Tag Archives: film review

“The Post” a solid piece of craftsmanship

When a film’s writing, directing and acting all work together, the result, no matter the film’s other shortcomings, is poetry. “The Post” finds director Steven Spielberg with stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep and writers Josh Singer working together and balancing their talents to create a great film.

“The Post” focuses on the Washington Post’s decision on whether or not to publish the Pentagon papers, leaked classified documents that show that the United States knew the Vietnam War was unwinnable, but continued to send troops to die anyway. Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the Post’s owner, must grapple with whether the risk of taking on the federal government is worth it to print the truth, a truth which hurts one of her dear friends, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). Meanwhile, editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) pushes to uphold the right of the freedom of the press despite the consequences.

The film is a taught examination of a single choice and the consequences that stem from that choice. It masterfully builds up the pressures put on the characters and uses their backstories to drive their actions, creating greater empathy and eventual repercussions. Hanks and Streep’s acting, along with Bob Odenkirk and the entire cast really, convey the desperation of their choices and the repercussions it could have for future journalists.

Spielberg has always focused on the simple actions of good people and the positive influence they can have on the world. Whether it be Oskar Schindler saving the Jews in his factory despite the risks or Abraham Lincoln choosing to liberate the slaves over peace or the platoon in “Saving Private Ryan” trekking across Europe to save Private Ryan despite the craziness of risking all their lives for one man. The Post’s decision to publish the papers sparks the same moral compass: the truth should win out. In a world of moral grayness, finding the right solution and sticking to that is what matters.

While Spielberg sometimes indulges in the cheerleader ra-ra moments of fist pumping that are unnecessary, his focused direction on the story and characters combined with his ability to infuse action with deeper meaning make the film breeze along and engage the viewer.

At times feeling a bit too messaged-focus especially in the light of today’s news, “The Post” nevertheless is another strong example of the newspaper film that exemplifies the honorable duty of the newsman and newswoman.

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“Call Me By Your Name” a timeless coming-of-age story

Directed by Luca Guadagnino “Call Me By Your Name” is definitely a gay movie, but it is certainly more than that. A coming of age tale about love and heartbreak, it is a very universal story that all viewers can relate to.

It is 1983. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is a 17-year-old boy who lives in northern Italy with his family. His father’s research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer), visits from the United States and the two begin a relationship in secret. As Elio’s sexuality burgeons, the weight of love bears down on him and how he views himself and his world changes.

The emotional journey of Elio keeps the story timeless. As he goes from naive young man to flirty adolescent to passionate lover to heartbroken adult, we see through him our own stories of love. Even though its plot is about two gay men needing to keep their relationship a secret in a world that doesn’t accept them, it is really a story of learning about love and the joy and pain that entails and that makes it pertinent to every viewer.

The film is anchored by its two standout leads, Chalamet and Hammer. They have incredible chemistry together and each give a powerful performance. The role of Elio’s father played by Michael Stuhlbarg and his off-again, on-again girlfriend played by Esther Garrel are also strong, but it is the leads who give the film its emotional heft and memorability.

The film utilizes a slow buildup to its emotional beats, not focusing on big, dramatic moments but on small gestures. Oliver massages Elio’s back during a game of volleyball. Elio takes Oliver to his secret spot where he reads books for hours on end. Elio has trouble dancing with his girlfriend in front of Oliver. What might at first be considered unnecessary filler are actually important character beats that let you into the minds of Elio and Oliver. Through these small actions, we can see their struggles, their desires and the undercurrents of emotions that flow within them.

“Call Me By Your Name” is not a big flashy drama, but it is a moving portrait of forbidden love and growing up. Featuring some of the best acting of the year, it is a subtle story focused on complex themes.

“The Shape of Water” a strange but touching romance

Those who abhor bestiality may do well to avoid “The Shape of Water.” An homage to monster and Hollywood love films as well as a rebuke of male-centric hegemony, “The Shape of Water” is a deft tale of love, passion and intrigue.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is mute, working as a cleaner in a secret government facility, her only friends Zelda (Octavia Spencer), another member of the help, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), her eccentric painter neighbor. When a strange creature from the Amazon is brought in to the lab by supposedly tough-as-nails army man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), Elisa forms a special bond with him and a romance starts to brew, one that will change her life forever.

