Assassins Assemble

Black Widow

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Avenger Natasha Romanoff had to wait a while to get the green light on her own standalone origin story, and then even longer for the big screens to carry it. Now Black Widow is finally here, and Natasha’s not even the most interesting character in her own show.

And the film is better for it.

Director Cate Shortland and writer Eric Pearson surround Natasha with uniquely compelling personalities that become important parts of a whole, while surrounding star Scarlett Johansson with a supporting ensemble skilled enough to make this one of the MCU’s most character-driven successes.

Oh, there’s action, too, but we start with a prologue set in 1995 Ohio, when Natasha’s family is trying to flee the country at a moment’s notice. Father Alexei (David Harbour), and mother Melina (Rachel Weiss) were prepared for this day, so they scoop up young Natasha (Ever Anderson) and sister Yelena (Violet McGraw) and put the escape plan into action.

An overlong, Watchmen-style montage mixing music and news headlines brings us up to 2006, when the family is long estranged. Natasha is on the run since the Avengers “divorce” (between Civil War and Infinity War), Yelena (Florence Pugh) is taking names in Norway, Alexei is in prison and Melina’s loyalties seem tied to some talented pigs. Meanwhile the villainous Dreykov (Ray Winstone – nice! His accent – not so much) has plans to build an army of mind-controlled “Black Widow” assassins.

That means females only, but while the reveal lands as a clear metaphor for sex trafficking, Shortland (Berlin Syndrome, the underseen gem Lore) and Pearson (Godzilla vs. Kong, Thor: Ragnarok) never belabor any well-taken points. Even better, they fill the entire adventure with enough organic, self-aware humor about posing, too tight supersuits and the need for pockets that very few of the 133 minutes seem laborious at all.

The core foursome is uniformly terrific, as you would expect from actors of this caliber. Performances blossom and surprise, their chemistry buoying the familial longing required of every superhero backstory while anchoring action in characters you can care about.

Pugh—sympathetic, comedic and badass—is the standout, but Johansson shines, especially in a climactic bout with Winstone that lands satisfying jabs about weak men.

Shortland never forgets the point of a superhero film, though. The breathless action in Black Widow impresses as much as it entertains, whether hand-to-hand or aerial.

And it is a Marvel film, so be sure to stick around post-credits for an intriguing stinger and a welcome addition to the universe.

Being Alive

Marriage Story

by George Wolf

If plot is what happens and story is how it happens, there’s no better title for Noah Baumbach’s latest than Marriage Story.

For years, Baumbach’s films have probed characters struggling to live up to an image of themselves. It’s what he does, and now Baumbach has written and directed his masterpiece, a bravely personal and beautifully heartbreaking deconstruction of a marriage falling apart.

Adam Driver is Charlie, a New York stage director. Scarlett Johansson is Nicole, an L.A. film actress who made the switch to NYC live theater when she married Charlie and they welcomed son Henry (Azhy Robertson).

We meet Charlie and Nicole in counseling, taking part in an exercise that reminds them why they married and reminds us how skilled Baumbach is at not only writing wonderfully organic dialog, but in bringing it to the screen with layer upon layer of authenticity.

Tremendous performances from Johansson and Driver cement our immersion into the lives of two people valiantly trying to retain some control over the process of splitting up.

Nicole hurts deeply but wears a brave face, unsure of how to approach a future without Charlie, but unable to deny that life with him has meant she “got smaller.” Johannson has never been better, successfully mining Nicole’s mix of pain and defiance with silent tears and impassioned outbursts alike.

Here’s something I’ve said a lot this year: Driver is one the most consistently impressive actors around. His skill at finding the human center of his characters is subtle but unmistakable, and here Driver never lets you abandon Charlie, most importantly when his refusals to face reality seem like cathartic soul-baring from Baumbach himself.

We see the details that make up the work of a marriage, and the subtle cracks that weaken the relationship and begin to pull two people apart. And with the break comes the battle for child custody and the business of divorce.

But even as their two opposing lawyers (Ray Liotta and Laura Dern, Oscar-worthy herself) bleed the couple’s finances and turn the fight dirty, Baumbach never gets petty. When you think the film is taking sides it makes a subtle change in direction, slowly building toward the brilliantly executed emotional tsunami you know is coming.

