Tag Archives: movies

To Have and Have Not

The Forgiven

by George Wolf

When we first meet the idly rich people that populate the opening minutes of The Forgiven, they seem laughably idle and cartoonishly rich, more fitting for a satirical comedy than a searing sociopolitical thriller.

But it isn’t long before you appreciate the purposeful precision in writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s adaptation of Lawrence Osborne’s bestseller. The excess is this wretched for a reason, as the contrast between privilege and honor takes on a classic, Hemingway-esque flavor.

Flamboyant couple Richard (Matt Smith) and Dally (Caleb Landry Jones) are hosting an annual weekend bacchanal at their lavish retreat in the middle of the Moroccan desert. As numerous Westerners are attended by a staff of native Moroccans, unhappily marrieds Jo and David Henniger (Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes) are making the long drive to the party.

The couple argues about which turnoff is correct, David takes his eyes off the road and strikes a Moroccan teen named Driss (Omar Ghazaoui) – killing him. Richard helps to smooth things over with the local police captain (Ben Affan), but word spreads to the villagers, and soon Driss’s father (Ismael Kanater) is demanding that David follow custom and make the long journey to the boy’s burial.

David agrees, setting up McDonagh’s fascinating examination of worlds colliding.

Jo instantly indulges the attention of Tom, a playboy financial analyst (Christopher Abbot), which gives the servants yet another affirmation of their guests godless natures. The wealth of the expats guarantees a life free of consequence, but David is learning that the Moroccans offer no such promises.

McDonagh (Calvary, The Guard) is such an insighftul writer, and he’s able to turn shallow first impressions into complexities as skillfully as he brings authentic depth to what easily could have been the magic brown people.

As a director, McDonagh’s touch here can feel sluggish in spots, but this first-rate ensemble (also including Abbey Lee, Mourad Zaoui and an excellent Saïd Taghmaoui) always keeps things compelling. At the top, Chastain and Fiennes slowly craft competing moral compasses, and The Forgiven lands as an intelligent reconsideration of a seemingly timeless lesson.

They Don’t Like Me, They Really Don’t Like Me

Official Competition

by George Wolf

Who’s more full of it: The cinema snob who dismisses whatever’s popular, or the escapist fan wary of any whiff of highbrow? Awards shows, or those who protest them too much? Film festival agenda twisters, or film festival attention whores?

Official Competition is here to nominate them all. Co-directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat (both also co-write with Andrés Duprat) come armed with plenty of knives, and their mischievous and wonderfully witty satire has them out for pretty much everyone involved in movie making.

When an 80 year-old millionaire (José Luis Gómez) decides his legacy should involve producing the film version of a Nobel prize-winning novel, critic’s darling Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz) gets the call to direct. But Lola insists on adapting “La Rivalidad” with a unique vision, one that starts with casting polar opposites in the lead roles.

Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) is the worldwide box office star, while Iván Torres (Oscar Martinez) is the legendary thespian. They will play warring brothers, while their own philosophical clashes grow more volatile – and more dryly hilarious – by the day.

And don’t bother looking to Lola for cool-headed problem-solving. She’d rather provoke the tension with a variety of creative exercises – such as wrapping her two stars in restraints and threatening to destroy their most prized awards right in front of their panic-stricken faces.

Subtle it ain’t, but funny it is.

And even when a joke or two lingers a beat past its expiration, this sublime trio of actors makes nearly every frenzied interaction a joy to behold.

Is Lola a motivational genius or a complete fraud? Does Félix have the chops to go toe-to-toe with the prestigious Iván? And does Iván secretly admire Félix’s success? Cruz, Banderas and Martinez are clearly having as much fun acting it out as we are trying to sort it out.

And like much of the best satire, Official Competition is talking about one thing, but saying something else. Its barbs aimed at the movie business may be silly, acerbic and insightful, but none can hide the respect this film has for the entirely mad nature of the creative process.

Call it a love letter, with a completely entertaining ‘smidge of hate.

