Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Movie Reviews
Movie Reviews

Jumanji Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) Movie ReviewAn enjoyable modernization of Chris Van Allsburg’s storybook source material.

High school nerd Alex Wolff transforms into The Rock in Jake Kasdan’s action-fantasy sequel.

Stepping far enough away from Chris Van Allsburg’s 1981 children’s book Jumanji to appeal to older kids while remaining just connected enough to justify keeping the name, Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle reimagines the book’s magic-board-game conceit for the era of video games. By transforming its teen heroes into adult avatars, this outing both gets beyond the discomfort of throwing small kids into peril (a complaint some critics made against Joe Johnston’s 1995 adaptation starring Robin Williams) and finds a way to milk a talented crew of A-list grownups — toplined by Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart — for comic value. Young audiences should enjoy the body-swap adventure, which has a few dopey moments but in general is funny enough for their parents to enjoy as well.

Modernization only goes so far here. Instead of making Jumanji, say, an augmented-reality smartphone app — a promising way to have fantasy and the mundane world collide — the screenwriting team reimagines it as a 1990s-style gaming console. In a prologue, a lone teenager stumbles across the game in 1996, turns it on, and is immediately transported from his bedroom into some world we do not see.

Cut to the present day, as Spencer (Alex Wolff) squirts some sanitizer on his hands, packs his EpiPen, and heads into the germ-filled world of high school. After a brisk sequence of events, he winds up stuck in detention alongside football player Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), narcissistic Bethany (Madison Iseman), and the introverted Martha (Morgan Turner). They’re supposed to be cleaning up the school’s vast storage closet as punishment for their assorted transgressions. But when they find this relic of a videogame among the detritus (who knows how it got to school from that kid’s bedroom), the four decide to try it out. They, too, get sucked into another dimension.

Thrown into a dense jungle, each kid is transformed into the character he or she selected, Mortal Kombat-style, when they fired the game up. Luckily for the film’s comic side, each unwittingly chose someone very unlike himself: Scrawny and skittish Spencer becomes The Rock’s Smolder Bravestone, the expedition leader. The jock is now a diminutive zoologist, Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), and is none too pleased about it. Mousy Martha is kick-ass Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, Doctor Who‘s Amy Pond), and immediately complains about her dumb Lara Croft-like wardrobe of exposed midriff and breast-hugging shoulder holsters. And Instagram-addicted Bethany, so proud of her hotness, has turned into a tubby, balding middle-aged man, Jack Black’s Professor Shelly Oberon.

The script winks at videogame conventions as it explains its heroes’ strengths and weaknesses, gives them a mission, and reveals that each has three lives to expend before it’s Game Over for real. They’re supposed to find a magical “jewel of the jungle” and return it to a giant statue’s eye socket. But that stone is also hunted by a villain (Bobby Cannavale) who has somehow become one with the jungle’s beasts, making his body a skin-crawling home for millipedes and scorpions.

Structuring its challenges in the level-by-level mode familiar to gamers, the movie’s action has a much more ordinary feel than that of the earlier picture. But while each stage of their quest seems like it would make for a pretty easy-to-beat video game, the action suffices in big-screen terms.

The film’s main appeal is in watching familiar actors pretend to be ordinary kids grappling with their new selves. Johnson is predictably charming, imagining himself as a kid suddenly blessed not just with a spectacular physique but a superpower defined as “smoldering intensity.” And Jack Black gets the expected kind of laughs as he mimics the voice and gestures of a mean girl who recoils at being stuck in this unbangable bod but is then, I don’t know, kind of fascinated to have a penis? Gillan and Hart more than hold up their end of things, and while the choice of music could be much better, Ruby Roundhouse’s demonstrations of her “dance fighting” skills are crowd-pleasing.

Occasional character-development interludes reek of group screenwriting sessions: “Guys, how can we use the fewest possible lines to get across the idea that these kids are learning important lessons about themselves?” But a shy romance between Spencer/Bravestone and Martha/Roundhouse charmingly exploits some of these choose-who-you’ll-be-in-life notions, and an encounter with a stranger who has also been trapped in the game gives even Bethany a credible shot at redemption.

jumanji welcome to the jungle ver18 Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) Movie Review

Production companies: Matt Tolmach Productions, Seven Bucks Productions, Columbia Pictures
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Bobby Cannavale, Nick Jonas, Rhys Darby, Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner
Director: Jake Kasdan
Screenwriters: Chris McKenna, Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg, Erik Sommers
Producers: Ted Field, William Teitler, Matt Tolmach, Mike Weber
Executive producers: Dany Garcya, David B. Householter, Jake Kasdan
Director of photography: Gyula Pados
Production designer: Owen Paterson
Costume designer: Laura Jean Shannon
Editors: Steve Edwards, Mark Helfrich
Composer: Henry Jackman
Casting directors: Nicole Abellera,Jeanne McCarthy
PG-13, 118 minutes

just getting started Just Getting Started (2017) Movie ReviewCourtesy of Broad Green Pictures

Oscar winners Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones play rivals who must join forces to fend off a mob hit in Ron Shelton’s action comedy.

A film that is not screened in advance for the press is not likely to be an undiscovered masterpiece. But it is not necessarily going to be as bad as such neglect suggests. Just Getting Started, the first feature written and directed by Ron Shelton in more than a decade, is sneaking into theaters without much attention.  Shelton, the filmmaker behind such hits as Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump and Tin Cup, hasn’t matched those movies with his new comedy, but given his track record and the cast he’s assembled, headed by Oscar winners Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones, he deserved a better break.

The faltering studio behind the film, Broad Green Pictures, has rightly positioned the movie as a holiday release, aimed squarely at older audiences. It’s set in a retirement community in Palm Springs over the Christmas holidays, and Shelton finds humor in the incongruity between the sunlit desert and the ostentatious Christmas decorations. (Most of the film was actually shot in New Mexico, with just a few establishing shots of the California enclave.) Duke (Freeman) is top dog in the community, with a number of women vying for his sexual attention and a few cronies who are happy to act as lapdogs. But his position is threatened by a mysterious new arrival, Leo (Jones), who challenges him on the golf course and in the boudoir.