Featuring the gorgeous cinematography that director Guillermo del Toro’s films are known for (provided here by Dan Laustsen), the film is a textbook example of filmmaking wizardry, utilizing framing, composition, color and depth to tell its story.

It is at heart a story about the dreams that fester in our minds, dreams amplified by Hollywood glamour and the movies, dreams of finding love, dancing and feeling absolute happiness, and how those dreams clash with daily reality, where governments try to one up each other and would rather kill an innocent creature rather than let it fall into their competitor’s hands. To Elisa, someone who has never been able to speak and works a menial job, those dreams keep her spirit alive and finding love, even a love with something beyond imagination, is a remarkable experience. Fighting for her dream against the cruelty of man’s world tests her resolve in a dramatic way. Another interesting note are the pressures put on the villain of Richard Strickland. Rather than a one-dimensional stereotype, we see how the stress of being a man’s man gets to him, to provide for his family, to be a winner, to be a man of the future. At one point, he even asks, when is what I do enough to qualify me as a good man? This humanizes him in a strong way that develops greater appreciation for the story’s themes.

Strange, beautiful, stylistic and above all, heartfelt, del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is a moving love letter to all movies: monster, science fiction, drama, spy thriller and romance.

 

Best Movies of 2002

2002 was a seminal year for film in a variety of genres. The musical and fantasy adventure film were given some of their strongest entries in decades and classic films with themes of love, poverty and desire were produced. As the world settled into a post-9/11 mentality, filmmaking reflected both a need to escape current worries and to reflect on recent events.

Best Film – City of God by Fernando Meirelles

Fernando Meirelles’ City of God was hailed as an instant classic at its release over ten years ago. Its glow has not diminished since.

The story of two boys, Rocket and Li’l Zé, growing up in the 1960s in Rio de Janeiro, the film illustrates life in a crime-ridden world where violence is everywhere and moral corruption begins at a young age. Rocket is trying to figure out his life and just wants to be a photographer. Li’l Zé is hell-bent on power and will do anything to get it. By showing these two alternate roads, the film illustrates how difficult it is for youth to rise above their environment and the great temptation that environment has to corrupt.

Terrifying in its visual style and deeply moving, City of God is an incredibly visceral film that presents a history of violence. For those wondering how violence and poverty correlate in a world that is seemingly spinning out of control, this film explains it all.

Adaptation by Spike Jonze

Strange, funny, dramatic and at times disturbing, Adaptation focuses on not just the problem of writing, but the problem of finding meaning in something you create, a task far more daunting.

Written by the great Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, once the film starts, it never pulls back. Putting himself in his own screenplay, Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) has been given the task of adapting Susan Orleans’ (Meryl Streep) novel, “The Orchid Thief”, a tale starring orchid hunter John Laroche (Chris Coopet), into a film. Bewildered and suffering a crisis of confidence, Kaufman struggles as his own idiot twin brother (also played by Cage) develops his own ridiculous projects.

Strongly acted, stylishly directed and wonderfully written, the film embraces a number of genres to illustrate the difficulty of any act of creation, even the one presented to you now.

Chicago by Rob Marshall

With Moulin Rouge reviving the musical genre the year before, Rob Marshall and company took Bob Fosse’s classic Broadway show “Chicago” and brought it to cinemas. The result may be the greatest movie musical of all-time.

Starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah, Richard Gere and John C. Reilly, Chicago tells the story of a young wannabe star who ends up murdering her lover and gaining infamy in prison through a desperate appeal to the press as her case comes to trial.