The Showman and the Snowman

Elvis

by George Wolf

If you’re looking for someone to bring a fresh perspective to the Elvis Presley story, Baz Luhrmann would seem like a no brainer. Though he can certainly lean too hard toward style and away from substance (Australia), he can also fill a screen with tremendous energy, visual pizazz and musical exuberance (Moulin Rouge!).

And by now, any by-the-numbers take on Elvis would just be silly. Think more Rocketman, less Bohemian Rhapsody.

Luhrmann’s Elvis succeeds – to a point, as inspired choices often push the film forward while others seem to hold it back.

At the top of the win column is Austin Butler’s mesmerizing performance as The King. Beyond capturing the smoldering good looks and iconic speech pattern, Butler finds power in the raw physicality of role, an essential part of believing how this one man’s sexuality shook the world. No doubt Butler will be remembered comes awards season.

And yet, this film is only partially about Elvis.

GD national treasure Tom Hanks – an awards contender himself under layers of impressive makeup and prosthetics – narrates the film as Elvis’s longtime manager, Col. Tom Parker. Ill and seemingly nearing his end, Parker wants to tell us his side of story, and why he’s maybe not as bad as we’ve been told.

And while focusing on the perspective of the “Snowman” (Parker’s term for a master of the snow job) without legitimizing it is an interesting approach, it also keeps us detached from the Showman.

Even when depicting Elvis’s childhood, Luhrmann (co-writing as well as directing) frames him as akin to a comic book hero. So as we follow the meteoric rise, the Hollywood floundering, the comeback and the Vegas rot, the film is more interested in holding Presley up as a mythical figure than holding him accountable as a mere mortal.

There are moments with show-stopping visuals and stand-up-and-cheer performances (especially the “If I Can Dream” sequence from Elvis’s TV special in 1968), but they never feel like enough. Luhrmann drops in occasional clips of the real King, and peppers the impressive cast with Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (as B.B. King), Gary Clark, Jr. (Big Boy Crudup) Yola (Sister Rosetta Tharpe) Kodi Smit-McPhee (Jimmie Rodgers Snow) and more, gearing you up for a gloriously indulgent showcase that never comes.

Elvis is stylistic, well-performed and often highly entertaining. But with an overlong running time of 2 1/2 hours plus, you’d think there would be at least a little room left to go full Luhrmann.

Tears in His Eyes, I Guess

The Phantom of the Open

by George Wolf

Olympic ski jumping found its unlikely warrior in Eddie the Eagle. Championship golf has a similar everyman hero in Maurice Flitcroft, and while Maurice still needs a catchy nickname, his tale finally gets the big screen treatment with The Phantom of the Open.

Maurice actually made his name years before Eddie, when he qualified for the British Open back in 1976.

And?

Up until that time, Maurice was a crane operator at a British shipyard who had never played even one full round of golf.

Cinderella story, meet Cinderella boy.

Well, not exactly, as Maurice shoots the worst round in Open history and quickly runs afoul of the course director (Rhys Ifans).

But a legend is born, and right from the film’s storybook-styled opening, director Craig Roberts (Eternal Beauty) and writer Simon Farnaby (Paddington 2) adapt Scott Murray’s book on Maurice’s often hilarious exploits with a whimsical, endlessly optimistic treatment. It fits like a pair of plaid pants at the 19th hole.

And what perfect casting. Oscar-winner Mark Rylance effortlessly brings Maurice to lovable life as a gentle, indefatigable dreamer. He’s also a soft-spoken family man, devoted to his wife (an equally perfect Sally Hawkins), the older stepson who’s embarrassed by him (Jake Davies) and his twin sons obsessed with disco (Christian and Jonah Lees).

His wife supports him, so why shouldn’t Maurice take a stab at the Open? Why can’t his friend at the shipyard open that pub he’s always wanted? And who says his boys can’t be disco dance champions? The world is your oyster, go find that pearl!