Duke also faces a more serious threat in the form of a criminal boss lady (Jane Seymour) who sees him on a TV promo for the resort and sends her son to dispatch him for his testimony against her family some years earlier. Duke has been hiding in a witness protection program until inadvertently unmasked. Leo proves to have the lethal skills that Duke needs to survive a mob hit, and the two are forced into an uneasy partnership.

The first problem with the movie is that it’s a little too jaunty ever to generate any real sense of jeopardy for our hero. A scene with a rattlesnake in a golf bag does offer a nifty jolt, but the suspense in the rest of the film is decidedly low-key. Our two villains are too bumbling to represent much of a threat, and this makes the film lag, even though it’s tightly edited by veteran Paul Seydor.

The humorous interludes in the picture are also of varying quality. Freeman seems to have enjoyed the rare opportunity to play a frivolous role, but he’s sometimes too broad in straining for seductiveness. Jones, on the other hand, demonstrates his expertise without ever breaking a sweat. He worked with Shelton on Cobb, and he underplays most effectively here, bantering smoothly when that’s required, but also convincing us that he’s a force to be reckoned with. Rene Russo (the co-star of Shelton’s Tin Cup) also gives a satisfying performance as a woman mistakenly underestimated by both Duke and Leo.

Less successful are the three ladies trailing after Duke. This is no fault of the three actresses — Elizabeth Ashley (in a rare screen appearance), Sheryl Lee Ralph, and the late Glenne Headly. All of them are a pleasure to watch, but their roles as breathless acolytes desperate to bed Duke seem a bit squirm-inducing at this particular moment in history.

The film is ingratiating enough, but its main value is to make us eager for another, more substantial Shelton movie long before another decade has slipped by.

just getting started ver2 Just Getting Started (2017) Movie Review

Cast:  Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones, Rene Russo, Glenne Headly, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Elizabeth Ashley, Joe Pantoliano, Jane Seymour

Director-screenwriter:  Ron Shelton

Producers:  Bill Gerber, Steve Richards

Executive producers:  John Mass, Alan Simpson

Director of photography:  Barry Peterson

Production designer:  Guy Barnes

Costume designer:  Carol Oditz

Editor:  Paul Seydor

Music: Alex Wurman

PG-13, 91 minutes

The Pirates of Somalia The Pirates of Somalia (2017) Movie ReviewCourtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Evan Peters plays an untrained journalist who went where pros wouldn’t in Bryan Buckley’s true-story adventure.

The story of how an aspiring reporter with no journalism training became a leading authority on a subject few Western news outlets dared to cover, Bryan Buckley’s The Pirates of Somalia entertainingly adapts the nonfiction book of the same title by Jay Badahur. Though the world’s attention has moved on to other geopolitical hotspots and to domestic issues more terrifying than kidnappings off the Horn of Africa, this stranger-in-a-strange-land adventure has enough appeal to sustain its limited theatrical release, where the popularity of star Evan Peters (of American Horror Story) should help compensate for a seemingly miniscule promotional campaign.

Peters plays Badahur, a politically conscious Toronto resident who has the misfortune of graduating from college in 2007. Consigned by the Great Recession to his parents’ basement while he does marketing research for a napkin manufacturer, he sends out a stream of story pitches, all rejected, in hopes of breaking into magazine reporting.

Then he meets an elderly writer whose work he admires, and gets pointed in the right direction. As Seymour Tolbin, Al Pacino functions a bit as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs did in Almost Famous — giving viewers a colorful performance while doling out quick life lessons to our naive hero. Tolbin encourages Badahur to “go somewhere crazy” if he wants to make his name, and gives him the number of a CBC producer who might help him get published. Upon hearing about pirate attacks in Somalia, a country he once wrote a research paper about, Badahur scrounges together some cash and heads to Africa, where he hopes to dig beneath the sensationalism and understand the socio-economic context of this piracy.

In Puntland, Somalia’s northeast region, the Canadian is received warmly by the country’s president and his journalist son, who both hope he’ll write a book disabusing the West of its preconceptions. (The film takes pains to note Somalia’s steps toward peaceful democratic operations.) They set him up with a translator and fixer, Abdi (Barkhad Abdi, almost as valuable here as in Captain Phillips and Eye in the Sky), who will prove a good friend as the months pass.

Badahur’s status as the only Westerner in these parts may be slightly overstated — another Canadian reporter was kidnapped before he arrived, though that was near far-off Mogadishu — but the film is enjoyable in its depiction of his precarious status. On one hand, he’s a quick study with bits of language and history; on the other, he doesn’t take local dangers as seriously as he should.

He’s especially foolhardy in trying to befriend a dealer of the drug khat who also happens to be a wife of the region’s biggest pirate. Sabrina Hassan Abdulle is sly and intelligent as Maryan, who surprises Jay with her knowledge of Hollywood movies.

We learn about piracy alongside Badahur, meeting two men who separately command teams of hundreds of nothing-to-lose pirate. They see themselves as “saviors of the sea,” who are simply collecting taxes the government is too weak to impose on foreigners. One says he was happy to be a lobster diver until foreign interests came in and destroyed his livelihood.