Will you need tissues? Oh yes. The story of Nicole and Charlie’s marriage will put you through the wringer. And every frame is absolutely worth it.

Late in the film, Charlie’s out with a group of theater friends and ends up joining a pianist to sing Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive.” So we have a theater guy going through a tumultuous divorce taking time to sing a Broadway classic about the risk of commitment. It’s a sequence that could have easily devolved into self-indulgent excess, but instead only confirms the depth of Baumbach’s reach.

He lets another writer’s words brilliantly refocus what Charlie and Nicole will always mean to other, and like everything else in Marriage Story, it feels real, true and necessary.

It feels alive.

Triumph of the Kiwi

Jojo Rabbit

by Brandon Thomas

Fargo and No Country for Old Men director Joel Coen has described directing movies as “tone management.” New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi obviously feels the same way as his new film Jojo Rabbit walks a tonal tightrope between irreverent, melancholy and playful.

Few other filmmakers would be able to deliver a Nazi dramedy that opens with a German cover of The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” over the opening credits. 

Young Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a bright and excitable boy. More than anything in the world, Jojo wants to be a good little Nazi. His dream is to eventually become best friends with the Fuhrer himself. Due to his inability to wring the neck of a cute little bunny, Jojo finds himself on the outs with the rest of the young Nazi trainees. Thankfully, Jojo’s imaginary friend, Adolph Hitler himself (played by director Waititi), is there to reassure him, indulge his worst musings, and generally crack wise. 

Jojo’s carefree reality, where the war lacks any kind of seriousness, is suddenly changed when he finds that his mother (Scarlett Johannson) is hiding a young Jewish girl (Leave No Trace‘s Thomasin McKenzie) in their home. As the indoctrination of the Third Reich begins to wear off, Jojo comes to realize that the world around him is larger and more complex than he ever knew.

Waititi’s ease at telling stories about the difficulties of growing up isn’t new. His previous works, Boy and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, dealt with young men coming to terms with life’s hard lessons, and Waititi’s inherent playfulness again allows him to recall the wonder the world holds when you’re young. Anything and everything is possible. Waititi’s same understanding of our humanity grounds the characters inside of these silly worlds he concocts.

Jojo Rabbit asks a lot of its audience. Nazis aren’t supposed to be funny. Anything that even touches how the Jewish people were treated during World War II must be handled with the utmost care. This is the fine line Waititi walks through the entire film, as he manages to acknowledge the horrors of the past while making fun of the perpetrators in the same breath. It’s an amazing feat.

The stacked cast helps carry so much of the film’s burdon. Young Roman Griffin Davis is tasked with making us care about a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Nazi. His fervor is icky, to be sure, but his compassion overwhelms everything else. Likewise, Johannson amazes as Jojo’s mother. She hasn’t played a character this spirited in a long time, and her connection with Jojo serves as the film’s moral center. She abhors what her son wants to be, but also sees through the facade he’s constructed.

Jojo Rabbit, like all good satire, doesn’t pull punches. The film firmly places its finger right in the eye of Europe’s troubling past, but it also manages to show that even amongst the death, bombardment and xenophobia, not everyone gave up their soul to hate. 

Who’s a Good Dog?

Isle of Dogs

by Hope Madden

First note in my Isle of Dogs screening notebook: God damn it, I want a dog.

Second note: Wait, Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton are in another film that appropriates Asian culture? Come on!

And that about sums up the conflicting emotions Wes Anderson generates with his latest stop-motion wonder.

Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s second animated effort, coming nearly a decade after another tactile amazement, 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. A millennia-long feud between the Kobayashis of Megasaki and dogs comes to a head when corrupt Mayor Kobayashi uses a dog flu outbreak to whip up anti-canine sentiment and banish all dogs to Trash Island.

But his orphaned ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) steals a miniature prop plane and crash lands on Trash Island looking for his beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber).

The little pilot is aided in his quest by a scruffy pack including Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum, a riot), King (Bob Balaban), and reluctant helper/lifelong stray, Chief (Bryan Cranston).

Other voice talent as concerned canines: Johansson, Swinton, F. Murray Abraham and Harvey Keitel.