The film may not always share Maurice’s grand ambitions, but it has plenty of good humor and nearly overflows with crowd-pleasing charm. An unassuming ode to staying committed to what – and who – you love, The Phantom of the Open plays to the gallery with an awkward, sweater-vested panache that makes one history-making slouch seem pretty tremendous.

The Pleasure Principle

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande

by George Wolf

If we’re boiling down film narratives to heroes and quests, it won’t take long to define Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.

Nancy is our hero, and sex is her quest.

And she would like good sex, thank you, although she can’t quite bring herself to expect the elusive release that she spent decades faking for her husband’s benefit.

But now Nancy (Emma Thompson) is an aging widow, fidgeting nervously in a hotel room and second-guessing her decision to hire handsome young escort Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) for a tryst.

Thompson is, of course, glorious. And as much fun as it always is to see her command those in-charge characters spitting ruthlessly droll asides, Nancy reminds you how equally adept Thompson is with self-effacing humor, vulnerability and longing.

Writer Katy Brand’s script is filled with delightful wordplay, subtle wit and insightful details, one of the most resonant being Nancy’s history as a religious education teacher. We see her as a woman not only desperate to learn things she was never taught (and she has a list!), but also now regretting some of the lessons she passed down to young girls in her classrooms.

To Nancy, Leo represents more than just lust. He is the power of youth, and all the possibilities of a different generation that have long felt shameful to many from her generation.

McCormack is terrific, worthy of extra kudos for not shrinking from the prospect of simply being the “other half” of a two-hander led by a rarified talent. Leo has some issues of his own beneath his suave demeanor, and McCormack reveals them with subtlety and heart.

But back to our hero.

Nancy’s journey is, of course, an intimate one, and director Sophie Hyde doubles down on the intimacy, rarely leaving the privacy of the hotel room. Regardless, the film is never claustrophobic and always cinematic, framing even the most sexual moments with a refreshing honesty that the characters (and these two impeccable performances) deserve.

And you know what? We deserve it, too. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is a simply wonderful look at embracing who you are and what you want. It’s funny and empowering, warm and touching, even heartbreaking at times.

Let’s hope it finds the audience it deserves.

Lone Ranger

Lightyear

by George Wolf

Exploring new life in the Toy Story universe comes with benefits – and drawbacks.

Sure, you inherit the goodwill earned by four of Pixar’s best feature films. But then, those films cast a mighty long shadow.

Lightyear taps into the warm fuzzies early, by letting us know why Andy wanted a Buzz action figure so badly that Christmas back in ’95. It’s because he loved the movie so much. This movie.

But honestly, for the first sixty minutes, you can’t imagine why.

Space Ranger Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans) blames himself for marooning his settlement on a distant planet. A return to hyperspeed could bring everyone home, so Buzz is determined to keep testing until he gets it right.

Trouble is, each test flight sends him into a time dialator where 4 minutes up in space turns into 4 years back at base. So before Buzz knows it decades have passed, and he must take an untested team (Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules) and a robotic cat (Peter Sohn) into battle against Emperor Zurg’s forces for control of the precious hyperspeed fuel source.

That’s all fine, but that’s all it is. Director and co-writer Angus MacLane (Finding Dory) can’t find any way to make the toy’s story come to life.

Until Buzz comes face to face with Zurg (James Brolin).

Zurg has a big surprise for all of us, one that might as well send the film into hyperspeed.

Almost in an instant, the cinematography from Jeremy Lasky and Ian Megibben adds depth and wonder (that spacewalk – goosebumps!), MacLane quickens the pace while recalling both 2001 and Aliens, and backstories from earlier in the film pay off with gentle lessons on bloodlines, destiny, and what makes a life’s mission matter.

Stay for the credits and beyond to get two bonus scenes that bring a chuckle or two. But just make sure you sit tight for the final half hour. That’s when Lightyear delivers the kind of action and pizazz that just might make a kid change his Christmas list.