In the film’s somewhat simplified account, all of Badahur’s professional hopes boil down to an attempt to board a foreign ship while it is held by pirates, getting video footage of the hostages that he can sell to CBS. That attempt isn’t as exciting here as it might have been in a fictional adaptation, but it lets our hero’s story intersect slightly with that of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, later recounted in Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips. That high-profile event changed things in the region and seems, both on screen and off, to have launched Badahur into exactly the career he hoped to have.

pirates of somalia The Pirates of Somalia (2017) Movie ReviewProduction company: Hungry Man Productions
Distributor: Echo Bridge
Cast: Evan Peters, Barkhad Abdi, Sabrina Hassan Abdulle, Mohamed Barre, Mohamed Abdikadir, Al Pacino, Melanie Griffith
Director-Screenwriter: Bryan Buckley
Producers: Mino Jarjoura, Matt Lefebrve, Claude Dal Farra, Irfaan Fredericks
Executive producers: Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Hilary Davis, Stephen Kelliher, Peter Pastorelli, Jane Rosenthal, Michael S. Murphey, Robin Shenfield, Hank Perlman, Kevin Byrne, Bryan Buckley, Phil Crowe
Director of photography: Scott Henriksen
Production designer: David Skinner
Editor: Jay Nelson
Composers: Andrew Feltenstein, John Nau
Casting directors: Henry Russell Bergstein, Allison Estrin, Bonnie Lee Bouman

In English and Somali
R, 117 minutes

perfectos strangers Perfect Strangers (Perfectos desconocidos) (2017)Courtesy of TeleCinco Cinema

Alex de la Iglesia remakes Paolo Genovese’s 2015 Italian hit, a dark dinner-table comedy about how our digital devices threaten our relationships.

“Everybody has three lives,” said Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “public, private, and secret.” Like the Paolo Genovese original which it pretty faithfully copies, Perfect Strangers explores to comic effect the capacity of cellphone technology to blur the limits between our different existences, as a group of friends agree to listen to one another’s messages and calls as they come in during a dinner party. It’s a clever plot device, but one whose ramifications both Genovese and de la Iglesia are happy to skate over the surface of. So although it’s enjoyable to make the acquaintance of the well-played, crowd-pleasing Strangers, the encounter is quickly forgotten.

The canny commercial eye of Telecinco Cinema has found the sweet spot this time, with de la Iglesia’s fourteenth feature jumping straight to the top of the box office, Spaniards turning out in droves to nervously giggle as their techno-fears play out onscreen. The Weinstein Company has optioned the English language rights, suggesting that this one is destined primarily for Spanish-language territories.

Events unspool on the night of an eclipse — conveniently, eclipses are where people go a little crazy, and tonight will be no exception. Spiky psychotherapist Eva (Belen Rueda) and plastic surgeon hubby Alfonso (Eduard Fernandez) are a little older and perhaps wiser than the dinner guests at their central Madrid apartment: a couple in crisis, slimy Antonio (Ernesto Alterio) and brash Ana (Juana Costa), badmouthing each other from the start (and also a couple in real life); taxi driver Lothario Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega) and wide-eyed Blanca (Dafne Fernandez), a newcomer to the group, very much in love; and unemployed Pepe (Pepon Nieto, similarly tubby and hirsute to Giuseppe Battiston in the Italian original), who much to everyone’s annoyance turns up late and without the new girlfriend everyone’s anxious to meet.

Early scenes feature much off-putting machista talk from the men, which will make them pretty repellent from the start to some audiences. With the idea of spicing things up, and safe in the knowledge that her relationship with Eduardo is secure, Blanca suggests that everyone lay their cellphone on the table so that the others can hear and read their calls and messages: After all, such old friends surely cannot be hiding anything from one another?

But after a prank call from Alfonso, Antonio confides to Pepe that he’s having an affair. He asks Pepe to swap phones for the evening, and the lid comes off. By the end of the evening, after an extended stretch of comedy which is traditionally homophobic in its assumptions and which any English-language remake will have to tackle, all of the characters except one will have heard their damaging secrets aired.

Strangers hits the comic sweet spot more often than it misses, and the face-offs between Alterio and Nieto have terrific moments. The characters are all familiar and relatable, and in trad farce style events play out at a slightly frenzied pitch, but the performances go beyond the slick mechanisms and are strong enough to bring something individual to the table.

Standouts are Nieto, who delivers a fine little monologue on tech’s threats to relationships, and Fernandez who, in a telephone conversation with his 17 year-old daughter Sofia (Beatriz Olivares), delivers the film’s quietest and most memorable scene, a superbly-filmed, pin-drop counterpoint to all the farcical hi-jinx that precede and follow it. (Alfonso is the only properly grown-up character, which is a bonus, since in most Spanish comedies there are none to be found.)

Towards the end, there’s a fifteen-minute stretch where the farce gives way to something darker, where the characters seem really to be suffering. But the script abandons that line pretty quickly. Ultimately, Perfect Strangers is completely traditional material, albeit one with a clever new twist.

De la Iglesia handles it all with elegance and a sharp, practiced eye, Angel Amoros’ camera sometimes sweeping dizzyingly around the apartment, sometimes honing in on tell-tale details, all the time skillfully obliging the viewer to forget that essentially we’re watching a single-location movie. (Once all the remakes are out, expect theatrical adaptations.)

Occasionally we move outside onto the terrace to look at the eclipse which will provide the film with its hard-to explain twist ending. Emotionally upbeat but dramatically unjustifiable, it at least has the virtue of ensuring that Strangers concludes as expected on the requisite pre-Christmas happy note — an ending that, which given all the screaming angst that has preceded it, might be the film’s biggest lie of all.

perfectos desconocidos Perfect Strangers (Perfectos desconocidos) (2017)

Production companies: Telecinco Cinema, Nadie es Perfecto, Pokeepsie Films
Cast: Belen Rueda, Eduardo Fernandez, Juana Acosta, Dafne Fernandez, Eduard Fernandez, Pepon Nieto, Ernesto Alterio, Beatriz Olivares
Director: Alex de la Iglesia
Screenwriter: Jorge Guerricaechevarria, based on the film by Paolo Genovese
Producers: Alvaro Agustin, Ghislain Barrios, Kiko Martinez
Executive producers: Carolina Bang, Paloma Molina
Director of photography: Angel Amoros
Art Director: Jose Luis Arrizabalaga, Biaffra
Costume designer: Paola Torres
Editor: Domingo Gonzalez
Composer: Victor Reyes
Casting director: Carmen Utrilla
Sales: Telecinco Cinema

97 minutes

November Criminals November Criminals (2017) Movie ReviewSeacia Pavao/Stage 6 Films

Chloë Grace Moretz and Ansel Elgort play high school seniors whose classmate is murdered in Sacha Gervasi’s adaption of a novel by Sam Munson.

