Tag Archives: Oscar Isaac

Daughter of Darkness

The Addams Family 2

by George Wolf

Two years ago, The Addams Family returned to their cartoon roots with an animated feature that leaned heavily on little Wednesday Addams for its few sparks of macabre fun.

Despite turning to a more convoluted plot line, AF2 doesn’t do much to improve the family reputation.

Wednesday (Chloe Grace Moretz) is still the standout here, putting the creepy and kooky in the 3rd grade science fair. She’s denied a prize thanks to a new “everybody wins” school policy, but her brilliance catches the eye of shady scientist Cyrus Strange (Bill Hader).

Worried she’s being dumbed down by the idiots around her, Wednesday rebuffs cheer up attempts from Dad Gomez (Oscar Isaac) and Mom Morticia (Charlize Theron) when a pushy lawyer (Wallace Shawn) comes knocking with a bombshell.

His clients believe Wednesday may actually be their daughter and are requesting a DNA test. What else can Mom and Dad do except pack Wednesday, Pugsley (Javon “Wanna” Walton, stepping in for the now deeper voiced Finn Wolfhard), Fester (Nick Kroll) and Lurch (Conrad Vernon, who again co-directs with Greg Tiernan and newcomer Laura Brousseau) into the haunted camper for that fallback device for hastily-connected hi jinx, the road trip!

It’s a three week trek to (where else?) Death Valley and back, stopping in Miami, San Antonio, and the Grand Canyon long enough to catch up with more family (Snoop Dogg’s Cousin It) and try out some mildly amusing gags.

Only a precious few – like the guy who keeps trying to propose to his girlfriend and “Thing” trying to stay awake while driving – actually land, and it’s up to Moretz and her perfect deadpan (“I’ve been social distancing since birth”) to remind us of what makes this family dynamic.

The script from Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit veers off into wild Dr. Moreau territory, adding even more baggage to a film that would have been wise to pack lighter. Inspired soundtrack choices (from Gordon Lightfoot to Motorhead) give way to forced pop and hip-hop, and the film’s attempt at an “own who you are” message seems half-hearted at best.

But what’s really lost is the inherent fun The Addams Family brings to wherever they are. When the world goes light, they go dark. That’s a fun and funny idea ready to be exploited.

Once again, Wednesday’s just waiting for the rest of the gang to get back to the family business.

Tilt

The Card Counter

by Hope Madden

The damaged man seeking redemption — it may be the most cinematic concept, or certainly among the most frequently conjured by filmmakers. When Paul Schrader is on his game, no one tells this story better.

Schrader’s game in The Card Counter is poker, mainly. But if he tells the redemption story differently than others, you should see what he does with a gambling picture.

Oscar Isaac and his enviable hair play William Tell, gambler. Where this film differs from others treading this territory is that, rather than being a man of a somewhat self-destructive bent drawn to the adrenaline, anxiety and thrill of the lifestyle, William is comforted by its mundane routine. When you play the way William plays, gambling is tidy. It is clean. It is predictable.

William learned to count cards — and to appreciate routine — in prison.

His routine is shaken up, as routines must be, by two people. La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) wants to find William a financial backer, put him on a circuit, see him win big. Cirk “with a C” (Tye Sheridan) wants more from him.

The precision and power in Schrader’s writing come as no surprise, but as a director, he wields images with more unique impact here. There are three different worlds in The Card Counter: prison, casinos, haunted past. Each has its own color scheme, style and mood. The haunted past takes on a nightmarish look via fisheye lens, creating a landscape that’s part first-person shooter, part hell.

Schrader’s on point with visual storytelling throughout, even though he relies on voiceover narration from the opening shot. Voiceover narration is rarely done well. It’s often, perhaps usually, a narrative cheat, a lazy device used to tell us something a stronger writer could convey visually. Not when Schrader does it. We learned that in 1976 when he wrote Taxi Driver, and he proves it again here.

It helps that Isaac is a profound talent and essentially flawless in this role. He is the essential Schrader protagonist, a man desperate for relief from an inner torment through repression, redemption or obliteration.

It’s at least the 4th performance of Isaac’s career worthy of Oscar’s attention, which means the Academy will probably deny that recognition again. But you shouldn’t. You should go see The Card Counter.

Death and the Malkin

Operation Finale

by George Wolf

“Whom did you lose?”

“We lost six mill-”

“I’m asking about YOU!”

Operation Finale may be an often gripping take on the hunt and capture of elusive Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann, but it finds emotional power in the intimate characterizations of two truly gifted actors.