We’re Gonna Need a Montage

Hustle

by George Wolf

Adam Sandler’s passion for basketball is fairly well known, so the fact that Hustle is a love letter to the NBA shouldn’t be a huge surprise. And, this being a sports movie, you can expect some familiar benchmarks the film wisely doesn’t shy away from.

But this film about the heart and commitment that’s required in the Association boasts plenty of both from nearly everyone involved, landing Netflix an enjoyable winner.

Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a road-weary scout for the Philadelphia 76ers whose devotion to team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) is finally rewarded with a job on the bench as Assistant Coach.

But with clear shades of the Buss family drama in L.A., Rex’s son Vince (Ben Foster) wrestles control of the team from his sister (Heidi Gardner), and Stan is back living out of a suitcase while he scours the globe for a susperstar.

Writers Will Fetters and Taylor Materne set some nice stakes early, as Vince dangles a return to coaching in front of Stan. The quicker he finds the team a game-changing phenom, the sooner he can be home closer to his wife (Queen Latifah) and daughter (Jordan Hull).

On a gritty playground in Spain, Stan thinks he’s found his unicorn in the 6’9” Bo Cruz (NBA vet Juancho Hernangomez). The talk of big money lures Bo to Philly, but the path to a payday hits some roadblocks, and Bo’s longing for this mom and daughter back home creates some effective character-driven parallels with Stan.

Sandler and Hernangomez share a sweet, funny chemistry, and a constant stream of past and present NBA stars adds plenty of authenticity. Even better is director Jeremiah Zagar’s (We the Animals) skill in framing on-court action with speed, sweat and a tense, in-the-moment feel that gives the standard sports themes some needed vitality.

Hustle is a story of father figures, redemption, perseverance, and leaving your mark. No one’s claiming to re-invent anything here, and the winking nod to an iconic Rocky moment cements a self-awareness that only adds to the film’s charm.

It’s also another example of Sandler’s versatility, and the good that comes from surrounding himself with unique voices. When Sandler cares, he shines.

And he clearly cares about basketball.

Rites of Passage

Tahara

by George Wolf

If you saw Rachel Sennot’s breakout performance in last year’s wonderful Shiva Baby, the setup of Tahara is going to look pretty familiar. But in their feature debut, writer Jess Zeidman and director Olivia Peace find a vibrant, refreshing lens for their own look at one funeral’s anxious aftermath.

Sennot is terrific again as the self-centered Hannah, who joins her more reserved best friend Carrie (Madeline Grey DeFreece, also excellent) at the service for their Hebrew school classmate Samantha. Samantha killed herself at the age of 18, and after the funeral the girls will join other classmates at a grief session to talk about their feelings.

They will also gossip, navigate cliques, and bitch about having to be there while they try to catch the eye of Tristan (Daniel Taveras).

At least Hannah will be flirting with Tristan. Because Carrie is hiding some true feelings for her bestie, a conflict that Peace and Zeidman surround with some touching and effective parallels.

Peace frames most of the film in a square, 1:1 aspect ratio, but goes wide at important moments, most of which are animated. It’s a clear nod to the times when Carrie, a young Jewish queer woman of color, sees herself – and the world – in new ways.

Though the animation sequences and lack of score can give the film an experimental feel, a juxtaposition with the Jewish ritual meant to cleanse the body before burial (Tahara) ultimately grounds it as a deeply personal journey.

The students tell their teacher (and by extension, those not familiar with Jewish traditions) that the ritual’s goal is to “erase social status,” which feeds perfectly into the teenage power struggles (and one suicide) we see through the eyes of a type of character not often represented.

At times funny, uncomfortable, and heartbreaking, Tahara is an ambitious and ultimately moving film, from a pair of voices we should look forward to hearing again.

Not All Men

Watcher

by George Wolf

If you’re a fan at all of genre films, chances are good Watcher will look plenty familiar. But in her feature debut, writer/director Chloe Okuno wields that familiarity with a cunning that leaves you feeling unnerved in urgent and important ways.