By presenting the musical numbers through the mind of Zellweger’s character, the film avoids the awkward intercut between music and dialogue. In addition, the editing allowed the filmmakers to move the story along with the songs, keeping a vibrant pace that smooths out the narrative. Wonderfully designed and endlessly watchable, the film is not only the most fun of the year, but also one of the best made.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers by Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson continued his foray into Middle-Earth with the second installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Two Towers.

With the fellowship broken, Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Gandalf and the rest of the free peoples of Middle-Earth must fend off a growing horde of evil as the forces of darkness march against them. Culminating with one of the greatest cinematic battles of the modern era at Helm’s Deep, the film also finally introduced audiences to Gollum, a CGI creature that forever changed the way movies were made.

Not just a breathtaking war story, the film also goes deeper into each of the characters, their struggles and themes of sacrifice and companionship. Perhaps the most beloved of the now decade-old trilogy, the film firmly established The Lord of the Rings franchise as a pop culture phenomenon.

Talk to Her by Pedro Almodóvar

Pedro Almodóvar delivered one of his best films in Talk to Her, the story of two men joined together by difficult circumstances and struggling to make sense of love and fate.

Benigno (Javier Cámara) and Marco (Darío Grandinetti), after a chance meeting at a movie theater, meet again at a private clinic where they discover that they are each caring for a woman in a coma, Benigno caring for a Alicia (Leonor Watling), a ballet student, and Marco caring for Lydia (Rosario Flores), a matador. As they are encouraged to talk to the women despite their unresponsiveness, they learn intimate details about love and unrelenting desire.

Flashing back and forth from past to present, the films delves into fantasies and produces images that are thought-provoking, grotesque and beautiful all at the same time.

 

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” a powerhouse film

Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” tells the story of Mildred (Frances McDormand), a mother struggling with the rape and murder of her daughter. Frustrated with the police investigation, she buys three billboards near her home and writes the message, “Raped while dying and still no arrests. How come, Chief Willoughby?” across them. This sets the town into an uproar as Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and fellow officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) must confront the hardheaded Mildred and their own personal failures.

The film is an emotional tour-de-force, featuring great acting, solid directing and superb writing. It is a character examination of Mildred and Dixon in particular as they each come to terms with finding some form of justice in the world. They are as deep and interesting as novel characters, and the film in many ways come across as a long-form novel. The twists and turns of the story leave the characters facing heavier and heavier burdens and the stakes of finding Mildred’s daughter’s killer continue to grow.

There are some uneven moments throughout the narrative, especially in regards to Chief Willoughby’s character arc, and the film is decidedly not a straightforward mystery. The ending to the film is vastly different than how most of these types of films end and is sure to please some but anger many. At times, the film is clunky and some scenes don’t serve much purpose, but the emotional core and character dynamics keep the story sturdy.

The film deftly veers between comedic elements and dramatic scenes, providing an all-encompassing view of life that is both melancholic and hopeful. It is the journey that is important to these characters, their continuous striving towards a just outcome despite the obstacles in their way. And the obstacles in a world that doesn’t seem to value righteousness are indeed great.

“Three Billboards” is a harrowing look at our world that wears it’s heart on its sleeve. The fully dynamic characters and surprising plot make the film unforgettable.

‘Lady Bird’ a well-made, if familiar coming-of-age tale

Greta Gerwig’s impassioned look at youth coming of age in 2002 is being hailed as one of the best films of the year. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it is certainly a very well-made movie.

Lady Bird’s real name is Christine (Saoirse Ronan), but she refuses to go by it. She spends her final high school year arguing with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), trying to find the perfect boyfriend and fitting in with the ‘cool’ kids in the rich neighborhood. In a Christian school, she yearns to break out of her Sacramento upbringing and hit the East Coast. As the pressures of life mount, it seems as though she is trying to be anyone but herself.

Saoirse Ronan is terrific in the lead role, totally encapsulating the angst, desire and anguish of youth. Her confrontations with her mother are heated yet loving.

There are some chuckles throughout a story that primarily focuses on the bonds we have with others and have they influence us. Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother, father, brother, best friend, the cool girl at school and various boys all test the boundaries of how she defines herself. It is a very universal story of acceptance of oneself.

