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Glass (2019)
Shamefully underrated trilogy conclusion
17 February 2019
I cannot comprehend why critics have chosen to denigrate this film, which turns out to be M. Night Shyamalan's best in many, many years. Perhaps the film's conclusion is not what some expected but that's still no excuse to not acknowledge its achievement in piecing together (quite intelligently, I might add) all that exists in this trilogy, in this complex web of madness, super human ability and unfathomable power plays and ethical questions of superheroes and society.

Having seen "Unbreakable" in its day, I will confess this was not what I expected either. But whether I agree with the route a film takes is not the point, so long as it is congruent with the character development that takes place. Jon McAvoy, Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson are at the top of their game in this film as the three extraordinary pieces to the puzzle that Shyamalan has plotted for us. Equally sharp is Sarah Paulson as a psychiatric specialist whose role becomes more defined as the film goes along. Spencer Treat Clark makes a welcome return as Willis's son, who has always been aware of his father's abilities.

Contrary to the reviews, this film was never slow and never lost its way. You will scarcely notice the running time. In fact, its transition into the final act was seamless. I advise moviegoers not to be swayed by what the critics have said about this film. To put it bluntly, they are wrong. At the very least, it's thought-provoking. To those looking for a gripping, vintage Shyamalan film, I enthusiastically recommend this one.
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Vice (I) (2018)
Vice presidential biopic is all over the map, has zero consistency or subtlety
30 December 2018
Christian Bale plays former Vice President Dick Cheney in this grandly ambitious biopic, a role in which he mostly excels. Amy Adams has rarely been better as his devoted wife, Lynne Cheney, who as it turns out is just as power hungry as he is. Sam Rockwell gives an uncanny performance as President George W. Bush. Finally, Steve Carell is a solid presence as Donald Rumsfeld.

Given all these credible performances, this should have been a knockout. Such a shame the screenplay and the editing are so choppy and the pacing is so frenetic it sometimes becomes monotonous. The game cast does a dignified job with the often painfully cartoonish dreck that is the screenplay. That this film can veer between stately drama and high camp is a testament to the filmmaker's ability, albeit sprayed in every direction. It is all capped off with the most bizarrely ludicrous closing credits I have seen in a film this decade, bar none. This film puts on a clinic on how to waste solid acting.

Adam McKay is at his best when his directorial craft is completely invisible- when his storytelling is so potent and eloquent that you get lost in his witty, propulsive style and for the moment forget the complexity of the issues he's hammering away at. Here, his work feels too heavy-handed and sloppy for it to work as well. There is a kernel of character development in how Cheney might have become a different man over time but it is completely buried in the narrative chaos that the film is inexorably committed to.

This looked good on paper. There is considerable talent at work here. In the end, against considerable odds, it goes down as a misfire for its woeful writing, exhausting narrative and a tin ear for how to conclude. For those who are easily amused or who need a quick primer on recent U.S. history, this film might be worthwhile. Otherwise, I decline to recommend it.
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Cold War (2018)
Polish drama flirts with greatness, undermined by a shocking and senseless conclusion
29 December 2018
I have never seen a film capture the desolate despair of Eastern Europe after the Second World War as in this case. This film offers a beguiling tale of a middle-aged Polish musician who travels to a feudal area and becomes infatuated with an aspiring female singer who is the among the peasant folk who audition to perform for his company. The two fall for each other and their love blossoms into a perpetual romance that survives many upheavals including the company being taken over by Stalinist ideologues and the man's decision to leave Poland for western Europe.

Performances here are extraordinary by the two leads. They present a compelling and sympathetic couple who can't stay way from one another despite marked differences in their character. She as it turns out comes from a troubled family. He is an old soul who finds rejuvenation in a woman so combustible and unpredictable. It's one of those romances whose imperfections make it the perfect love story.

Alas, we have this film's conclusion. I cannot abide a film's resolution that does not conform to the character arc. If there is insufficient character development or plotting for the climax that takes place, then the ending will only take away from the film's logic. That is what happens here; the resolution robs the film of its greatness because it is so senseless. I still recommend this as a film experience, but its ultimate achievement is very debatable.
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Respectable, workmanlike biopic of Justice Ginsburg
26 December 2018
The education and early career of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first woman to sit on the highest court in America, is captured in this film. It stars Felicity Jones as the young woman who attended Harvard Law School with her husband (Armie Hammer) and went on to become one of the preeminent legal minds of her era.