A privileged teen ventures onto the wrong side of the tracks, and a would-be murder mystery veers into ever-more-faux dramatic territory in November Criminals, the third film by Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil, Hitchcock). The starry chemistry of leads Ansel Elgort and Chloë Grace Moretz injects a modicum of energy into the coming-of-age drama, whose elements of romance, crime and smart-kid angst never coalesce.

Beyond the movie’s missing sense of urgency, it strands David Strathairn and especially Catherine Keener on the sidelines of the narrative clutter. The feature was released to digital streaming outlets in advance of a theatrical run that’s sure to be brief.

Elgort and Moretz portray Addison and Phoebe, students at a public high school in Washington, D.C. — a setting that’s played by Rhode Island and whose particular social resonance is hinted at but goes largely unmined. On the afternoon that they lose their virginity to each other — a practical project instigated by Phoebe, who’s eager to “get it over with” before she heads to Yale — Addison’s friend Kevin (Jared Kemp), a fellow literature geek, is shot dead at the café where he works as a barista.

Addison becomes obsessed with solving the case, especially after the police and the press seem to shrug it off as gang-related. Everyone around him, including Phoebe and their earnest principal (Terry Kinney), interprets his fixation as an expression of repressed grief over the recent death of his mother. That he conflates the two unexpected losses is clear, and his adolescent railing against the injustice of the universe rings true. But on the worldly plane, as opposed to the philosophical one, the film futilely raises the question of another injustice.

Kevin was black, and the screenplay, credited to Gervasi and Steven Knight (Locke), suggests that the self-appointed boy detective might uncover a racially based cover-up or case of systematic indifference surrounding his friend’s murder. Then the movie turns into a flat, after-school whodunit, complete with a clumsily directed visit to the dead boy’s parents (Victor Williams, Opal Alladin). Addison follows leads to a strung-out former classmate (Danny Flaherty) and a scary drug dealer (Cory Hardrict), and with each headlong plunge into danger, his mission grows more contrived.

The economic realities that underlie the story are under-explored, though Gervasi uses them for straightforward character shading. Phoebe’s single mother (Keener) is a lobbyist whose financial success is evident, if not her area of interest; it’s a thinly conceived role that even the gifted Keener can’t lend dimension. Given a bit more room as Addison’s father, Strathairn quietly conveys the widower’s grief, and his general sense of struggle and resilience. Since losing his newspaper job, he and his family have fallen from a certain level of comfort, moving out of their posh neighborhood. It’s unclear whether Addison’s use of such old-school tech as a pager and an old camcorder is a matter of cost-cutting or an affectation.

Elgort and Moretz, on the heels of high-profile turns in films that were, respectively, widely seen (Baby Driver) and never released (I Love You, Daddy), deliver the requisite self-conscious smarts and sexual curiosity. With her cool poise, Phoebe is a convincing foil for the flailing Addison. But while Elgort suggests an awkward sincerity beneath the uncharming cockiness, the film finally feels as pointless as the video diary that his sleuthing character insists on making.

november criminals November Criminals (2017) Movie Review

Distributor: Sony/Stage 6 Films, Vertical Entertainment
Production companies: Lotus Entertainment, Black Bicycle Entertainment, Ingenious Media Services, Olfactory Productions, Pictures, Treetop Pictures, B.I.G. Inc.
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Chloë Grace Moretz, David Strathairn, Catherine Keener, Terry Kinney, Cory Hardrict, Philip Ettinger, Danny Flaherty, Victor Williams, Opal Alladin, Tessa Albertson, Adrian Mompoint, Karina Deyko, Jared Kemp, Samuel Ray Gates
Director: Sacha Gervasi
Screenwriters: Steven Knight, Sacha Gervasi
Based on the novel by Sam Munson
Producers: Beth O’Neil, Erika Olde, Ara Keshishian, Bill Johnson, Jim Seibel, Marc Bienstock
Executive producers: Angus Sutherland, Tanja Tawadjoh, Malindi Fickle, Teri Moretz, Trevor Duke-Moretz, Jessica de Rothschild
Director of photography: Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Production designer: Curt Beech
Costume designer: Julie Weiss
Editor: Martin Pensa
Composer: David Norland
Casting directors: Douglas Aibel, Henry Russell Bergstein

Rated PG-13, 86 minutes

Hollow in the Land Hollow in the Land (2017) Movie ReviewCourtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Dianna Agron plays a woman desperately trying to clear her younger brother of murder in Scooter Corkle’s thriller.

Never mind the inner cities. The backwoods of Canada are far more dangerous and violence-strewn, if Scooter Corkle’s debut feature is to be believed. Starring Dianna Agron as a young woman desperately searching for her missing younger brother accused of murder, Hollow in the Land traffics in familiar rural thriller territory, but it features an excellent performance from its lead actress and a strong atmosphere of moody tension courtesy of its writer/director.

Agron plays Alison, who makes a hardscrabble living working at a pulp mill, the town’s main industry. She’s raising her trouble-prone teenage brother Braydon (Jared Abrahamson) herself, since their mother abandoned them years earlier and their father is in prison after killing the mill owner’s son in a drunk-driving incident.

