The Red Turtle

Studio Ghibli’s spiritual, silent fable is an early favorite for Best Movie of 2017.

The Red Turtle PosterIn just 80 minutes and with absolutely no dialogue at all, the incredibly beautiful animated fable “The Red Turtle” runs the gamut of the life experience and evokes the presence of God watching over our existence. It’s breathtaking.

The Dutch director and animator Michael Dudok de Wit brought his hand drawn work to Studio Ghibli, the famed Japanese studio that spawned Hayao Miyazaki and his spiritual, life affirming films like “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro.” What de Wit provides in meditative, thoughtful and dreamy filmmaking on par with Ingmar Bergman, Studio Ghibli gives “The Red Turtle” a deep connection to nature, a hint of whimsy and curiosity. Continue reading “The Red Turtle”

Hidden Figures

Ted Melfi’s crowd-pleaser needs to do more to enact real change in race opportunity

It’s hard to be cynical about a movie as crowd pleasing as Ted Melfi’s “Hidden Figures.” This is an underserved story about the African American women who made a major, untold contribution to the space race, and it’s finding an audience.

But here’s the scene that threw me for a whirl: Katherine Johnson has earned a spot in the main room calculating rocket trajectory, but everyday she runs off to the bathroom back in the “colored” section of the NASA campus. “I have no idea where your bathroom is,” a preoccupied and disinterested secretary says to her with just a pinch of salt. Her boss, played by Kevin Costner, chews her out wondering where she disappears to each day. And in a moment of desperation, she pleads that she’s working extra tirelessly to do her job and overcome these absurd segregation barriers. After hearing that, Costner agrees. He takes a sledgehammer to the “coloreds only” bathroom sign and declares free bathrooms for all. Continue reading “Hidden Figures”

20th Century Women

Mike Mills’s follow up to “Beginners” tries to be too profound for too many generations

20thCenturyWomen PosterMike Mills’s “20th Century Women” is trying to be too profound for too many different people. It aims to encapsulate the life experience of men and women, adolescents and adults, mothers and daughters, yuppies and the ordinary. And it does so in a string of literary axioms and bluntly illustrated anecdotes. It attains higher meaning only in doses, a result of a smattering of smartly written scenes and thoughtful performances. But it’s never universal, namely because it’s trying too hard to be.

The three women in teenage Jamie’s (Lucas Jade Zumann) life are his divorced mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), his wants-to-be-much-closer-yet-still-platonic best friend Julie (Elle Fanning), and his mother’s 30-something roommate who acts like a cool, older sister Abbie (Greta Gerwig). Dorothea senses that because he doesn’t have a strong male presence in his life, what Jamie really needs is a stronger female influence. Continue reading “20th Century Women”

Lion

6-year-old Sunny Pawar carries Garth Davis’s observant, anecdotal film on his tiny back.

Lion PosterSaroo Brierly got separated from his family in India when he was just a boy and spent his whole childhood raised in Australia by a foster family. It wasn’t until he was in his 20s that he used Google to trace down a past he could hardly recall and a home he didn’t know would still be there.

What makes “Lion” special is that it shows that Saroo’s story isn’t entirely unique. It spends its first hour immersed in young Saroo’s perspective. It observantly and anecdotally illustrates the livelihood of poverty-stricken children across India. Saroo’s story feels profound not only because of the journey toward a tearful reunion, but because it devotes so much time at the eye level of this young boy. Continue reading “Lion”

I, Daniel Blake

Ken Loach’s Palme D’Or winning film is a powerful tearjerker and scathing indictment of the State.

I Daniel Blake PosterIf Americans can’t respond to the politics of the Palme D’Or winning “I, Daniel Blake” as strongly as the Brits, they’ll still be able to appreciate its emotional wallop. Director Ken Loach has spent his life in film defending the poor, working class by championing human fortitude and decency. And by taking on the worst form of inane bureaucracy, something that Republican or Democrat, Green, Labor or Conservative have all found frustrating, he’s told a story that’s as funny as it is heart wrenching.

We first hear a frustrated Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) impatiently fielding invasive questions about his health to a faceless bureaucrat with a voice so blandly calm it sounds like a recording. His doctor says he’s not fit for work, but the government says he’s fine. Daniel’s caught in limbo: unable to work but also unable to receive benefits.

We hear stories like this in the US, and in Trump’s America it’s anyone’s guess as to whether someone could find empathy for this person. “I, Daniel Blake” however is very specific to Britain, exposing a convoluted system that should inspire as much debate as sentiment. Continue reading “I, Daniel Blake”

Toni Erdmann

Be patient with this slow-burning, yet hilariously unpredictable German comedy

toni-erdmann-posterYou need to be patient with “Toni Erdmann.”