Maika Monroe is sensational as Julia, an actress who has left New York behind to follow husband Francis (Karl Glusman) and begin a new life in Bucharest. With a mother who was Romanian and a fluent grasp on the language, Francis instantly feels at home.

Julia does not, and her feelings of vulnerability are compounded by her trouble communicating, the news reports of a serial killer, her husband’s late nights at the office…and the man in the window across the street (the effortlessly creepy Burn Gorman) who is constantly watching her.

And as soon as Julia makes accusations, the games begin.

Is the watcher really a threat? Is he stalking Julia, or is she the one who’s following him?

None of these beats are new, and as events escalate, others are pretty clearly telegraphed. But it’s the way Okuno (who helmed the impressive “Storm Drain” segment from V/H/S /94) slowly twists the gaslighting knife that makes the film’s hair-raising chills resonate.

She finds a perfect conduit in Monroe, who emits an effectively fragile resolve. The absence of subtitles helps us relate to Julia immediately, and Monroe never squanders that sympathy, grounding the film at even the most questionably formulaic moments.

Even as Julia pleads to be believed, the mounting indignities create a subtle yet unmistakable nod to a culture that expects women to ignore their better judgment for the sake of being polite.

And from the friendly bystander who jokes about the creeper’s “crush” to Francis’s weak-willed humoring, Okuno envelopes Julia in male gazes that carry threats of varying degrees, all building to a bloody and damn satisfying crescendo.

Mission Accomplished

Top Gun: Maverick

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Sentimental, button-pushing and formulaic, as predictable as it is visceral, Top Gun: Maverick stays laser-focused on its objective.

Attract crowd. Thrill crowd. Please crowd.

Expect bullseyes on all three fronts, as star Tom Cruise and director Joseph Kosinski take a couple cues from the Star Wars franchise in reconnecting with friends and re-packaging feelings.

After all these years in the Navy, Pete Mitchell’s “Maverick” tendencies have kept him from advancing past the rank of Captain. And when Pete blatantly shows up Admiral Cain (Ed Harris), he’s in danger of being grounded until Admiral “Iceman” (Val Kilmer) rescues him with orders to return to Top Gun and whip some new flyboys and girls into shape for a secret mission.

One of those young guns is “Rooster” (Miles Teller), son of “Goose,” who resents Maverick for more than just coming home alive when his father did not.

Against the wishes of Admiral “Cyclone” (Jon Hamm), it is Maverick who will train the 12 Top Gun pilots, and then pick 6 to take out a newly discovered uranium plant that poses a clear and present threat to the U.S.

Who’s doing the threatening? We never know. Does it matter?

Not in Maverick‘s world.

The screenplay-by-commitee doesn’t stretch anybody’s imagination or talent, with early hotshot dialog so phony it feels like a spoof. But nobody came for banter. We came for nostalgia, flight action, and – god help us – Tom Cruise.

He delivers, in his inimitable movie star way. He cries on cue, runs like his hair’s on fire, and burns charisma. What more do you want?

Romance? Here’s old flame Penny (Jennifer Connelly), who now runs that famous San Diego beachfront bar and just happens to be a single mother who might be looking for someone as ridiculously good-looking as she is. As both characters and actors, they click.

Cruise’s chemistry with a mainly underused Teller – who really looks like a chip off the old Goose – finally gets to show itself late in the film, exposing both tenderness and humor in its wake.

And once we’re in the air, get in front of the biggest screen you can and hang on. Kosinski’s airborne action sequences are often downright breathtaking, every moment in the danger zone moving us closer to that Goose/Rooster/Maverick moment that has no business working as well as it does.

It’s emotional manipulation, but not nearly as garish an act as Val Kilmer’s thankless role. Still, Cruise and Kosinski know it’s nostalgia that flies this plane, and Iceman is part of the plan that starts right from that original Kenny Loggins tune heard in the opening minutes.

From manufactured rivalries to shirtless team building to the entrance of a surprise Top Gun instructor from last night at the bar, Maverick sells us back what we first bought back in 1986.

And dammit, it feels even better this time.