The day after Alison picks up Braydon when he’s been arrested for participating in a drunken brawl, his girlfriend’s father winds up murdered. His body is discovered in a trailer park not long after he walked in on Braydon having sex with his daughter (Sarah Dugdale) and a fight ensued. Braydon, who inevitably become the chief suspect, promptly disappears, leaving Alison to search for him while attempting to discover who else might have committed the crime. Her investigation attracts the ire of the hostile local sheriff (Michael Rogers) as well as the townspeople, several of whom also wind up dead under mysterious circumstances. As a result of her hard-headed approach, Alison winds up as a murder suspect herself.

The film’s complex, conspiracy-strewn narrative proves less interesting than its characterizations, including Alison’s supportive police officer friend (Shawn Ashmore) and her female lover Charlene (Rachelle Lefevre), who happens to be the mother of Braydon’s girlfriend and the murder victim’s ex-wife. Alison’s lesbian relationship, which doesn’t endear her to her small-town neighbors, is depicted in casual but frank fashion. The film features strong female characters in general, including several women who wind up assisting Alison in her investigation. Agron, who has made admirably adventurous screen choices (Bare, Novitiate) since her breakout role on TV’s Glee, delivers a compellingly gritty performance as the determined, emotionally damaged heroine.

Hollow in the Land further benefits from its rustic British Columbia locations, superbly captured for maximum bleak effect by cinematographer Norm Li.

hollow in the land 1 Hollow in the Land (2017) Movie Review

Production company: Savath Pictures
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Dianna Agron, Shawn Ashmroe, Rachelle Lefevre, Jared Abrahamson, Michael Rogers, Brent Stait, Sarah Dugdale, Jessica McLeod, Glynis Davies
Director-screenwriter: Scooter Corkle
Producers: Marlaina Mah, Jesse Savath
Executive producers: Chris Ferguson, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Daniel Levin, Al Sebag
Director of photography: Norm Li
Production designer: Danny Vermette
Editor: Aynsley Bald
Costume designer: Ariana Preece

100 minutes

ferdinand ver3 Ferdinand (2017) Movie Review

John Cena makes for a formidable Ferdinand in this CG take on the not-so-cocky bull story.

It’s no Coco, but Ferdinand, a CG-animated adaptation of the classic 1936 Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson book about a flower-loving bull who’d rather sniff than fight, manages to squeak by with enough charming set-pieces and amusing sight gags to compensate for a stalling storyline.

Nimbly choreographed by Carlos Saldanha, marking the seventh Blue Sky feature he has either directed or co-directed, with John Cena agreeably voicing the role of the “peace-a-bull” protagonist, the Fox release should handily hit the bullseye with targeted holiday family audiences when it charges into theaters next weekend.

Although the Leaf book, featuring Lawson’s whimsical ink drawings, has been translated into more than 60 languages, many will also be familiar with the seven-minute 1938 Disney adaptation, Ferdinand the Bull, which would take home the Oscar for best short subject (cartoons).

Stretching the subject matter onto a feature-length canvas, the production kicks off in Casa del Toros, a bull training camp in rural Spain from which young Ferdinand bolts upon learning his dad never returned from a trip to that Madrid arena. He finds idyllic refuge on a farm belonging to Juan (singer Juanes), whose daughter Nina (Lily Day) makes a pet out of the docile creature until he grows to an enormous, threatening size (cue Mr. Cena) and is subsequently seized by the authorities and delivered back to Casa del Toros, where a bull becomes either a fighter or meat.

Not fond of either of those options, and with the famous bullfighter El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre) eyeing him for his farewell appearance, Ferdinand plots an escape with the assistance of Lupe, a decidedly hyper calming goat (the always dependable Kate McKinnon), and a trio of hedgehogs named Uno, Dos and Cuartro (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs and Gabriel Iglesias) who prefer not to speak of the absent Tres.

There are moments of comic delight to be found here, like a literal “bull in a china shop” sequence, as well as the foppish antics of a trio of Lipizzaner horses (voiced by Boris Kodjoe, Flula Borg and Sally Phillips). But the plotting — the script is credited to Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle and Brad Copeland — admittedly takes a while to find its footing, and even when it does, the stop-start momentum never quite rises to the occasion.

The visual renderings, including those pastoral vistas, with all the bright green rolling hills and sunny azure skies, are certainly pleasing to the eye, and the characters, particularly the formidable Ferdinand, inhabit those vibrant spaces with a lithe grace.

The voice work is similarly nimble, but although Cena and McKinnon are terrific, it might have been nice to have heard Hispanic actors in the lead roles rather than just the supporting ones.

Likewise, a golden opportunity seems to have been missed with the soundtrack, where, of the three original songs, two are performed by Nick Jonas, reserving the third for Juanes. In a year when Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” smashed chart records the world over, it might have been a better plan to hear how Ferdinand and company would do it down in Madrid or Toledo.

Production companies: Fox Animation, Blue Sky Studios, Davis Entertainment
Distributor: Fox
Cast: John Cena, Kate McKinnon, David Tennant, Gina Rodriguez, Peyton Manning, Bobby Cannavale, Anthony Anderson, Jerrod Carmichael, Flula Borg, Daveed Diggs, Jeremy Sisto, Raul Esparza, Sally Phillips, Boris Kodjoe, Gabriel Iglesias, Miguel Angel Silvestre.
Director: Carlos Saldanha
Screenwriters: Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle, Brad Copeland
Producers: John Davis, Lori Forte, Bruce Anderson
Executive producer: Chris Wedge
Director of photography: Renato Falcao
Editor: Harry Hitner
Music: John Powell C
Casting director: Christian Kaplan

Rated PG, 107 minutes

the strange ones The Strange Ones (2018) Movie Review

A camping trip is not what it seems in a psychological suspense drama starring Alex Pettyfer and James Freedson-Jackson.

With their first feature, the ambitious and exceptionally well-crafted The Strange Ones, directors Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein demonstrate an undeniable mastery of mood. The atmosphere of disquiet that they drum up casts a spell, without question, but one that serves the story only to a point. However nuanced and artful, the nightmarish unease is laid on so thick that, in combination with the cryptic narrative, it gradually turns to murk.