Explained via onscreen script in typically Anderson fashion, dog barks have been translated into English and Japanese remains Japanese unless there’s an electronic, professional or exchange student translator handy. The choice shifts the film’s focus to the dogs (in much the way Peanuts shows remained focused on children by having adults speak in squawks). It also means that moviegoers who speak Japanese are afforded an enviably richer experience.

But for a large number of American audiences, it means that Japanese characters are sidelined and the only human we can understand is the white foreign exchange student, Tracy (Greta Gerwig). From Ohio, no less.

Between an affectionate if uncomfortably disrespectful representation of Japanese culture and Gerwig’s white savior role, Anderson’s privilege is tough to look past here, even with the scruffy and lovable cast.

The animation is beyond spectacular, with deep backdrops and meticulously crafted characters. Atari’s little teeth killed me. The voice talent is impeccable and the story itself a joy, toying with our dictatorial nature, the need to rebel and to submit, and how entirely awesome dogs are.

Set to an affecting taiko drum score with odes to anime, Ishiro Honda, Akira Kurosawa and every other Japanese movie Anderson watched as a kid, the film is clearly an homage to so much of what he loves. His skill remains uniquely his own and nearly unparalleled in modern film.

And Isle of Dogs is a touching, flawlessly crafted animated dream. That probably should have been set in America.





Major Upgrade

Ghost in the Shell

by George Wolf

For all the celebrated vision of the 1995 Japanese anime standard Ghost in the Shell, it resembled the inspirations of a teenage boy hopped up on the works of Phillip K. Dick and Hugh Hefner. There was warmed-over sci-fi pondering, and there was plenty of gratuitous boobage.

Director Rupert Sanders delivers the live action remake as a visually rich feast, bringing a welcome upgrade to both character and storytelling.

In a technically dizzying future where the line between human and machine is growing constantly thinner, Major (Scarlett Johansson) emerges as the first true “ghost in the shell”: human brain in a cyber body.

She’s viewed as the perfect weapon, but her mission to locate Kuze (Michael Pitt), a cyber-terrorist capable of hacking into human minds, leads to some revelations that will have Major questioning her loyalties.

The studio defense of Johansson’s casting amounts to a weak tap dance around the truth: she’s a big star who looks the part and they think she’ll combine butts with seats. While the “whitewash” criticism is fair, Johansson also brings a necessary shift away from Major as merely a ridiculous adolescent fantasy.

Johansson conveys well the clash of mind and machine at work in Major, while Pilou Asbaek (A War) steals scenes as Batou, Major’s macho partner who’s sporting a nifty new set of cyber eyeballs.

Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) and his visual team work wonders (the 3D version is worth the investment), re-creating various scenes from Mamoru Oshii’s original film with stunning new flourish. This future world pops with visual style in every corner while maintaining a cold, unforgiving and detached aesthetic that feels right.

Screenwriters Jamie Moss and William Wheeler do provide crisper dialogue and a more polished narrative than the original film, but it’s a tale still rooted in overwrought tropes and stale cliches. Ironically, with a moral so consumed by the preservation of humanity, Ghost in the Shell doesn’t give you much to think about.

This beautiful body needs more of a soul.

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Animal Planet

The Jungle Book

by George Wolf

Much like the “man-cub” Mowgli prancing gracefully on a thin tree branch, director Jon Favreau’s new live action version of Disney’s The Jungle Book finds an artful balance between modern wizardry and beloved tradition.

The film looks utterly amazing, and feels nearly as special.

Impossibly realistic animals and deeply nuanced landscaping completely immerse you in the jungle environment where the young Mowgli (a wonderfully natural Neel Sethi), after being rescued as an infant by pragmatic panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), lives happily among the wolf pack of Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o).

But after threats on the man-cub’s life by the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), Bagheera decides it is time to lead the boy back to the “man village” for good.

Based on the stories of Rudyard Kipling, Disney’s 1967 animated feature showcased impeccable voice casting and memorable songs to carve its way into the hearts of countless children (myself included). Clearly, Favreau is also one of the faithful, as he gives the reboot a loving treatment with sincere, effective tweaks more in line with Kipling’s vision, and just the right amount of homage to the original film.

And this group of voices ain’t too shabby, either.

Kingsley is perfectly elegant, Elba commanding and scary, while Scarlett Johansson gives Kaa the snake a hypnotic makeover oozing with seduction. Then, in the heart of the batting order, along comes Bill Murray to fill Baloo the bear full of sarcastic gold and Christopher Walken to re-imagine King Louie as an immense orangutanian Godfather.

