It was consistently disco and, for me, the saving grace of Gloria Bell. (The only bell that rang true for me!)



Grade: D

  

Sunday, February 17, 2019

COLD WAR (2018)


Rated:  R

STARS: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot
DIRECTOR: Pawel Pawlikowski
GENRE: Drama/ Romance


With border crossers being the hot button topic of the day, we get a film from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski that crosses more borders--physical, political, and musical--than you can shake a stick at.

Zula (Joanna Kulig) is a performer in a song and dance troupe showcasing traditional Polish music and culture. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is the director who quickly falls for his lovely young ingenue, who is on probation for stabbing her father. (She's got real spunk and spirit, this one.)  She is also attracted to Wiktor, and they will do their thing with each other, and it will be good for a while. Until the commies want them to start injecting some Stalinist propaganda into their performances. Wiktor defects to France and Zula is supposed to follow suit--but she balks, and this is where the complications set in for the star-crossed lovers. But they manage to hook up improbably in Paris, Prague, and Warsaw amidst the changing circumstances of their lives. 

Pawlikowski reportedly based the lead characters on his own parents. But since his father was a doctor and his mother a literature professor, Cold War is not their story--though perhaps the seeds of it were sown when his mother removed him from communist Poland to a permanent exile in the west.

Music, the universal language, is what ties the disparate elements of Cold War together. The traditional folk music of Poland gives way to the jazzy film noir atmosphere of Parisian night clubs. The only constant is that the two leads remain hot for each other through a period spanning the decades of the fifties and sixties. (Only thing is they don't seem to age that much...but regular sex will keep you young looking...or so I hear!)

Joanna Kulig, who does her own singing and dancing, is immensely talented--an alluring and captivating presence who carries the film, which is something of a flawed masterpiece. I say flawed because of the ending. Without giving it away, I'll just say that it doesn't fit the characters. It's a lazy, deus ex machina way to end a film. Points deducted accordingly.

Grade:  B


JILL'S TAKE
For those of you who've gone to see movies with me, you already know my 'bottom line' litmus test. As we exit the theater, I always ask, "What one thing did you like most about this movie? And what one thing did you like least?" (It saves me from listening to long, disjointed cinematic opinions!) Then it's my turn. In the case of Cold War, my favorite thing was definitely the music. No matter what rhythm, language or how a song was presented, it reiterated to me how universal and powerful music is.

My least favorite thing? The editing. Cold War leapt from scene to scene faster than those high-kicking Polish dancers. Whatever happened to subtle transitions in movies? I realize life is often an emotional roller coaster but does art always have to imitate it?

This is the second black and white film I've seen this season. The first being Roma. (Both have received 3 Oscar nominations for Cinematography, Directing and Best Foreign Film). I wasn't killed with either. But forced to choose, I'd go with Cold War. For me, the black and white movie that truly deserved it's many, many Oscar wins was The Artist (2011).

Unlike Tim, I found the ending realistic. But then I'm less of a romantic than my co-reviewer!
Grade: C

Monday, February 11, 2019

FREE SOLO (2018)


Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Alex Honnold, Sanni McCandless
DIRECTOR: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
GENRE: Documentary

Some folks need to risk death to feel truly alive. I have no need of such drastic measures. Falling out of bed in the morning is enough to jolt me awake and be fully present in the moment. But some people need more. Much more.

Enter Alex Honnold, rock climbing enthusiast. Ascending to mountaintops the normal way, with ropes and harnesses, isn't good enough for him. He wants to be the first person to inch all the way up the 3000 foot sheer granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without any of that "sissy" equipment that normally provides the difference between life and death in such endeavors. Alex isn't like the rest of us. He needs a higher level of stimulation, as a telling MRI of his brain reveals.

Free Solo is the documentary that follows him from the planning stages of the climb through the actual attempt itself. Along the way we learn quite a bit about the young man, a healthy eating vegetarian who lives in his van and travels around practicing his "upwardly mobile" lifestyle. It is clearly the most important thing in his life because he indicates that when push comes to shove, he prefers a rock face over a pretty face.  

Enter Sanni McCandless, a young woman he met at one of his book signings. They hit it off...one thing leads to another...and now she's become a part of his life as they cohabitate in the van--and though she's not a professional climber, she's getting more and more into it with him.

There's an undercurrent of how their ongoing romance may affect his concentration and dedication to his sport. (I flash on Burgess Meredith telling Sylvester Stallone in Rocky: women weaken legs!) Any lack of concentration or attention to detail during such a harrowing free solo climb could easily result in it being curtains, and to drive home the point we are shown a lengthy list of climbers who perished during such attempts. 