There’s a lot to like about the film, but it is not really anything we haven’t seen before. There’s great writing, strong directing and powerful acting, but not much in the way of original ideas.

Movie Essentials: “2001: A Space Odyssey”

A rumor surrounding the initial studio screening of the film follows that one of the producers of the film, having worked hard to pump millions of dollars into the budget over an enterprise that lasted years, stood up at the film’s conclusion and promptly had a heart attack. Whether the rumor is true or not, the film has been giving viewers similar moments of shock, awe and bewilderment since.

2001: A Space Odyssey starts with a group of early humans, scrounging for food, competing with each other. They discover a strange, tall, black monolith which somehow instinctively draws them to it and soon they learn the concept of tools, the creatures taking the bones of a deceased tapir and using them to kill prey and rivals. Next, the audience is transported millions of years into the future, mankind now roaming space at ease, having discovered that same monolith on the moon, unsure what to make of it. A space mission to Jupiter finds a trio of characters, Drs. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) along with the artificial intelligence program HAL 9000 trekking to the far corners of the solar system. After HAL mistakenly reports that a part of the ship is malfunctioning, Bowman and Poole talk of shutting HAL down. HAL responds by killing Poole, cutting off his air tube in space and then disabling the life support systems of the other crewmembers in suspended animation. Bowman is able to unprogram HAL as the ship comes to Jupiter, finding another floating monolith in space that transports him through the cosmos. In a desolate room by himself, Bowman watches himself quickly grow old until he is on his deathbed. He stares up at the monolith above him once more, reaching out towards it before he is suddenly transformed into the Star Child, a fetus-looking organism that overlooks Earth.

What it all means has been debated for years. Some have likened it to the journey of evolution, the growth from primitive animal to man to machine to eternal being. Others note the similarity in the storyline to that of The Odyssey (Bowman using a key to unhinge HAL similar to Odysseus knocking the eye out of the Cyclops). Some even see technology being the true center of the story, HAL at times much more human than either Bowman or Poole, who often appear robotic and unemotional.

Kubrick refused to reveal his original intentions as to what the film meant. Wisely, he did not want to sway anyone’s opinion. Screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke once said, “If you understand ‘2001‘ completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered.” However, if you read the subsequent book that he wrote of the same name, it explains that the monolith is a creation of alien life that imbues other species with intelligent life. There are no aliens in the film however, giving the monolith a far more God-like feel, an omnipotent object that is unidentifiable.

Personally, in the mind of this reviewer, the monolith has always seemed a symbol of knowledge and power beyond human understanding, a metaphor for the eternal nature of the universe that we as human beings can only ponder but not understand. HAL, our attempt to create life, goes horribly wrong because of our inability to replicate consciousness as the universe does. What Bowman undergoes at the film’s conclusion is the metamorphosis into a being of sublime eternalness, the wisdom that comes from our souls joining the universe.

This process of understanding life is illuminated throughout the film itself, our birth represented as primeval man just learning to adapt (to walk for a child), the journey of adolescence symbolized by the voyage into space and the acceptance of inevitable death as Bowman is transported to a location beyond space and time, where such material aspects are inconsequential, and where he is joined with the universe, reaching a state of Utopian existence.

Now, that is only my interpretation. There are literally hundreds of others from all over. Different religions identify with the themes of the film and their own notions of the afterlife. Scientists debate its views on evolution and the progression of life on Earth and throughout the universe. Even hippies, those primarily responsible for making sure the film has the stature it does today, see psychedelic importance in the journey away from civilization into pure bliss. There is no right or wrong interpretation, creating a legacy for the film that will never end.

Kubrick stated that he wanted to change the medium of cinema with his work. He wanted to investigate new ways of experiencing film beyond the conformity that had set into the industry. With 2001, he has given audiences a film that continues to elicit questions and tickle our minds long after viewing. Boasting special effects that still appear seamless today and having influenced a generation of filmmakers, 2001 makes the wonder of the possibility of cinema seem infinite.