All the elements blend seamlessly, never giving the impression that the CGI is just for flash or the cast merely here for star power. The characters are rich, the story engrossing and the suspense heartfelt. Credit Favreau for having impressive fun with all these fancy toys, while not forgetting where the magic of this tale truly lives.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 





It’s Only Make Believe

Hail, Caesar!

by George Wolf

Coen Brothers films can be brilliant (No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man), or not (The Ladykillers, The Hudsucker Proxy), but they’re always crafted with interesting ideas. Hail, Caesar! offers a few too many of those ideas and not enough places for them to fully take root.

The setting is Hollywood’s “Golden Age” of the 1950s, when Hail, Caesar! is the new “story of the Christ” epic being produced by Capitol pictures, and starring their biggest asset, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney).

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the square-jawed, no nonsense Capitol studio “fixer,” which means he’s the one dealing with kidnappers who are demanding 100,000 dollars for Whitlock’s safe return.

But there’s more.

Swimming-pool starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johannson) is facing a scandalous pregnancy, singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is having trouble adjusting to his new image makeover, and communists may have infiltrated the studio!

Looks like Eddie picked a bad week to quit smoking! No, really, he promised his wife he would quit, and his tobacco guilt is just one of the issues that makes a regular in the confession booth.

Crisscrossing situations combine for a madcap romp that homages various classics of the era, including musical numbers recalling Gene Kelly, Esther Williams and Roy Rogers. The Coens’ writing is as witty and eccentric as ever, but save for two specific bits, rarely more than amusing.

Eddie’s consultation with a roomful of religious elders about the studio’s depiction of Jesus leads to some nice one-liners, while Hobie’s struggle to wrap his cowboy drawl around more refined dialogue finally turns funny after how-long-can-this-go-on repetition and the growing disgust of Hobie’s proper English director (Ralph Fiennes).

Like Fiennes, more famous faces (Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill) come and go quickly, all beautifully framed by esteemed cinematographer Roger Deakins, but the parade of glorified cameos only makes the film’s eccentricities seem more disconnected.

Still, Hail, Caesar! is a fine looking swing that just misses. Beneath all the old Hollywood glamour is familiar Coen territory: faith, folly, finding your purpose and just trying to live a good life.

They’ve done it worse, but they’ve done it better.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 





Best Movies You Missed Countdown

2014 was actually a pretty great year, movie-wise. Most of the biggest box office smashes were worthwhile films – Guardians of the Galaxy and The LEGO Movie, for example. But it’s hard to track down every really great film, and this year, we’re betting you missed a lot –  A LOT – of outstanding movies. But you can make up for that with this list of the films you may have missed and need to see. It’s our post-holiday gift to you!  You’re welcome!

Only Lovers Left Alive

Jim Jarmusch’s trippy vampire classic needs to be seen, but in all likelihood, you did not. You should remedy that situation.

Get On Up

How is it possible that this wonderfully acted biopic promising wall to wall great music drew such a tiny audience? Tragic! See it tomorrow when it comes out for home entertainment viewing!

Calvary

This surprising, wearily funny, gorgeously filmed and spectacularly acted gift from Ireland did not get the reception it should have.

We Are the Best!  (Vi ar bast!)

Two young girls with no musical experience start a punk band. This film is an absolute joy.

Whiplash

Hopefully its inevitable Oscar nomination for J.K. Simmons (and very likely win!) will give this remarkable little film second life in theaters. If so, do yourself a favor and see it!

Locke

It’s a tough sell: Tom Hardy, alone in a car for 90 minutes, but man, what he can do with a show to himself!

The Drop

Another underseen Tom Hardy gem! His versatility is amazing, and here he gets a great supporting assist from James Gandolfini.

Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson reminds us again of the superb talent she possesses in this hypnotic alien adventure.

Dear White People

Witty, incisive and one step ahead of you, this excellent indie comedy needs to make everyone’s home entertainment watch list.

Frank

Michael Fassbender as you have never seen him – stuck inside a giant false head. Funny, tender and woefully underseen, it’s another reason to be amazed by Fassbender.