The film centers on how Ginsburg was initially instrumental and ultimately essential in an appellate case that helped pave the way for gender discrimination in federal law being eradicated. Along with her husband, she worked on the appeal with the ACLU, heralded by Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), a liberal with complicated principles. Kathy Bates makes a nice turn as a famous, hardened civil rights litigator who failed in some earlier cases. Sam Waterston is a welcome presence as the outwardly progressive but inwardly parochial Erwin Griswold, Dean of Harvard Law during Ginsburg's years as a student.

Jones shines in the role of the young Ginsburg, a dedicated, steadfast attorney who was undaunted by the entrenched views on gender in academia, the workplace and ultimately in the courts. She spends most of the film grappling with these challenges but all the while never letting go of her core principles and dedication to the law.

Although this film occasionally lurches into Oscar bait territory, it makes for a good portrayal of a woman who became a true pioneer in the history of gender equality and a good starting point to get to know Justice Ginsburg from where she started. Recommended.
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Beale Street can talk and has a lot to say
26 December 2018
This film adaptation of James Baldwin's novel about a young black couple in New York City in the mid-20th century is a revelation. It brings to life a story of hope and tragedy in an era that feels both distant and yet not all that different from the present day.

Barry Jenkins shows his master craft in depicting two young people who come from starkly different families, one very religious and the other of a more free-wheeling working class mentality, who find love and companionship with one another. Early on, the young woman discovers she is pregnant with the young man's child. Their lives take a dramatic turn when he is accused of rape.

The film veers from one mood to another, from hope to angst to despair and back again. An incredibly potent soundtrack makes quiet, normal conversations seem pulsatingly tense and seething with emotion. Performances here are extraordinary, especially by Kiki Layne and Stephan James as the young couple.

Not many films offer the kind of evocative, old school storytelling that is at work here. Quiet and deliberate but never less than compelling, this film leaves a mark. Grandly recommended.
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Destroyer (2018)
Grimly intriguing, slightly overlong revenge saga
26 December 2018
Nicole Kidman is the epicenter of this bleak crime thriller in which a veteran LAPD officer confronts her long-ago past in which she was part of an undercover operation aimed at a vicious gang of bank robbers. Here, she gives one of her best performances ever.

Kidman's disheveled look in this film is meant to reflect years of anguish and burn-out, in short the psychological toll of her job. An absolutely desolute view of Los Angeles is seen through her exhausted, but still enraged eyes. Another plot layer deals with her challenging relationship with her teenage daughter who has gone astray. Those around Kidman's character rarely see things her way, but that's because she has a past of her own to resolve.

Recommended as slow-burn material that gradually earns one's respect, even though I think a better editor would have made this a tighter film.
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Bumblebee (2018)
Transformers prequel, exciting and well-executed
25 December 2018
I'm not exactly the most ardent devotee of Transformers blockbusters. In fact, I have never seen one in the theaters, which I imagine is a big chunk of the appeal. The reviews and reputation this franchise has grown to have didn't have me racing against time to go see this.

However, despite my disposition, this film about the first transformer to ever reach Earth and establish a base for the rebellion has its share of thrills including rousing battle sequences and well-executed chase scenes. This movie is also helped considerably by Hailee Steinfeld's likeable, charismatic performance as the teenage girl who happens upon the vehicle that transforms her world.

Fans of the franchise and newcomers like me will have a lot to enjoy in this uplifting blockbuster. You might look at a yellow car differently after watching this. Recommended.
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Opulent assault on the senses, an update of a film classic
22 December 2018
The 1964 original "Mary Poppins" is an undeniably revered classic in the annals of feature films, so making a sequel to it is more than a little risky. It's a lot like making a sequel to "Gone With the Wind" or "Citizen Kane". Naturally, it's a film that is going to exist in the shadow of the original. More than likely it will stand mostly as an homage, if it succeeds even as that. Luckily, it does so.

That being said, this film has a lot to offer, as flawed as it may be. Emily Blunt is riveting as cinema's most famous nanny and also perhaps the most underrated of female sociopaths, a woman capable of any magic she chooses and who will promptly accuse any observer or witness of being utterly out of his or her mind. Calculating and cold as ice though she may be, Blunt's Mary Poppins does harken back to a bygone era, one that makes this film almost as old-fashioned and anachronistic as the original. It reminds us what it was like to listen to the resolute directive of someone you didn't understand or trust, but someone whose will you couldn't refuse. If that's not Mary Poppins, then that is no one at all.