The film’s expressionistic exploration of trauma and identity centers on a teen boy who’s either a runaway or an abductee, and whose traveling companion might or might not be his older brother. Some will be intrigued by the head-trip mystery, others irritated by the drama’s pile-up of feints and elisions.

The indie will follow its Oscar-qualifying run with a Dec. 7 bow on DirecTV, and is scheduled for an early-2018 theatrical release, when its inclusion on John Waters’ top 10 list for 2017 could boost box office.

Expanding the directors’ 2011 short film of the same name, Radcliff’s screenplay essentially splits the story into two halves. The first revolves around a road trip; the second, more elliptical section, deals with its repercussions. A sense of dread and emergency dominates from the get-go, drawing the viewer in but also setting a baseline that ultimately defuses the movie’s intended jolts.

At the wheel of the station wagon is a scruffy, intense twentysomething (Alex Pettyfer). Riding shotgun, when he’s not sleeping in the backseat, is a shell-shocked teen, Sam (James Freedson-Jackson, of Cop Car). In the rearview mirror is a fatal house fire. When the boy introduces himself to strangers as Jeremiah, the lie is obvious. Just as blatantly false is the duo’s assertion that they’re brothers heading to the woods for a leisurely camping trip. Though the exact nature of their relationship isn’t clear for much of the story, the idea that something is very, very off is all but spelled out in neon.

As the film shifts time and place, filtered through Sam’s perspective, Freedson-Jackson shifts from vulnerable to shockingly precocious, and back again to a childish naïveté. His largely flat-affect performance, which received a special jury citation at SXSW, is unsettling, a combination of astutely played moments, merely blank ones and an excess of close-ups.

With more seasoned deftness and restraint — and a sometimes wobbly American accent — Pettyfer (Elvis & Nixon) exudes a disturbing mix of violence, tenderness, sexual menace and allure. A sickening wariness infects the two main characters’ every exchange, and in the early going there’s a mildly gripping uncertainty over who’s in control and who’s manipulating whom. But however strong the cinematic ambience, the suspense factor dwindles precipitously as the storyline fragments.

Even while the narrative falters, cinematographer Todd Banhazi’s masterful compositions distill an affecting essence from the rural New York state locations. Beyond the woods and the country roads, the drama delves into such unexpected locales as an off-season motel and a work camp for teens. The former is run by a flirtatious young woman, the latter by an affably no-nonsense older man — well played, respectively, by Emily Althaus (Orange Is the New Black) and character actor Gene Jones (No Country for Old Men).

The directors use both sequences to heighten elements of doubt and imbalance. But the mystery over what’s happening to Sam and how much of it he understands loses its hold — first as the plot enters an explanatory phase, and then as it doubles down, unpersuasively, on its skewed, subjective angle.

Addressing such serious matters as abuse and mental health, Radcliff and Wolkstein deliver effective moments of horror and, to a lesser extent, insight. A crucial ingredient in realizing the feature’s dark spiral of a dream state is the haunting score by Brian McOmber (Krisha, It Comes at Night), one of the best composers working in film today. His flute-forward theme quotes motifs from Gene Moore’s music for the immortal B movie Carnival of Souls, in certain ways an apt point of reference.

Yet as assured as the filmmaking is, and as much as it announces a talented helming duo, its mode of emphatic understatement makes for an overly arduous viewing experience, and one with diminishing returns. After stripping away all the low-key mannerisms and would-be frissons, a viewer is likely to respond with a shrug of agreement when Freedson-Jackson’s character complains that he “can’t tell if it’s, like, real or a dream. Or whatever.”

strange ones The Strange Ones (2018) Movie Review

Production companies: Stay Gold Features, Adastra Films, Relic Pictures, Archer Gray, Gamechanger Films, Storyboard Entertainment
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Alex Pettyfer, James Freedson-Jackson, Emily Althaus, Gene Jones, Melanie Nicholls-King, Olivia Wang, Owen Campbell, Tobias Campbell, Birgit Huppuch, Will Blomker
Directors: Lauren Wolkstein, Christopher Radcliff
Screenwriter: Christopher Radcliff

Story by: Christopher Radcliff, Lauren Wolkstein
Producers: Sebastien Aubert, Michael Prall, Eric Schultz, Shani Geva, Daniela Taplin Lundberg
Executive producers: Anne Carey, Paul Finkel, Ozo Jaculewicz, Mynette Louie, Jason Potash
Director of photography: Todd Banhazi
Production designer: Danica Pantic
Costume designer: Mitchell Travers
Editors: Christopher Radcliff, Lauren Wolkstein
Composer: Brian McOmber
Casting director: Jessica Daniels

Rated R, 82 minutes

bullet head Bullet Head (2017) Movie Review

Adrien Brody, John Malkovich, Antonio Banderas and Rory Culkin star in Paul Solet’s thriller about a trio of criminals trapped in a warehouse with a vicious attack dog.

If life were more like the movies, criminals wouldn’t be committing robberies, they’d be hosting dinner parties. Although it’s doubtful that prison cafeterias are a hotbed of witty banter, crime films always seem to feature crooks who love to chat as much as they break the law. The latest example is writer/director Paul Solet’s new thriller Bullet Head, in which a trio of career criminals are trapped in a warehouse by a vicious attack dog and while away the time by exchanging ironic stories from their past. They’re also eventually pursued by a ruthless but voluble gangster who wields an automatic weapon that seems loaded as much with words as bullets.

The film’s main draw is its cast, all of whom have seen more illustrious career days but nonetheless can still deliver the goods. The trio of unnamed robbers — a grizzled veteran, his soulful partner and a young junkie — are played by John Malkovich, Adrien Brody and Rory Culkin. The ensemble also includes Antonio Banderas, in his most fearsome mode as the gangster, and the dog, who gives the best performance. (Well, three dogs, to be precise. Their names, for the record, are Han Solo, Curly and Ademar.)