Sir Ben Kingsley is Eichmann, the SS “Head of Jewish Affairs” who lived under a false identity in Argentina until an Israeli Mossad unit tracked him down. Oscar Isaac is Peter Malkin, the Mossad agent who entered into a psychological duel with Eichmann while negotiating his extradition for trial in Israel.

Director Chris Weitz handles well the shifting timelines and changing locales, propping the historical dramatics up with tense staging reminiscent of Argo. And, as he’s not had any recent head injuries, Weitz knows when to stay out of the way and let his two leads do the masterful things they do.

The trouble spots in Operation Finale come mainly from Matthew Orton’s script, which is ironic because many isolated moments are quite effective.

Much of the dialogue is breezy and even funny, which humanizes the supporting characters (with fine work from an ensemble including Melanie Laurent, Haley Lu Richardson and Nick Kroll) but can feel a bit flippant inside such weighty history.

And in weighing that history, Orton’s first feature screenplay aims for meaningful statements on the casualness of evil and the moral ambiguities of war, but settles instead for well meaning generalities that don’t amount to any unique vision.

Kingsley and Isaac (who also earns a producer credit) provide their own. Their scenes together become a richly-drawn cat and mouse game, a face off between personifications of genocide and exterminator. Somehow, they make subject matter this unpleasant a joy to watch unfold, elevating Operation Finale with a moving contrast of soul.

 

 

 





The Fault in Our Selves

Annihilation

by George Wolf

Alex Garland’s work as both a writer (28 Days Later…, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go) and a writer/director (Ex Machina) has shown a visionary talent for molding the other-worldly and the familiar. Annihilation unveils Garland at his most existential, becoming an utterly absorbing sci-fi thriller where each answer begs more questions.

A strange force of nature dubbed “The Shimmer” has enveloped the land near a remote lighthouse, and is spreading. Years of expeditions inside it have yielded only missing persons – including Kane (Oscar Issac). When Kane suddenly returns home and almost immediately falls prey to a life-threatening illness, his wife Lena (Natalie Portman, perfectly nailing a desperate curiosity) is detained for questioning by the military.

Lena, a biology professor with years of Army training, volunteers to join the new, all-female exhibition into “Area X,” hoping to find any shred of information that could save her husband’s life.

Adapting the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach Trilogy,” Garland has found a perfect scratch for his psychological itch.

Garland builds the film in wonderful symmetry with the hybrid life forms influenced by The Shimmer. Taking root as a strange mystery, it offers satisfying surprises amid an ambitious narrative flow full of intermittent tension, scares, and blood – and a constant sense of wonder.

Just his second feature as a director, Annihilation proves Ex Machina was no fluke. Garland is pondering similar themes—creation, self-destruction, extinction—on an even deeper level, streamlining the source material into an Earthbound cousin to 2001.

Utilizing wonderfully strategic splashes of color, and a shifting timeline that drops purposeful breadcrumbs, Garland gives us a mystifying new world from the comforts of our own. Annihilation is the work of a top-tier genre filmmaker, and a challenging journey offering many rewards for those with no appetite for spoon feedings.





Day for Knight

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Did The Force Awakens simply recycle our Star Wars memories and sell them back to us? It did, but not simply, damn near brilliantly.

Then we got the sneak attack from the surprisingly deep Rogue One, a highly effective prequel that only strengthened our bond with the original Star Wars trilogy, and our confidence in the filmmakers now at the helm of this historic franchise.

The Last Jedi makes any letdowns seem light years away. With a deft mix of character-driven emotion, high stakes action and mischievous fun, it waves a proud flag for the legacy of this cinematic universe while confidently taking big strides toward crafting a new one.

Visionary talent Rian Johnson (Looper, Brick) now has the con as both director and sole screenwriter. His affection for the franchise, coupled with an innovative sense of character arc and storyline, combine for a freshness that respects nostalgia even while priming you to move beyond it.

Like J.J. Abrams, Johnson revisits iconic images and bits from the predecessors, but even with much more screen time for Mark Hamill’s Luke, Last Jedi feels less indebted to the original trilogy than did Force Awakens. You’ll find more humor (an opening “on hold” bit is a riot), more action and more Kylo Ren.

As Rey, Leia (Carrie Fisher in a bittersweet appearance), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Bodega) gather their scrappy troops to resist the First Order’s plan for pasty-faced, black-clad tyranny, the yin and yang of the film pits Adam Driver’s dark Ren against the spunky light of Daisy Ridley’s Rey.

Force Awakens gave Ridley plenty of opportunity to claim her spot at the center of the franchise, but Last Jedi allows Driver the chance to fully expand into the role of series villain. A true talent, Driver delivers a Ren who is emotionally manipulative and yet sincere (so emo!), needy and conflicted as he struggles to prove himself more than the “child in a mask” derided by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis – aided by improved CGI).