Visually, this film is a wonder to behold. The spectacle is so vibrant that your critical faculties will be relaxed or completely neutralized. Every colorful fantasy sequence, every exquisite scene of London makes you want to go back in time to that seemingly innocent era in which street lights made the whole city look like a fairy tale. Appearances by Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury also add to the nostalgia. All of this combines to outweigh the dance sequences that can become a bit monotonous. And a flourishing climax does tip the scales in the film's favor.

All in all, as frustrating as this film is to a jaded adult, it can be good escapism. It reminds me of a more innocent perspective and one that should not be forgotten. Recommended to those who are open-minded.
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The Mule (2018)
Eastwood crime drama, his best film in many years
15 December 2018
A Clint Eastwood film is sometimes all you need to remember how much you love great cinema and that's especially true in this case. It's the real life story of an 80-year-old war veteran who, as he finds his livelihood threatened, manages to cross paths with a Mexican drug cartel and winds up transporting their product across the Midwest. As he demonstrates value, his runs become larger and more lucrative each time.

Eastwood portrays Earl Stone, a mild-mannered hardworking horticulturalist who became a champion drug mule for the cartels as law enforcement was completely blind to his low-key but highly effective operations. Enter Bradley Cooper as the dedicated DEA agent who has to muster considerable time and resources to even begin to piece things together and Michael Pena as his partner. Dianne Weist offers a sympathetic turn as Stone's long-suffering ex-wife. Andy Garcia is good fun as the drug lord who is pleased with the old mercenary's hard work.

Although this film covers a grim story, it has a light-hearted feel for many stretches and a refreshing sense of humor. Eastwood himself is absolutely compelling as an old man who suddenly finds himself awash in money from an illegal enterprise and seeing the world from a different angle; here, Clint reminds us how huge a screen presence he has no matter how old he gets.

I'm not sure what many critics have missed with this film but hopefully audiences will take note. Eastwood has given us another great film and one of his best performances ever in this crackerjack drama. Highly recommended.
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Vox Lux (2018)
Edgy, allegorical depiction of social decadence
11 December 2018
Natalie Portman stars in this very unusual, intriguing but flawed film that explores several different genres in tackling pop culture and its sordid grip on the national consciousness at the dawn of the new millennium. Is this a satirical bombardment? One could argue. Is it a tragic indictment? Definite possibility. One thing it is not is straightforward.

This film gets by on the strength of its performances and its committed portrayal of the poisonous celebrity lifestyle and the emotional toll it exacts. Portman is explosive as the grown-up pop star who came from humble beginnings and found her survival of a horrific school shooting catapulting her into national prominence when she performed a song at a televised vigil. Jude Law is sharp as her gruff, street-smart manager who early on helps transform her from a victim of tragedy into a gaudy, commercialized monstrosity. Raffey Cassidy shines in dual roles as the pop starlet in her younger days, and as her teenage daughter in the film's second half.

There are drawbacks. A dry, detached voiceover narration by Willem Dafoe is more often a glaring distraction than an enhancement. And the film's simplistic juxtaposition of acts of terrorism and concert tours only tentatively conveys the theme of the intertwining of tragedy and pop culture. The film is obviously trying to echo its plot thread that takes hold in the beginning but it seems so faint by contrast.

Thought-provoking but more for the thesis that it tackles than for its actual achievement, this film is worth watching. How well it succeeds depends on how you view Portman's performance. Does she eviscerate the entertainment industry as immoral with a lightning-rod portrayal of wasted youth? Or does she dilute the film's impact by giving a performance that is too much of a caricature to constitute an allegory? Decide for yourself.

I freely admit that this film is not for everyone while acknowledging that I myself found it quite compelling. Finally, a splendid array of well-performed songs and a sterling soundtrack add to the film's favor. Recommended.
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The Favourite (2018)
Vicious, bawdy tale of a queen's court
2 December 2018
Yorgos Lanthimos takes on the biopic genre in this serpentine and visually striking depiction of Queen Anne in her diminished condition and her shifting companionship between Lady Sarah, who largely took over the reigns of the state and Abigail, a young woman who comes to the court as a servant but quickly earns the queen's fondness. Abigail becomes a foil not only for Lady Sarah but for the male leaders in Parliament.

Emma Watson and Rachel Weisz play well off each other as Abigail and Lady Sarah respectively. Olivia Coleman is a joy to watch as the frail but furiously combustible Queens Anne. Nicholas Hoult is solid in a supporting turn as the leader of Parliament opposition.

The film is loaded with Lanthimosian dark humor but also cold mystery and austere cinematography and camerawork. In time, we get to know the quirks, hidden secrets and impulses of all three characters as the court confronts the pressures of war with France and political instability at home- and more privately as the queen's closest female confidants duel for their place.

One of Lanthimos's best films to date, this one will keep you on the edge until the very last frame with one memorable sequence after another. Recommended to the highest degree.
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Green Book (2018)
Decent, enjoyable but standard prestige film based on a true story
30 November 2018
Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali give stellar performances in this true story about a NYC club employee and bodyguard who is hired by a classical pianist from Carnegie Hall to drive him through his performance tour across the South in the early 1960s, during which they develop a solid bond, despite their considerable educational and socioeconomic differences.

I would call this film decent, light entertainment. It definitely offers a glimpse into how impressive Mortensen's range is an actor. The same actor who gave compelling performances in films like "A Dangerous Method" and "Captain Fantastic" is thoroughly riveting to watch here as he disappears into the role of "Tony Lip" Vallelonga and Ali is impressive as Don Shirley, a Jamaican-American musician who became well-known in his era.

This film doesn't break too much ground, in all honesty. It's good diverting cinema but as a film released during Oscar season, it's fairly run-of-the-mill with no real surprises. But I do give Peter Farrelly a lot of credit for stepping out of his usual repertoire and giving us a different genre to look at within his filmography. Recommended.
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Roma (2018)
A fascinating portrait of a humble life
26 November 2018
Alfonso Cuaron depicts the life of a young housekeeper in a prosperous family household in Mexico in the early 1970s in this heartfelt, slice-of-life drama. He does so with a stellar cast, black-and-white filming and crisp cinematography that includes wide ranging geography within Mexico.

I was impressed by how well this film held my attention from start to finish. It isn't always the smoothest narrative and there are occasional lulls in the storytelling but it slowly lifts you into a state of wonder. Some scenes are quiet and deliberate. Others are Fellini-esque. The film covers a surprisingly broad landscape as we watch this woman seek out the young man she believes is her destiny as well as cope with the goings-on of the family she must tend to where not all is well. There is also a sense of the strong social unrest in Mexico during that era.

Cuaron has made a deeply personal film, one that harkens back to the Mexico in which he grew up. It is seen through the eyes of a young woman with a modest job. The black and white filming actually makes you forget that this took place in decades past. Instead, it feels very contemporary. There are some profoundly poignant moments here even if the pacing is a bit inconsistent. At times, you'll be holding on for dear life. At the center is a quiet, reserved but very genuine performance and one that lights up the screen. Gladly recommended.
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Compendium of western tales, passable and longish
25 November 2018
Perhaps the Coen Brothers should take a break from the American West. Their work in this arena has become well-tread and a bit too familiar, although in the case of this film, it takes a while to reach that conclusion. Here, a collection of stories on divergent themes in the West is fascinating for a while but goes on a bit too long.

I can't fault the performances. They range from an exploited performing quadriplegic to a yammering elderly prospector to an anxious young woman on the Oregon Trail and many others. Although each of these stories makes a nice contribution, I didn't see much cohesiveness between them. Some amusing and tense moments here and there hint that the Coen Brothers haven't lost their touch even in one of their more middling works.

Watching this film made me think of their earlier films in the same genre. In that regard, it was a fountain of nostalgia. Recommended if you're a devout Coen Brothers fan who enjoys their trademark stories taking place somewhere in regional America.
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Van Gogh through the eyes of Julian Schnabel
21 November 2018
Vincent Van Gogh's last days in the south of France are depicted in this heartfelt drama by Julian Schnabel. Willem Dafoe gives a powerful performance as the destitute, troubled painter who was not understood by those in his own time. As Van Gogh seeks to express his extraordinary eye for nature and portraits, those around him are either put off, wary or sometimes intrigued. His brother is his only real comfort.

A deliberately paced film with a mournful soundtrack, this will leave you in a contemplative state. It does not tell you everything about Van Gogh or when his self-isolation began but it does seek to offer insight into his profoundly troubled mental state. His demons are quite evident throughout the film- everything from his intolerant response to the curiosity of schoolchildren to his difficulty explaining his world to whatever doctor is examining him, Van Gogh is exemplified in Dafoe's anguished face. Schnabel, himself a painter, brings his own perspective in piecing this film together, especially in showing how Van Gogh paints and goes about his craft.

The film is not without drawbacks. Oscar Isaac is miscast as Paul Gauguin, the French painter whom Van Gogh couldn't bear losing company with. And Mads Mikkelsen gets minimal screen time in a very thoughtful performance as an inquisitive priest who recognizes Van Gogh's uniqueness. But this film is Schnabel's interpretation of Van Gogh and Dafoe's exemplary portrayal of him and in that regard it works quite well. Recommended.
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Widows (2018)
Dynamic crime thriller, a real crowd pleaser
18 November 2018
A crime thriller set in Chicago, this film is about a group of wives of career criminals who find themselves the targets of powerful political and criminal interests after their husbands die in a police chase following an attempted robbery. Still grieving, they soon discover how much their husbands owed and who is after them for it and thus a bold heist that was to be completed is planned once again.

The film is spiked with strong performances. Viola Davis is a commanding presence as the wife of the thieves' ringleader, Liam Neeson. Her life in a sumptuous apartment is threatened when a menacing political figure (Brian Tyree Henry) from another part of the city comes to demand his money back. She is forced to locate the other widows of her husband's business partners and is stalked by the politician's sadistic henchman brother (Daniel Kaluuya in a lively performance). Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki both give strong supporting performances as the other wives. Colin Farrell is effective as a young Irish-American politician trying to build a political base in the less white part of Chicago; Robert Duvall gives a welcome turn as his elderly father on whose shoulders he still stands.

A contemporary crime drama, this one delivers well-defined characters and a visceral pace that power the story. It's all woven together with polish and confidence by Steve McQueen's stellar direction. At certain key points, the audience erupted into applause. A film taking place in Chicago, this story touches on the occasional overlap between the political and criminal worlds. The menacing backdrop of the political tug-of-war between the rich and the poor adds to the film's potency. Although some questions are left blank in the end, this is one of the year's best. Highly recommended.
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Political biopic starts out strong, then loses steam big time
17 November 2018
The story of Colorado Senator Gary Hart, the Democratic candidate for President in the 1988 primaries is depicted in this Jason Reitman film. At first, it has the heady energy and visceral pace you would expect from a film about what turned out to be a fateful political campaign that changed the dynamics of elections in how Americans viewed their politicians' private lives.

The performances are the main selling point here. Hugh Jackman is crisp as the popular U.S. senator who seemed destined to win the Democratic nomination. J.K. Simmons is solid as his dedicated but very practical campaign manager. And Vera Farmiga is exceptional as Hart's devoted wife who knows more than the public at first.

Unfortunately, Reitman's approach is ultimately too disengaged for this to achieve any lasting impact. The early phase of the campaign is brought to life. Soon, the film brings us to the ugliness of the missteps that left the Hart campaign in ruins. After that, it just becomes very, very... quiet.

Almost as if the film does not know what to say about investigative journalism or the shift in the public's attitude toward the personal lives of candidates for elective office, the energy and drama of the film is swiftly sucked out. All that's left is just a dirge on the public life of a supposedly great man who could have been President. Given the tremendous talent involved in this film, I mark this down as a disappointment, although it is a good sign that Reitman is once again aiming high. Not recommended.
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A Private War (2018)
Tentative drama about a not-so-tentative woman
17 November 2018
Rosamund Pike delivers a fiery performance as Marie Colvin, a war correspondent who earned a reputation as iron-willed in her commitment to war reporting even in the face of grave danger throughout the 2000s. Unfortunately, her gravelly voice cannot carry the entire film which occasionally veers off into obvious Oscar-bait territory. A handful of gripping scenes do spring up, including when she meets with Muammar Gaddafi shortly before his regime is overthrown.

But all in all, I would call this a middle-of-road biopic, one that is likely to fly under the radar and be remembered only by news junkies and anti-war activists, if anyone at all. This despite, again, a terrific effort by Pike. Not recommended.
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Handsomely shot but superficial and cripplingly overlong
11 November 2018
This long-anticipated biopic of Freddie Mercury and how he turned Queen into a band for the ages is only a mixed bag that suffers from serious narrative lapse for long stretches. I liked the look of this film and Rami Malek utterly transforms into Mercury but his dynamic performance alone cannot overcome the lumbering pace. He has to work with a screenplay that for many patches is an utter wasteland.

Although there are traces of gripping brilliance in this film (including the film's depiction of the spectacular divide between critics and audiences over the song Bohemian Rhapsody), the more challenging aspects of the story of this incredible band and Freddie Mercury himself are given lackadaisical or non-existent treatment. His struggle with AIDS is given fairly perfunctory attention, as is his relationship with the other band members. For a film with such a long running time, there is precious little to say.

The film comes close to redeeming itself when it turns to the extraordinary event of the Live Aid concert in which Queen performed. But it's too little, too late and I only wish the rest of the film could have that raw vitality and stirring force. This is a shame, because although most rock bands over the course of history do not deserve a feature film, Queen is not one of them. Not recommended.
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Suspiria (I) (2018)
Provocative, haunting, jumbled, extremely polarizing remake
11 November 2018
Large groups of people seem to either be awed by this film or utterly revile it. I, however, am willing to go against the grain and take the middle ground. This is neither a masterpiece, nor is it a disaster.

It's a highly ambitious remake that attempts to weave political and artistic themes together into one cornucopia of fantasy-horror-historical expression, and unfortunately it only succeeds some of the time. Does this film bite off more than it can chew? One could argue that, but sometimes I'd rather a film try to do too much and partially fail than play it safe and thereby come out less memorable.

What tends to give this film more bite is its ferocious dance sequences. I can only imagine how much work went into that aspect of the filmmaking. There is also a wonderful recreation of the sterile bleakness of late 1970s Berlin back when the city was still divided during the Cold War. As far as performances go, there isn't a false note. Dakota Johnson gives a nuanced turn as an aspiring American dancer who comes to Berlin in 1977 to join a world-renowned dance company, which just might be dominated by a host of witches. Tilda Swinton gives an equally disquieting turn as one of the dance instructors. Chloe Moretz Grace turns out to be under-utilized.

Although some scenes don't feel as artistic as they could have been, this is still an arresting cinematic experience overall. Putting its inconsistency in execution aside as well as a seemingly winding conclusion, I recommend this film for those looking for something ambitious and off-the-wall.
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Boy Erased (2018)
Vivid depiction of a young man's struggle with gay conversion therapy
10 November 2018
Joel Edgerton's second directorial film is the adaptation of an autobiographical book by a young man who experienced life in a gay conversion program at the behest of his devoutly religious parents.

Lucas Hedges portrays Jared Eamons the gay teenage boy from Arkansas whose father is a preacher, portrayed by Russell Crowe and whose mother, (well played by Nicole Kidman) shares his father's religious devotion but not at the expense of loving her son. Joel Edgerton is the leader of a vile gay conversion program in which Eamons is enrolled; he is the unapologetic advocate of the program's repressive, hyper secretive methodology, including the use of religious browbeating and psychological manipulation. At first willing to do what the program asks of him, Eamons finds himself becoming more alienated by its demands and more willing to come to terms with his identity.

As infuriating as this story may be, it is one that sheds light on the ghastly phenomenon of "gay conversion", a therapy designed to discourage gay people from embracing their true selves and instead resorting to shaming and psychological torture to achieve submission. As reprehensible as this "therapy" is, this film's portrayal of it is so hard-hitting that one might wonder how much longer before such a sham becomes a relic.

Although not always easy to watch, this is a powerful drama that tackles sensitive material that deserves to be known. Strongly recommended.
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Potent tale of racial injustice in America
10 November 2018
This film portrays the story of a black teenage girl, Starr Carter, who lives in two worlds, the desperately poor neighborhood where her family lives and the overwhelmingly white private school she attends. She has friends at school and close friends from her childhood, but her delicate balance between these two spheres is shattered when she witnesses the police shooting of a lifelong friend. From there on, her choices become harder.

Naturally, this is a hard-hitting tale of the struggle of social justice in the face of institutional racism and tensions within the black community between law-abiding citizens and criminal gangs. I thought at first the characters were a bit broadly drawn, but as the film progressed they became more defined. The people who struggle to survive in the ghetto have dueling adversaries, the racist police on the one hand and the powerful criminal element on the other. That's the struggle that is portrayed and it's done quite well. Unfortunately for Starr, there is the added burden of fitting into her world at school at the expense of staying true to her hard-earned principles.

Unapologetic and eloquent to the nth degree, this is a great film about understanding race relations among those who are often heard the least. This will leave a mark on anyone who has woken up. Strongly recommended.
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Fascinating depiction of serial dishonesty
10 November 2018
Melissa McCarthy is not known for her dramatic roles, but this film might change that. It's the gripping story of Lee Israel, a struggling Manhattan writer who in the early 1990s undertook the extraordinary step of falsifying letters from famous people to make ends meet.

McCarthy is an eye-opener here as the hard-drinking, acid-tongued Israel, a miserable middle-aged woman who sought friendship in precious few souls, one of them being a mysterious figure on the Upper West Side portrayed with fierce verve by Richard E. Grant, who winds up becoming something of an accomplice to her enterprise. She is desperate to pay her bills. His murky story becomes more known as the film progresses. The two of them are an odd couple, as they both have setbacks and misery to look back upon, but their pessimism and misanthrope are not equally shared.

This film will offer a glimpse of nostalgia for anyone who remembers New York in a now quaint era, when struggling writers still lived as adults in Manhattan, when life was endearingly bleak and bookstores were not yet massive chains. That sense of atmosphere I greatly admire. Recommended to anyone who enjoys a scathing story of literary scheming.
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Wildlife (2018)
Haunting portrait of family turmoil told through the eyes of a teenage son
10 November 2018
Paul Dano's directorial debut is a powerful achievement, one that lingers on. It's the portrayal of a teenage boy in 1950's Montana whose parents' marriage begins to crumble amid financial hardship and his mother's subsequent restlessness. It's an adaptation of Richard Ford's novel.

Ed Oxenbould is the teenage boy from whose vantage point the story is told. Carrie Mulligan portrays a mother who has no qualms about showing her true colors, as she meets an older, prosperous man. Jake Gyllenhaal is the hard-working father who has just seen his livelihood upended and finds himself at a crossroads. These three tremendous performances constitute the quiet but powerful life in this film, and keep the audience gripped to the very end. The potent screenplay adaptation is written by Dano and Zoe Kazan.

Dano shows the ability of a director who realizes the subtle power of understatement. That part of his craft is visible throughout the film and he clearly has an eye for conveying raw emotion without the use of any dialogue. The jarring spectacle of a family slowly disintegrating is seen through Oxenbould's innocent, anguished eyes. This is one of the best directorial debuts I've ever seen.

A quiet but powerful drama, this is a superior piece of cinema with incredible work all around. Highly recommended.
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Protracted final act sinks this would-be thriller
10 November 2018
Where do I begin with how this film blew it? Frustrating as it is, I have to be honest and say that this film choked in the end because it doesn't know to conclude. That's the bad news.

The good news is, this film boasts many strong performances in a nutty crossfire of mayhem that takes place in a quaint hotel on the California-Nevada border in the 1960s. Who are all the people involved? Some are more mysterious than others. Jon Hamm is an apparent appliance salesman with a flare for blunt wit. Jeff Bridges presents as a priest but might have more to his story then when he checks in. Then there's Cynthia Erivo, a soul singer who is still trying to hit the big time. And Dakota Johnson in a fierce role that becomes more complex. Lewis Pullman is the young concierge. Finally, how can one overlook Chris Hemsworth in a Charles Manson-esque role that finally brings out his true range?

Unfortunately, this film squanders this impressive talent and acting with a narrative jumble that would make Tarantino dizzy. I understand the utility of flashbacks and developing each character's backstory, but after a while it's done quite haphazardly in this film. It's important for a film to lay a foundation, but when doing so stifles the film's momentum, the effect can backfire. This is not to say there were too many players in this story. Far from it, it was quite lively and exciting. But the narrative component was mishandled such that the film's running time gradually became visible and got me annoyed.

This is an example of a film whose labyrinthine narrative proceeds to undo its achievement. If not for a few hiccups here and there, this would have been first rate. Recommended as intriguing, if slightly botched, escapism.
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