When the crooks’ heist goes awry, as heists tend to do in films of this type, they find themselves unable to escape. Unfortunately for them, the warehouse in which they’re stuck is also the site of illegal dog fights whose canine combatants have been given such names as Eastwood, Mitchum and Bronson, presumably because the lowlifes who run dogfights are inevitably movie buffs. When a recent victor, a Presa Canario named De Niro, manages to get away, he terrorizes the hapless criminals who also happen to be animal lovers.

We know that because of the dialogue, of which there is an inordinate amount. Malkovich and Brody (we never learn their characters’ names) engage in a spirited conversation about the relative merits of dog and cat people. They, along with Culkin, also deliver long-winded anecdotes, dramatized in flashbacks, all featuring animals. They include stories about a truffle-sniffing dog, an ill-advised attempt at stealing a bowl of fish for a little girl’s Christmas present and a heartrending episode in which a father shoots his young son’s dog.

To their credit, the actors deliver the stories with the sort of relish displayed by young thespians auditioning for the Actors Studio. And while Banderas doesn’t have a flashback of his own, he gets to deliver a folksy monologue nonetheless, one made all the more impressive by the fact that he’s firing a gun as he’s doing it.

Unfortunately, Bullet Head has a lot of dead time between the flashbacks. The exception is a lengthy set piece in which Brody is pursued by De Niro (the dog, not the actor, who somehow managed to avoid being in this B-movie) through the warehouse. It’s a bravura sequence, complete with Brody seeking refuge in a school bus and a piano (yes, a piano), and it even has emotional resonance as well, since by the time it’s over Brody and the dog have reached a truce and a grudging respect for each other.

The filmmaker, clearly an animal lover, makes the dog the most vivid character in this minor crime drama. Considering the caliber of the actors in the cast, that’s no small accomplishment all by itself.


bullet head Bullet Head (2017) Movie Review

Production companies: Sunset Junction, Principato Young Entertainment, Millennium Media
Distributor: Saban Films, Lionsgate
Cast: Adrien Brody, Antonio Banderas, John Malkovich, Rory Culkin, Alexandra Dinu, Ori Pefffer
Director-screenwriter: Paul Solet
Producers: David Gardner, Raphael Swann, Victor Shapiro, Paul Solet, Milos Djukelic, Yariv Lerner, Boaz Davidson, Les Weldon
Executive producers: Avi Lerner, Trevor Short, Zoran Popovic, Rick Benattar, William V. Broomiley, Ness Saban, Shanan Becker.
Director of photography: Zoran Popovic
Production designer: Nikola Bercek
Editor: Josh Ethier
Costume designer: Anna Gelinova
Composer: Austin Wintory
Casting: Luke Cousins

Rated R, 93 minutes

the post The Post (2017) Movie Review
NOR_D11_061317_1665_R2 – Tom Hanks (as Ben Bradlee) and Meryl Streep (as Kay Graham) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE POST. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise.

Type: Movie; Genre: Drama; Release Date: 12/22/17; Performer: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks; Director: Steven Spielberg; MPAA: PG-13

Steven Spielberg’s The Post is set in 1971, yet it couldn’t be more about 2017 if it tried. There are period-specific sideburns, mustard-colored shirts, and a screen choked with cigarette smoke, but it’s a timely wake-up call about speaking truth to power in the “fake news” era.

Movies, of course, take a long time to gestate, and when this rousing ink-stained procedural about The Washington Post’s race to publish the Pentagon Papers was being written, the 2016 election wasn’t yet over. Spielberg caught a lucky break — if you can call anything related to that election lucky. The message of the movie is so obvious it’s a shame it needs repeating: namely, that an adversarial press is essential to democracy.

Spielberg can’t help but turn The Post into a “message movie.” He rises to our current moment on stilts, with a megaphone and a swelling John Williams score. Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep star as Post editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham, whose cash-strapped paper is an also-ran next to the more august New York Times (something that wouldn’t truly change until the Post’s Watergate coverage later). After the Times publishes a trove of leaked top secret government documents detailing a vast web of lies about the war in Vietnam, President Nixon sues to stop further publication. So Bradlee and his team of hard-charging reporters (including a rumpled Bob Odenkirk) pick up the baton and barrel to the finish line. The film hinges on the push-pull dynamic between the charismatic, rolled-shirtsleeve Bradlee (Hanks has never been such a terrific rascal) and Graham, his patrician boss who’s more comfortable hosting parties for Beltway swells than making tough calls in the bullpen.

The beauty of Streep’s performance (and it’s one of her best in years) is how she lets you see her grow into the responsibility of her position. She elevates The Post from being a First Amendment story to a feminist one, too. Spielberg makes these crucial days in American history easy to follow. But if you look at The Post next to something like All the President’s Men, you see the difference between having a story passively explained to you and one where you’re actively helping to untangle a narrative knot alongside the characters. That’s a small quibble with an urgent and impeccably acted film. But it’s also the difference between a very good movie and a great one.

post ver2 The Post (2017) Movie Review

phantom thread Phantom Thread (2017) Movie Review
Daniel Day-Lewis stars as “Reynolds Woodcock” and Vicky Krieps stars as “Alma”
in writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s PHANTOM THREAD, a Focus Features release.
Credit : Laurie Sparham / Focus Features

Type: Movie; Genre: Drama; Release Date: 12/25/17; Performer: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville; Director: Paul Thomas Anderson; MPAA: R

For a long time, next to nothing was known about Phantom Thread. It was simply known as the new Paul Thomas Anderson film that may or may not be about a British fashion designer. Then, with a well-timed bombshell announcement from its star, Phantom Thread became the new Paul Thomas Anderson film featuring Daniel Day-Lewis’ final performance before retiring from acting.