Last Jedi also completes the transition of Poe into the courageous, never-tell-me-the-odds “flyboy” we knew was his destiny since the fist moments of Force Awakens. Isaac never disappoints, and it’s a joy to see him buckle this swash so Han-dily (sorry).

While we meet some great new characters, too, there is little exposition and a near constant barrage of action which renders the extended running time meaningless. It might get a little too cute once or twice, but there’s enough social commentary here to be relevant, enough visual glory to look wondrous, and more than enough spirit to be confident in its vision.

Things happen to characters we care about and to others we just met, and nearly all of those things carry the emotional heft of torches being passed.

And The Last Jedi makes it feel not only right but necessary, and all the more satisfying.





Desperate Men Go Into the Desert

Mojave

by Hope Madden

“I’m into motiveless malignacy. I’m a Shakespeare man.”

So begins the battle of wits and wills at the center of Mojave, writer/director William Monahan’s meditation on the alpha male.

Thomas (Garrett Hedlund) is having an existential crisis. He’s been famous his entire adult life, and now that he has everything, there’s nothing left for him to want. His downward spiral leads him into the desert, where he happens upon a drifter (Oscar Isaac).

The duo’s hyper-literate fireside exchange is tinged with predatory tones, each man intrigued by the shifting ground of dominant/submissive beneath the wordplay.

The stilted, noir-esque characters – including bizarre cameos from Walton Goggins and Mark Walberg – are too hard boiled to be authentic. Instead Monahan and his cast create entertainingly dead-eyed facsimiles of humans, each floating (often meaninglessly) in and out of the battling pair’s dilemma.

What is that dilemma? Well, something happened out in that desert, and as drifter Jack says, “The game is on, brother.”

The wealthy, handsome Thomas misjudges his lowlife adversary, but Jack is equally guilty of underestimating the superficial pretty boy he’s set as his mark. Don’t look for a good guy in this battle, though, because the world would be better off without either party, and they both know it.

Isaac ranks among the most talented actors working today. If you only know him from Star Wars, you need to look deeper into this chameleonic performer’s work. He struggles here and there with Mojave, though, because Monahan’s writing makes it hard to find a real person beneath all the machismo.

Hedlund is no Isaac, but it’s fun to see the chemistry between the two (who shared a similarly uncomfortable chemistry during their fateful car ride in Inside Llewyn Davis).

Ultimately the cat-and-mouse thriller drowns in its own testosterone – the pair of utterly suicidal antiheroes buckling beneath their burdensome masculinity. Still, as literary references abound and the more-alike-than-different outsiders bristle at societal constraint, this over-written mess remains curiously fascinating.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pwwVQ8YCl4





Ms. Roboto

Ex Machina

by George Wolf

What an irresistible treat Ex Machina is – smart, seductive and wickedly funny, boasting glorious visuals, stirring performances and big ideas guaranteed to linger like a dream you just can’t shake.

It is the directorial debut from veteran writer Alex Garland, and instantly marks him as one of the most promising dual threats in film.

Computer whiz Caleb (Domhnall Gleason) gets congrats all around after word gets out that he’s “won” a contest at work. The firm’s founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), has picked Caleb as the lucky one who will get a look inside the reclusive genius’s world and assist on a top secret project.

The wide-eyed Caleb is still adjusting to the wonders of Nathan’s ultra secure compound when he learns just why he’s there. Nathan has reached a critical point in his quest to create artificial intelligence, and he needs Caleb to decide if the enchanting machine named Ava (Alicia Vikander) can truly pass for a human.

The ever-versatile Isaac is mesmerizing as Nathan, crafting him as a walking, talking, drinking God complex in bare feet. You know from their first meeting that Nathan has more in store for Caleb than he is letting on, but Isaac never lets that knowledge detract from your curiosity about his character. The slow reveal of his tour de force performance dares you to look away.

Gleason gives Caleb a perfect mix of naïveté and good intentions, while Vikander (A Royal Affair) is a true wonder as Ava. Living in the space between woman and machine, Vikander pulls it off with nary a hint of caricature.

Garland, as he did with 28 Days Later and Sunshine, creates an intelligent, thought-provoking science fiction tale, steeped in classic themes but freshly painted from a modern perspective. You’ll be reminded of the classics Frankenstein, Eyes Without a Face and Blade Runner, as well as recent entries such as The Skin I Live In and Under the Skin, while never doubting that Garland’s is an original voice.

In many ways, he’s expanding on his script adaptation for the underrated Never Let Me Go, continuing to explore just what it is that makes us human, but not ignoring the large, complicated part that sexuality plays in that equation.