Free Solo is as gripping and compelling as any suspense thriller I've ever watched. With dizzying and breathtaking cinematography that we get from every angle. I purposely did not do research on the film before seeing it, so I didn't know what the ultimate outcome of Honnold's foolhardy El Capitan adventure would be, and found myself with sweaty palms throughout the second half of the film. And yes, I say foolhardy, because the guy has a girlfriend who looks like a model and his whole life ahead of him. 

For most of us, that would be enough. Unless getting into the record books means more to you than life itself.

Grade:  A


JILL'S TAKE

A nail-biter for sure. And like one of the camera men filming this inconceivable adventure, I had to look away during the final ropeless climb. I went to an evening show and the audience was filled with young people who were vicariously climbing along with Alex Honnold. I was not. But I was admiring his single focus, his dedication and his passion.

If Free Solo wasn't based on an actual event (nominated this year for a Best Documentary Feature award), I'd find it hard to believe that any mom or girlfriend would be so supportive. I sure wouldn't be!

Some of the photography looked like abstract art. And the majesty of El Capitan, as captured so beautifully on film by co-director, cinematographer and co-producer Jimmy Chin, took my breath way. (When I remembered to breathe!)

Tim McGraw's song "Gravity" plays as the end credits roll. As I end my review, I'd like to quote some of them: "Look what you have overcome to get here...Look at the distance you've run...The doubt that you push down...Fear you have drawn out when they said it couldn't be done..."

PS – If you suffer from vertigo, avoid this film at all costs.


Grade: B +

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

THE UPSIDE (2019)



Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman, Julianna Margulies
DIRECTOR:  Neil Burger
GENRE: Comedy/ Drama

There are multiple factors to consider when evaluating a film: story line...acting... cinematography...soundtrack. Sometimes one stands out and makes up for weaknesses in the other areas. In The Upside, a remake of the hit French film from 2011--The Intouchables (reviewed here)--it's the personnel on hand. The quality cast. 

To wit: Bryan Cranston, who plays Phillip, a quadriplegic billionaire (a paragliding accident has him permanently confined to the chair). Cranston does all of his acting from the neck up. No easy feat.

Kevin Hart brings his comedic instincts to the part of Dell, the man who gets hired as Phillip's caretaker and companion. Dell is totally unqualified for the position. He lives on the fringes of the law and he's way behind on his child support payments. He doesn't even want the job--he's just out collecting signatures  to appease his parole officer--until he learns how much it pays. Phillip sees something in him that represents rebellion. Freedom. Adventure. It will happen.

Hart plays Dell as a hapless slacker. In the original film, Dell's counterpart, "Driss," is portrayed by Omar Sy. He's more of a thuggish, straight-ahead tough guy. So there's a different tone to the character. There are laughs in both versions, but in The Upside Hart is spoon-feeding them to us (like he haphazardly spoon feeds Philip).  But every film should stand on its own, and as we all know, movies that are"based" on a book or a true story or another film often fiddle with the particulars.

Nicole Kidman is Phil's gal Friday, who is staunchly opposed to the hiring of Dell in the beginning. I think of Kidman as our finest living actress. I came to this mindset after viewing her fiery performance in Eyes Wide Shut. Since then I've examined her work with a more critical eye, and she is the real deal. Here she is looking radiant and almost school-girlish, belying her 51 years on the planet. 

The exquisite Julianna Margulies as Phil's pen pal rounds out the cast. Their dinner meeting together is  bittersweet, and marks the turning point in the film. 

All that and you get Aretha Franklin singing opera in the background! That's different.

I gave The Intouchables an "A" grade. I like the remake almost as much as the original.

Grade: B +

JILL'S TAKE


When I went to see The Upside, I had some pro and con prejudices about the actors. Con Kevin Hart (too attention-grabbing) and pro Bryan Cranston (AKA William White in "Breaking Bad"). By the end, my preconceived opinions were eradicated.

This seems to be the year of movies featuring totally opposite characters who become bosom buddies, i.e. Green Book and now The Upside. (It all began with Stanley Kramer's 1958 classic The Defiant Ones with convicts Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, eventually learning to trust, even like each another.)

There have been some great films about quadriplegics. To name two of my favorites,The Sea Inside (2004, Javier Bardem) and The Sessions (2012, Helen Hunt). I will now add The Upside to this list. It's a totally engrossing film with more humor, much more, than those other two....

Sure, there are some unbelievable moments but once you buy into the premise, it's a fun ride. When Hart's character earns a $50,000 check for a painting and spends it on a fancy automobile and two apartments in NYC my practical side scoffed. (I kept thinking of my niece's daughter who pays $2500 a month for a 500 sq. ft. studio in lower Manhattan.) And some of the antics (car chases, paragliding, etc.) seemed a bit hard to imagine for someone as physically compromised as Cranston's character. But imagine them I did – and was much the happier for the experience.

Emotionally, I'd like to give The Upside an A. But a small part of me feels it was too happy and upside-ish for the actual situation. I'd love to know how a quadriplegic viewer would react.

Grade: B +