This nearly three hour-long German film goes nearly an hour as just a modest family comedy with some awkward humor before finding its voice. It’s only with a complete and sudden surprise does the movie’s naturalistic, deadpan filmmaking get thrust into full on anarchy. It’s worth the wait.

Maren Ade’s film milks the absurd from the ordinary, a loving comedy between a father and daughter grown estranged. And yet “Toni Erdmann” overcomes its Hollywood log line by establishing a tone of suspense and uncertainty. The film is rarely manic, but the set pieces defy predictability. Continue reading “Toni Erdmann”

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

J.K. Rowling plays up the whimsy over the darkness in her first of five Harry Potter spinoffs.

fantasticbeastsposterYou may have forgotten how whimsical the original Harry Potter book and film once were. J.K. Rowling’s first novel was akin to a Roald Dahl classic, a magical story fit for children and only slowly developing the stakes and the real world connections across the entire series.

Now comes “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a Harry Potter spinoff in which the story is not based on a book but is an original screenplay developed by Rowling. It carries the weight and expectations of the darker, later films, all of them directed by this film’s director David Yates. But the story’s charms are far lighter in nature, only hinting at the many directions this blossoming franchise can go.

For instance, the movie opens with the portent of the rise of Gellert Grindelwald, the evil wizard who believed in magical purity before Voldemort came around. But that prelude soon gives way to Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) chasing a fuzzy, teleporting platypus around Manhattan. Continue reading “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them”

Oasis: Supersonic

Director Mat Whitecross captures Oasis at their best and most important in this fascinating rock doc

oasisdocposterI can envision two different Oasis documentaries. The first would be called “Wibbling Rivalry,” named for a 14-minute audio recording between a journalist and Noel and Liam Gallagher in which the two bicker incessantly and show their unique brotherly love and hatred for one another. It would focus on how the band broke up simply because these two tossers can’t find a way to get along. It would culminate in a moment a few months ago, when asked if the band would ever reunite, Liam tweeted “FUCK OASIS” and proceeded call Noel a “POTATO.” I would pay good money to see that movie.

The other is “Oasis: Supersonic.” This film takes Oasis at their absolute best and indulges the Gallagher brothers’ massive egos as though they really were the biggest rock band in the world. Director Mat Whitecross ignores the rest of the musical world around them and unironically refers to Oasis as the last pre-Internet phenomenon. That may not be true, but it works because the doc immerses us in the perspective of the Gallagher brothers and how they looked at themselves. It has the same treasure trove of archival and live concert footage as Ron Howard’s recent Beatles doc “Eight Days a Week,” but it is far better at examining what about these songs captured the attention of a generation. Continue reading “Oasis: Supersonic”

Things to Come

Isabelle Huppert shines in this intellectual character study from Mia Hansen-Love

thingstocomeposterMany movies can barely muster one thought provoking central question to guide their characters. Mia Hansen-Love’s “Things to Come” is full of them: “Can truth be debated?” “Can we put ourselves in the place of the other?” “A government so perfect is not suited to men.”

And yet “Things to Come” crosses over into being too academic once we’re introduced to the “anarchists” who commune in the mountains, talk about philosophy and do seemingly nothing. “Things to Come” may be touching and thoughtful as a character study, but it’s too talkative and introspective to be profoundly memorable.

At the very least though, Isabelle Huppert as philosophy teacher Nathalie grants “Things to Come” warmth and wisdom alike. Her character may hide behind her intellect, but it’s Huppert’s poise to withhold her emotions and make her authority known in front of her students that makes the performance great and Nathalie wonderful.

And she’s forced to soldier on through a lot. At first her book on philosophy will not be renewed for a new edition. Then it’s the death of her mother and a split from her husband that send her in pursuit of companionship and solace from a handsome former student.

While many will admire “Things to Come’s” intelligence, many more will appreciate it’s simpler charms, like a nuisance of a cat named Pandora, a name that simply invites trouble. Perhaps most profound of all is how that stupid animal, as much as it wanders and vanishes, will be the most consistent part of Nathalie’s life as she aims to reinvent herself.

In that way, “Things to Come” will make you ponder your own values and philosophies before reminding you there’s more to life than just those philosophy.

3 stars

The Comedian

Robert De Niro can’t get laughs with a thin premise and outdated view of the comedy scene

The ComedianIn the Post-“Louie” era of TV and film, people have become fascinated with the psychology of The Comedian. And it’s hardly Earth shattering to suggest that these people who make us laugh are not one-dimensional clowns but artists with personal struggles and complexities.

Taylor Hackford’s film “The Comedian” has been an idea percolating with Robert De Niro as long as eight years ago, but eight years later it now has the familiar premise of “Bojack Horseman,” barely the heart of even a mediocre “Louie” copycat and an antiquated view of Internet comedy and stardom. Continue reading “The Comedian”