Sci Fi and horror films have long provided glimpses into a particular generation through the fears and anxieties that manifest on screen. Anchored in science, sex and creation (sound familiar?), Ex Machina is an insightful, deliciously fun time capsule we need to open right now.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 

 

 





Let’s Do Some Crimes For Your Queue

If box office numbers can be trusted, you probably missed A Most Violent Year when it was in theaters in 2014. Now is your chance to remedy that wrong. The film – one of the finest and most underseen of last year – releases for home entertainment this week. Just the third film from fascinating director J.C. Chandor, it’s a look at the merits and moral compromise of the American Dream in a gritty drama set in NYC’s crime-ridden 1980. The look is impeccable, outdone only by a spectacular cast anchored by another magnificent turn from Oscar Isaac.

While it would make just as much sense to highlight either of Chandor’s previous efforts, A Most Violent Year makes us nostalgic for the filmmaking of Sidney Lumet, so instead we decided to pair it with his last, wonderful effort, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. An older brother (the great Philip Seymour Hoffman) hiding dark, addictive behavior, talks his sad-sack younger brother (Ethan Hawke) into something unthinkable. It’s the last master turn from Lumet with help from a top to bottom wonderful cast.





Living Dangerously

A Most Violent Year

by Hope Madden

J. C. Chandor knows what he wants to say. He knows the content, the concepts, and the situations, and while you may not, do not expect to be spoon fed. His 2011 debut Margin Call wasted no time getting audiences up to speed on Wall Street’s inner workings, nor did Chandor preface last year’s All Is Lost with a tutorial on yachting. Chandor believes you are wise enough to keep up, which is a daunting but wonderful change of pace.

Like the filmmaker’s previous work, A Most Violent Year drops you in the center of an episode in progress, and while you may know little of the crime in New York City in 1981, and less still about the fuel business, Chandor hopes you’ll push all that aside to take in the kind of period drama we haven’t seen since Sidney Lumet.

Oscar Isaac plays handsome, proud, honorable man Abel Morales, who bought his father-in-law’s heating oil business and is brokering a deal that will allow him to break free from that shadow and control his own fate – if he can complete the payment in 30 days.

Meanwhile, a gunman’s been prowling his property, hijackers are taking his trucks, his terrified drivers want to arm themselves illegally, and the DA promises coming indictments.

A Most Violent Year is a film about the merits versus moral compromise of the American Dream, and Chandor’s slow boil of a film keeps you on edge for a full 125 minutes because there is absolutely no guessing what is coming next.

Isaac and Jessica Chastain, playing his wife Anna, are measured perfection – an impeccable, in-control Abel balanced by a volatile Anna. They become a force, survivors who check and balance each other. Their chemistry is amazing. Co-stars David Oyelowo and Albert Brooks are also excellent.

The film is satisfyingly untidy – a fact that makes it unpredictable and genuinely life-like. No flashbacks remind you of one legacy or explain another character’s behavior because that doesn’t happen in life, either. People are as they are, situations complicate and unravel, marriages take shape and morph in to something else.

It’s also a piece of atmospheric perfection, a provocatively gritty and realistic image of NYC in 1981. As much authenticity as you’ll find in Chandor’s screenplay, his wide shots, subway graffiti, lighting and wardrobe complete the picture. It’s just another reason you feel as if you’re watching an old Sidney Lumet film, and wishing there were more filmmakers willing to make a location and point in time as grand a character as anyone in the ensemble.

Verdict-4-5-Stars





For Your Queue: Two Chords and the Truth

Out today on DVD and BluRay is the most overlooked film this awards season, Inside Llewyn Davis. Just another Coen Brothers’ masterpiece, the film follows a phenomenally flawed young artist struggling to stay true to his vision and get a break in the Sixties Greenwich Village folk scene. Immersive, funny, expertly crafted and brilliantly acted – particularly by Oscar Isaac in the title role – the film ranks among the very best of 2013. Perhaps more impressively, it also ranks among the very best of the brothers’ careers.

A hot mess of a film that’s still weirdly fascinating, especially for Bob Dylan fans, is the artist’s own meandering fantasy Masked and Anonymous. Dylan co-writes and stars (that second bit is a little more of a sketchy decision), and he’s joined by an enviable cast: John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, Bruce Dern, Ed Harris, Angela Bassett and scores of others. Together they piece together themes and characters from Dylan’s countless lyrical tales, creating a nearly coherent storyline about nasty music promoters looking to score a “benefit concert” with the help of a living legend. More beautiful mess than masterpiece, the film is still compelling viewing for Dylan fans.