Now that the movie is finally here, it can now called for what it actually is: the new Paul Thomas Anderson-Daniel Day-Lewis film that, despite all of the anticipation, is a little underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong — like all of Anderson’s films (the best of which remain Boogie Nights and Magnolia), Phantom Thread is meticulously crafted, visually sumptuous, impeccably acted, and very, very directorly. But until the final act, this straight-jacketed character study is also pretty tame stuff — emotionally remote, a bit too studied, and far easier to admire than surrender to and swoon over. It seems to exist under glass.

Once again, Day-Lewis goes deep and has clearly done his homework. The 60-year-old actor doesn’t seem to know any other way. In an era of tin-plated movie stars, the world of cinema will miss him. But I’m not sure he will look back and be glad he went out on this film. Here he plays a renowned British dressmaker named Reynolds Woodcock (the name could’ve just as easily belonged to the lead stud in one of Jack Horner’s productions in Boogie Nights), a fastidious dandy and confirmed bachelor in 1950s London, who lords over his bustling atelier alongside his trusted-but-equally imperious sister Cyril (a wonderfully clipped and chilly Lesley Manville). He’s like a cross between Christian Dior and General George Patton.

Reynolds is a perfectionist, and though he dresses the cream of European high society, he’s prone to hair-trigger outbursts. In his company, one butters their breakfast toast and stirs their tea at their own peril. Flitting from fitting to fitting in bespoke suits, natty bow ties, and silver swept-back hair, Reynolds finds himself in a creative funk. The little flourishes he gives to his gowns (such as secret little messages and locks of hair he sews into the hems) are no longer enough to fuel his art. He needs a new muse. And he finds inspiration in the most unlikely of places.

While stopping for breakfast one morning in the English countryside, he notices a slightly awkward, auburn-tressed waitress (Luxembourg-born actress Vicky Krieps) with a vaguely continental accent. Her name is Alma, and he thinks that she has…something. Her measurements are important, to be sure. But she also seems to possess a mysterious air of hauteur that belies her seemingly modest circumstances. Reynolds strikes up a forward and flirty conversation with her and invites her to dinner that night. Then he brings her to his studio and fits her for an evening gown. Watching him swirl around her with a measuring tape and a mouthful of pins, you get the impression that not only has a woman like Alma never been paid attention to like this before, but also that this is Reynolds’ way of making love. His own chaste form of seduction and conquest.

The initial romance between Reynolds and Alma — not to mention the vibe of the film itself — feels exceedingly melodramatic, as if this was Anderson’s hat-tip to classic movie whirlwinds like Rebecca and Vertigo. The movie seems to breathe ether instead of oxygen. As their courtship develops, the headstrong Alma moves in with Reynolds and his snippy sister. She’s a third wheel in their incestuous brother-sister act and she gets pushed around, but not without pushing back, which of course becomes too much for Reynolds, so used to getting his way all the time. She refuses to play the role of a mute mannequin. She has opinions — and strong ones. But deep down, he comes to realize that she cares about his art as much as he does. He needs her just as much, if not more, than she needs him.

There’s a long Hollywood tradition of movies about obsessed, demanding male artists who treat others (usually women) shabbily. Anderson isn’t exactly exploring untrammeled territory. But Day-Lewis elevates this overworked thematic cliché into something unforgettably his own. His immersive technique, which has been written about to death, makes you believe him in the deepest marrow of your bones regardless of whether he’s playing Christy Brown, Daniel Plainview, or Abraham Lincoln. No other actor does quite what he does as well as he does it.

But until the late going, the film engages mostly on the level of watching a great actor at work than as enthralling drama (although Jonny Greenwood’s score and Mark Bridges’ costume design are stunning). It isn’t until the final stretch of the story, when Alma, the simple country girl in the dizzying world of high fashion, proves to have an inner sadomasochistic edge to her desire and passion, that the film perks up and grabs your attention instead of just your admiration — even if it does verge on being a bit goofy. Still, it’s a relief to see Phantom Thread shift gears from too-tame to torrid and twisted. You may even find yourself leaning forward in your seat, saying under your breath: Okay, finally! Here we go! It takes a bit too long for Anderson to get there, but for the most part, the wait ends up being worth it.


phantom thread ver2 Phantom Thread (2017) Movie Review

i tonya I, Tonya (2017) Movie Review
I, Tonya
Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan)

Type: Movie; Genre: Drama; Release Date: 12/08/17; Performer: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan; Director: Craig Gillespie; MPAA: R

In a sport of princesses, Tonya Harding was the perpetual toad: a trashy, too-brash outsider whose mind-blowing axels and sheer athleticism could never quite make up for the fact that she didn’t fit the demure, spangled mold of an ideal figure skater. Raised but hardly nurtured by a chain-smoking waitress (Allison Janney, a viper in Tootsie glasses and a mushroom-cap haircut), Tonya steadily clawed her way up the junior ranks, thanks mostly to pure willpower and the proxy parenting of a coach (Julianne Nicholson) who tried her best to steer her wild-card charge. What set Harding’s destiny, though, was the arrival of Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), the dim-bulb paramour and protector whose wonky scheme to take down his wife’s rival Nancy Kerrigan would go down in Olympics infamy.

Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) frames the movie as a faux documentary stuffed with flashbacks, talking heads, and fourth-wall-breaking asides. His form of satire can be a blunt instrument; it’s hard to tell sometimes whether he wants to be the Coen brothers, Christopher Guest, or just Spinal Tap on ice. But he’s also working from a script where the truth was irrefutably stranger than any fiction. And though the physical abuse Harding endures leaves an ugly bruise on its high-camp ’90s nostalgia, there’s something genuinely electric about the narrative’s headlong tumble into madness. The skating scenes, too, are thrilling, but Robbie is the real revelation. In a performance that goes far beyond bad perms and tabloid punchlines, she’s a powerhouse: a scrappy, defiant subversion of the American dream. You won’t just find yourself rooting for this crazy kid; you might even fall a little bit in love.