Snowpiercer

Tanked by its own studio, the film found a market in home entertainment. If you haven’t found this ingenious piece of SciFi, do so right now!





The “We Hope We’re Wrong” Countdown

There are a few shoe-ins for awards contention this year, and they deserve the attention. We expect to see Michael Keaton, Jake Gyllenhaal, JK Simmons, Reese Witherspoon, Ralph Feinnes, Patricia Arquette and Emma Stone, plus a slew of likelies from films we haven’t seen yet.  But – premature as it may seem – we’re already worried about the magnificent performances we have seen and fear will go overlooked this awards season.

Brendan Gleeson

The always magnificent Gleeson lands the role of a lifetime in Calvary as the good priest who learns during a confession that an abused man intends to make a martyr of him. It is an awe inspiring performance of turmoil, skepticism, hope, struggle, faith and resignation.

Jenny Slate

Slate could not have been any better than she was in Obvious Child, a deeply different twist on the romantic comedy. Slate is so natural, awkward, hilarious and vulnerable – exactly what was needed to make the film work, and it does more than work. Thanks to her turn, it soars.

Viola Davis

Chadwick Boseman may get some deserved attention, but Davis’s turn as James Brown’s mother in Get On Up is a masters class in acting. The always formidable Davis is raw and magnificent. We hope awards voters don’t overlook the performance the same way audiences overlooked this gem of a movie.

Carla Juri

Her fierce and fearless turn in Wetlands may actually turn Oscar voters away in droves, but we’re hard pressed to think of a lead performance that was more impressive. We hope Oscar grows a pair and takes note.

Michael Fassbender

Fassbender will be an awards favorite for the rest of his life, but since not a living soul saw his magnificent, tender, funny and heartbreaking turn inside a giant head in Frank, it’s not likely he’ll get the notice he so deeply deserves this awards season.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dcLw6CPzIs

Tilda Swinton

What a year for Swinton! She crafted fully formed, utterly different characters in four films this year. Which one deserves an award? Pick one: Snowpiercer (Be a shoe!), Only Lovers Left Alive, Zero Theorem and/or The Grand Budapest Hotel. Swinton is wonderful in every one of them.

Tom Hardy

Hardy deserves attention for two lead turns this year, the one man show Locke and the understated drama The Drop. He is truly one of the very most compelling talents working today and it is high time he get some notice.

Scarlett Johansson:

The undeniably gorgeous A-lister finally does a nude scene in the most underseen film of her career – Jonathan Glazers hypnotically unnerving SciFi gem Under the Skin. Johansson shoulders the entire film, mesmerizing from beginning to end.

 





She’s a Brainiac..Brainiac!

 

Lucy

by George Wolf

 

Nearly ten years ago, Wedding Crashers taught us the best response to “people use only ten percent of our brains” is…”I think we use only ten percent of our hearts.”

Still, writer/director Luc Besson bases his new film Lucy on that old urban legend, and what might happen if someone could suddenly flex four, five or even ten times more grey matter muscle.

A ridiculous premise doesn’t have to sink a film, and this one actually gets off to a solid start as Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) unwillingly becomes a drug mule for ruthless Korean kingpin Mr. Jang (the always fascinating Min-sik Choi).

Jang’s henchman surgically stash a bag of his new product into Lucy’s abdomen, but the pouch breaks when she suffers a beating. In just minutes, the drug settles into Lucy’s bloodstream and begins opening countless new cognitive horizons.

It doesn’t take long to realize how much better this film is because of Johansson. She provides the terror-filled vulnerability to make us care about her character early on, then projects the right amount of wonder and determination as Lucy seeks out a famed brain researcher (Morgan Freeman, straight from Transcendence) to assist in her transformation.

Besson gets busy from the outset, as quick cuts and frenetic action are interspersed with scenes of animals in the wild, reinforcing the changing roles we see between hunter and prey. While not exactly subtle, it is stylish, and downright abstract compared to what Besson brings to the film’s second act.

As his characters begin to lament how we’ve all become more concerned with “having than being,” Besson shamelessly parrots Malick’s Tree of Life and Kubrick’s 2001, apparently believing the film to be an equally eloquent statement on mankind’s past, purpose, and future.

It isn’t, but with about 50 percent less pretension, Lucy could have been a fun guilty pleasure.

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars