Shoplifters – Dramatic Japanese cinema through a Dickensian lens. Shoplifters was the surprising winner of the 2018 Palme d’Or for Best Picture at this year’s Cannes Film Festival back in May. In some aspects, it really shouldn’t be much of a surprise as it is a solid production with roundly excellent ensemble performances and auteur direction. It’s more of a surprise in that the film has virtually none of the dramatic twists or style that European audiences generally go for at these types of awards shows. Shoplifters has none of the artsy nature of last year’s winner “The Square”, the creative experimental values similar to Malick’s “The Tree Of Life” or the super-stylish, high drama “Pulp Fiction”. In essence, Shoplifters should appeal more to those who like slice of life productions a la “Boyhood”, “Eighth Grade” or “Ordinary People”. This particular film is about a makeshift “family” of vagrants, scam artists and petty thieves living on the fringe of society. They are comprised of one elderly woman, one middle aged man, two younger women and a pre-pubescent boy; each with their own particular foibles. The elderly woman lives on a meager pension but also brings in money through blackmail schemes. The middle aged man works odd construction jobs and teaches the boy how to rob items from local shops in his spare time. In turn, the boy serves as both as a lookout as well as petty thief. As for the two women, one works for peanuts at a sweatshop while the other puts on webcam shows. Together, the group puts their resources together to eek out a meager existence. One night as the man and the boy are coming home from one of their petty thefts, they discover a little girl huddling on her front porch as her parents scream at each other in the background. They take the girl, who is all of 5 or 6, to their shelter where they feed her and learn she is abused. After much debate, they take the little girl in as part of their team when they realize her true parents could care less about her welfare. She begins to learn the ropes of larceny and theft in warm, congenial environment with plenty of love and support to offer. Of course, when child services comes around and discovers the girl missing, the group of vagrants do their best to hide and disguise her from the authorities. This is a nicely done film, but doesn’t feel like anything great and certainly doesn’t feel like a “Best Picture” caliber film. And still, there’s no real flaws to point out except for it’s exceptionally slow, deliberate pacing. This is the kind of film that mainstream American audiences will either walk out on or fall asleep during it isn’t the typical, fast action, fast edit style feature the general public is accustomed to. If you are a fan of real life drama, rich characterizations and believable dialogue and plot twists, then you may want to give this a try; all others should steer clear. Make no mistake, Shoplifters is a good movie, but one I need only see once.
In the latest Netflix produced movie to rival Hollywood features, actor Chris Pine stars in “Outlaw King” as Robert the Bruce; the warrior who took up the mantle for William Wallace aka Braveheart, after his capture. In many ways, this film is a pseudo-sequel to that movie as the culminating events of that 1995 Mel Gibson feature run concurrently with the beginning of outlaw king. As William Wallace leads his rebellion against Edward I, the king of England in a bid for Scottish independence, other Scottish villages are attempting to make peace with England and end years of bloodshed. Robert the Bruce finds his father making such a peace deal, but fears they have given up too much power. To seal the peace accord, Robert is given the hand of Margaret of England in marriage. However, when word reaches the village that William Wallace has been captured and killed, the Scottish villagers rebel and Robert the Bruce finds himself having to break the peace accord of his late father to fight for country. The Scottish people warily through their support behind Robert and name him king. Margaret becomes queen but she becomes a pawn between the armies of the Scottish and the English. Much treachery ensures. Massive battle sequences rise. While Outlaw King may not have the epic scale and romanticism of Braveheart, it does capture many of that 1995 Best Picture’s qualities. The cinematography is breathtaking, the sets are well designed and some of the battle sequences rival any from the Gibson film; especially the final battle. The tone is a bit more sullen and morose than the sweeping glory of Braveheart and Pine’s Robert the Bruce is a more withdrawn, less dramatic creation than Mel Gibson’s Wallace, but he’s solid nonetheless. For those who love historical drama and action, Outlaw King is well worth the watch, but even those who casually decide to give it a try should find much to enjoy as well. Outlaw King is now available on Netflix.
Creed II – Enjoyable sequel that brings nothing new to the table, but still hits all the dramatic cues which made previous films in the Rocky franchise so successful. Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has ascended to the top of the boxing world, but no sooner has he claimed the championship title that an unscrupulous boxing promoter announces he has found the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren’s Russian character in Rocky IV) and challenges Creed to fight. Turns out an angry, bitter Drago has been shunned by Russian society since his loss to Rocky Balboa and has poured all his hatred into his son Viktor. The challenge stirs up the identity issues of Adonis’s past as well as the memory of the death of his father. Rocky, recalling the death of Apollo Creed in his hands, refuses to train his young protege for the fight but the stubborn Adonis pushes forward. Of course he is beaten to within an inch of his life. On the mend, he pleads with the Italian Stallion to show him how to fight the bigger, stronger Viktor Drago which all leads to a penultimate showdown. Creed II isn’t as strong and energetic as the first Creed film, but it still features strong production values, stirring fight scenes and a few moments of humor. Sylvester Stallone not only appears in the film but also co-wrote the screenplay which, while overly familiar, still carries a fair amount of emotional heft. You’ve seen it all before, but if you liked the previous Rocky movies, there’s no reason not to like Creed II.
The Hate U Give – Solid, well-intentioned but a bit oversimplified and preachy look at race relations in America through the eyes of a 16 year old African-American female. Relative newcomer Amandla Stenberg gives an eye-opening performance as Starr Carter, a high schooler who is being given every opportunity possible to succeed in life by her parents (Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby), but who struggles with her racial identity. Growing up in a violent, urban neighborhood, Starr’s parents send her to a mostly white, private high school. In an attempt to fit in, she tries to subdue all instincts that make her black. However, on the weekends, she likes to hang with her black friends and people from the neighborhood. After meeting up with a childhood friend at a party, they are pulled over by a white officer. When the friend reaches in the car for his hairbrush after stepping out of the vehicle, he is shot to death by the police. Starr witnesses the terrifying death and the neighborhood erupts. She is shielded by her parents and her police officer uncle (Common) from the public, but finds the pressure of keeping quiet becoming too much. Her home community wants her to come forward and speak out. Her high school friends want to protest just to get out of class and the local neighborhood drug pusher King (Anthony Mackie) fears he will be outed by the young girl since her dead friend sold drugs for him. Tempers rise, confrontations ensue, and young Starr eventually finds her voice to protect her fallen friend’s legacy. The Hate U Give is still powerful enough to merit watching as it tackles important social issues. However, one may wish things didn’t play out so simply. Even the ending is tied up with a happy little bow which is far removed from the conflicts we face in reality and which are observed through most of the production. In a year where black film is certainly pushing forward, The Hate U Give is overshadowed by stronger films of the same subject matter like BlackkKlansman and Blindspotting, but provides a quality experience for the middle to high school set. The teenage perspective is well done, but for certain adults, the movie may feel a bit too teen-oriented. Still, overall, a positive viewing experience and worth your time.
Bohemian Rhapsody – Brace yourselves; the Queen fans are likely to respond in force! Bohemian Rhapsody is a movie where the music makes the movie. In all honesty, it’s a pretty mediocre movie outside of the outstanding lead performance by Rami Malek as lead singer Freddie Mercury and a fantastic recreation of their 1985 Live Aid performance which serves as film’s finale. Technically, there’s really nothing wrong with the film. The camera work is solid and the concert set pieces are energetic enough. However, something is lost in the overall aesthetic. The first glaring problem is the play-it-safe screenplay. It is riddled with rock star movie cliche and cheesy, generic dialogue. With Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor serving as co-executive producers, they have glossed over the darker moments of Mercury’s life and done everything they can to project a squeaky clean image of the band. Anyone who knows their musical history knows this wasn’t the case, but the script even has songs played in wrong eras for dramatic effect. The strength of musical bio-pics such as Ray and Straight Outta Compton were the fact that the audience got to see the depravity the protagonists fell to and how they overcame these obstacles. Human error adds humanity to the person. Here, the tribute and hero worship aspect of the subject overwhelms the dynamic, complex character Mercury certainly was and there are scenes that feel cartoon-ish at times. You never, ever see Mercury partaking in drugs; you just get in the allusions to drugs on a corner table. You never see Freddie dancing in the gay club he’s walking through; he’s like a ghost among the revelers. It’s very likely director Bryan Singer had to pull teeth from May and Taylor just to get in the one gay kiss scene in the film. And yet, they’ll show Mercury leering at a truck driver as he enters a truck stop men’s bathroom. It comes across as silly and laughable. In fact, most of the first half of the film feels more like caricature than true acting. Second, the ensemble cast around Malek just isn’t that good. They are average actors with no depth whatsoever to their characters. At times, it felt like watching a cheap VH1 musical production. We get no motivations, no background info on the rest of the band, no dirt so to speak…And finally, the dramatic cues. Some of them are pretty annoying. Every time a new song is introduced, it’s some epic revelation. The music swells up. It’s almost as if you have cue cards telling you its time to jam. Anyone could just put on Queen’s music and you’d get the same rush without all the fake tantrums, studio meltdowns and incredibly boring “personal” conversations. The movie is not a total loss however. A film full of constant Queen tunes is never a bad thing and it’s the songs that keep things moving forward. Also, actor Rami Malek, mostly known from the USA Network show Mr. Robot, gives the best performance of his career to date. He absolutely nails Freddie Mercury from the passion to the mannerisms and the overall look. Malek is a magnet in every scene he’s in. And the final recreation of Queen’s Live Aid performance is absolutely breathtaking. One only wishes that energy was sustained through the rest of the feature. Bohemian Rhapsody is more a nice tribute to one of the greatest lead men in rock and roll history but its certainly not an objective one. Fans of the band will likely lap it up, but if you want musical cinema, the current “A Star Is Born” is the far better production overall.
The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs – Auteur writer / directors The Coen Brothers have returned with their latest take on American genre cinema. This time they have returned to the Old West which they last explored in 2010’s remake of “True Grit” starring Jeff Bridges. That film was a darker, revisionist take on the western theme which turned the original 1969 John Wayne version on it’s head. With Buster Scruggs, the Coen Brothers take western cinema and dissect it from multiple angles with varying degrees of success. The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is an anthology tale of six stories that are alternately dark, twisted, humorous, sick, spiritual and outright insane. Unfortunately, the best stories are the first few in the production with the tales getting weaker as the movie goes along. That’s not to say any of them are bad. It’s just that the more energetic and fun narratives are in the first half of the film, while the more dramatic and may I say devious tales bookend the second half. Of course, as with any Coen Brothers film, the production values are intricate and exquisite. The camera work is creative and the cinematography at times is outright breathtaking. The ensemble cast is also game – actors such as Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Tom Waits, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson and other all do a fine job with their performances. The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is similar to the Coen Brothers “O Brother, Where Art Thou” in style, if that film were set in the Old West and divided into six stories rather than a cohesive whole. The themes of the six different stories in Scruggs seems to be linked by ideas of fate, life, death, and destiny. All in all, another fine effort by the Coen Brothers, albeit a bit uneven. The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is now available for viewing on Netflix.
Free Solo – Combine the masterful camerawork of National Geographic productions with an intriguing true life adventure story and you have the makings of an incredible film experience. And that is just what Free Solo is: an experience. This is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen; full of suspense, stunning natural vistas, inspiration, heart, intrigue and beauty, you are not likely to experience something as immersive as this in a theater this year. For those of you not up on the terminology, to “free solo” in the rock climbing world is to climb a formation with no rope, safety equipment or support partners of any kind. It’s just you versus the mountain. In the summer of 2017 a team of master climbers and National Geographic cameramen filmed 32 year old Alex Honnold as he attempted to become the first person to free solo the sheer vertical rock formation of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. El Capitan has been climbed for years by enthusiasts and some have even died in the process (with safety equipment!), but no one had ever climbed it without a safety harness or supporting rope. That means one false move and you will plunge thousands of feet to your death. That also means as an audience member, it feels that if you move or breathe wrong in your seat, you could send Honnold plummeting to his doom. It has that kind of intensity – a white knuckle, edge of your seat viewing experience that will make you gasp for air. With that said, this is certainly not a film for those who easily get motion sickness or are afraid of heights. But honestly, I’ve seen films with terrible shaky camerawork that made me far more nauseous than anything seen in “Free Solo”. Perhaps the real miracle of this production though is its heart. The filmmakers do an excellent job of getting us to understand Honnold’s motivations, his fears and his impulses. We see him on the tightrope, walking the thin line between living one’s life to the fullest and doing something insane and suicidal. There are tender moments between Honnold and his girlfriend as well as between mountain-climbing friends who want to help their buddy but fear they may watch his final moments of life. It’s pretty amazing when you watch seasoned National Geographic cameramen turning away from their subject because they can’t look at the life and death moments occurring on El Capitan. Free Solo is an extraordinary production and one of the best films of 2018.
Overlord – A solid “B” movie wrapped in big budget production design. This is another one of those check your brain at the door and go for the ride movies, because if you hold it up to close scrutiny, you can pick it apart. If you’re looking for historical accuracy or some kind of deep meaning, look elsewhere; you won’t find it here. However, if you just want gunfire, explosions, blood splatter and elements of horror, this is right up your alley. A commando unit is about to parachute behind enemy lines before D-Day to knock a radar beacon from the top of a French cathedral. However, their aircraft is hit by enemy fire and only a few troops are able to escape the damaged plane. Knowing their mission, the soldiers march towards a Nazi-occupied French town where they are helped by a female smuggler. Unbeknownst to the soldiers, the Nazis are using the town folk to carry out devious experiments in which they are attempting to create an indestructible super soldier. And it just so happens that the laboratory is at the base of the same cathedral where the radar beacon is located. Alas, one of the soldiers is able to sneak into the Nazi camp where he discovers the evil experiments and also determines that the Nazis have yet to perfect the formula, leaving behind raging, super strong psychotic, zombie-like beings which are quite difficult to kill. Of course, the Nazis end up kidnapping the younger brother of the lady smuggler and the Allied troops carry on with a three-fold mission: save the boy, stop the experiments and destroy the radar beacon. This is pure, pulp nonsense, straight out of the old serial days of cinema, but its well staged with a lot of great set pieces and plenty of blood and guts thrown in for modern audiences. It’s a JJ Abrams produced film but it feels more like what you’d get it Quentin Tarantino directed Saving Private Ryan, but threw some zombies in for the hell of it. The acting isn’t great, some of the lines are cheesy, and the narrative doesn’t add up to much, but you’re really not going to see this kind of movie for that stuff anyways. Personally, I think they could have added a little more horror and a little less war battle sequences in Overlord, but on the whole, a good action-horror popcorn production.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Breezy, yet surprisingly downbeat film based on true events about a down on her luck writer who resorts to literary forgeries to make a buck. Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a celebrity biographer of the 70’s and 80’s, who has found her writings are now out of vogue in the literary world. Recently fired from her nighttime copy editing job, the rent 3 months behind, her cat sick and an alcohol habit, Israel is just about at the end of her rope. After a chance meeting with a fellow down and out writer named Jack (an excellent Richard E. Grant) at the local bar, she gets the idea of forging literary letters from famous early 20th century figures and selling them to memorabilia dealers. Soon, Jack is helping out Lee with her deceptions and the odd couple are making some quick cash, but of course their little scheme is soon being investigated for fraud. McCarthy shows that she can act outside of the goofball comedy she’s known for and gives a solid performance as Israel. It’s no award worthy performance (at least in my opinion), but it’s a performance that shows promise. Don’t be surprised to see McCarthy in more dramatic roles in the future. However, it is veteran English actor Grant who steals the show as Israel’s flamboyant, homosexual skid row drinking buddy. He brings the charm and some moments of levity to a production that is often dour and borderline depressing. On the whole, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a good little movie; nothing particularly great nor memorable, but passable fare for a rainy afternoon.
Halloween (2018) – Don’t believe the hype. This Halloween is an OK, tired retread that doesn’t really add anything new to the franchise. Despite earning over 75 plus million dollars in its opening weekend and getting positive reviews from critics, in all honesty, if you’ve seen one Halloween film, you’ve seen this one too. It’s that familiar. Ignoring virtually all of the sequels since the first two films came out in 1978 and 1981, we find Michael Myers incarcerated for 40 years at the local institution for the criminally insane. Two English bloggers who fancy themselves as investigative reporters visit Haddonfield, Illinois to try and get an inside scoop on the 1978 Halloween murders which happened in that town. They visit both the imprisoned Myers and the very paranoid and guarded Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis giving us her best Linda Hamilton Terminator 2 impression). The bloggers learn that Michael Myers is about to be transferred to another prison which has Strode on edge. Of course, he escapes, kills everyone in his path and makes his way to Haddonfield to kill the rest of the Strode family. Laurie Strode’s daughter is estranged from her mother because she thinks she’s crazy but her granddaughter somewhat believes her despite being torn between grandma and mom. We get all the familiar trappings of this franchise: the loose babysitter, the cop who was on the scene when Myers was first arrested, a new stand-in for the deceased Dr. Loomis, and a bunch of “subtle” scenes which allude to the original movie. It all culminates in a final battle between good and evil at Laurie Strode’s home which has been weaponized and booby-trapped in case Myers ever came after them. While technically there’s nothing really wrong with this production (outside of one too many glaring police lights), it just lacks scares, suspense or the surprises which accompanied the original film. At least a sequel like Halloween: H20 which came out at the 20 year anniversary, while also inferior to the original, gave us some twists and a new environment. The 40th anniversary film just feels unoriginal and tired.