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Rating History

The Death of Stalin
6 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

BORE AND PEACE - My Review of THE DEATH OF STALIN (2 1/2 Stars)

I'm a fan of Armando Iannucci's work. IN THE LOOP and VEEP contain some of the most razor sharp, savage dialogue I've ever heard. His attention to the cowardice of humankind and the terrible ways we often communicate with each other puts him a cut above the rest of the world's satirists. Consider then my relative disappointment with his latest project, THE DEATH OF STALIN. While bracingly funny at times and wonderfully acted by its entire, huge ensemble, the film wore out its welcome, and sometimes its coherence, around the halfway mark.

Set in Moscow during the time of Stalin's death, the story explores the insane pile-up of power grabs by those who survived the despot. Not such an easy thing to do in the darkest time of the Soviet Regime, as this wacky comedy has an insanely large body count. Its opening act, and perhaps its best moments, centers around Andreyev, an Engineer (Paddy Considine in fine form) panicking when Stalin directly orders him to record a symphony he oversees. Problem is, the symphony has just ended, so Andreyev quickly rounds up people on the street, a conductor at home in his pajamas, and a hostile pianist (a strong Olga Kurylenko from QUANTUM OF SOLACE) who detests Stalin and refuses to play again. Through this sequence, we feel the fear everyone has of their leader and the brave faces they all put on in order to survive.

Eventually, Stalin dies, although in true farcical fashion, it takes forever! The power vacuum left behind gets filled by his surviving cabinet members, all of whom would love to lead their country, despite lacking the moral compass to make something better out of the hell Stalin created. These potential leaders include Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, a fantastic Simon Russell Beale as a head torturer for the KGB, Jason Isaacs, and the winning one-two punch of Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend as Stalin's daughter and son.
The film notably eschews Russian accents for the most part, with each actor using their natural speaking voices, most hilariously resulting in Buscemi's Krushchev sounding like a disgruntled NYPD Officer. I also loved how in the background of the frame, we see people being shot, or rolling down stairs, while people carry on petty arguments in the foreground.

This sounds amazing, no? And it is for a while. Like his other projects, Iannucci has a real gift for the minutiae of desperate people doing or saying anything they can to stay in the game, or in this case, stay alive. It's like VEEP with a longer running time and bloodshed. But after a while, I stopped caring as an aura of sameness crept into the viewing experience. I stopped trying to follow the convoluted story and occasionally smiled at a well-realized quip or two.
THE DEATH OF STALIN is no disaster by any means. It's a fluffy farce which dares to place itself into a dark place in world history. It's got great nervous energy and more plotting and scheming than an episode of SURVIVOR. A shame, however, that it ultimately bored me.

A Quiet Place
A Quiet Place (2018)
7 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

NAILED IT - My Review of A QUIET PLACE (4 Stars)

Sometimes you see a film and other times you see a movie. A QUIET PLACE is a movie movie, a white knuckle ride from start to finish using all of the cinematic elements - image, sound, editing, score, and great characters to come together beautifully within the time-tested horror genre. Sure, despite a lean mean script by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck and director/star John Krasinski. many plot points and motivations don't stand up to scrutiny, but it's such a pure cinematic experience, I forgave it such lapses. Plus, it has the added bonus of being that rare movie which forces audiences to put down their phones, lean in, and shut the f*ck up except to scream their heads off. At the screening I attended, my friend Will grabbed my hand so hard when he wasn't drowning in a pool of his own anxiety. Not a single iPhone screen glowed. Nobody got up to pee. John Krasinski and company just made American moviegoing great again!

With the simple premise that the earth has been overrun by vicious blind aliens that swoop in and kill anyone that makes a sound, we follow one couple (Krasinski, real-life spouse Emily Blunt) and their two children Regan (Millicent Simmonds of WONDERSTRUCK) and Marcus (Noah Jupe of WONDER), which I will forever think of as the Wonder Kids. In the prologue, they suffer a terrible trauma from which we flash forward to a year later to find Mom is in the late stages of pregnancy as they live a hushed existence in the basement of their farm house. Because Regan is deaf, this family has a leg up on those not so lucky, because they can use ASL to communicate.

They've also worked out a pretty crafty system to stay alive with their underground oven, paths lined with sand, and string of yard lights capable of sending a signal to anyone outside. Of course accidents happen, drawing the creatures to them with the slightest crashing sound. It's pins and needles time with no let-up until the end credits dump you out of the theater shaken and spent.

Now, why any couple would risk endangering their family by bringing another baby into the world escaped me, along with their often tragic inability to know where their children are at all times, but with the screws tied so tight, it just didn't matter. Krasinski and Blunt draw us in and evoke such empathy with their soulful performances. The script, despite an almost complete lack of dialogue, manages to dig into the guilt our couple carry for some very bad decisions. In the couple of scenes where the do talk, one is gorgeously whispered and the other, done under the cover of a raging waterfall, feels cathartic.

Sure, this horror movie has its share of jump scares, but the sound design and editing contribute greatly to its specialness along with the hauntingly stretched foghorn sounds of Marco Beltrami's memorable score. Whenever the movie shifts to Regan's point of view, the sound drops out entirely, creating its own dueling sense of security and menace. Nothing in Editor Christopher Tellefsen's credits suggested to me that he could wring so much suspense out of a story, but his work here puts him at the top of his field.

Like the movie HUSH, Regan's deafness factors heavily into the schematics of the plot. Despite Dad's valiant efforts to improve her various hearing devices, the story adds an interesting element involving Regan not wanting her father to keep trying. Marcus has his own issues as well, but whatever ailment he suffers from in the beginning seems to have been lost on the cutting room floor as the story progresses. It's not a perfect script, but it's perfectly thrilling nonetheless.

Ridley Scott famously discussed how with ALIEN, he wanted the dialogue to seem unintelligible at times because it didn't matter, and because he wanted to achieve pure visual cinema. A QUIET PLACE certainly borrows a page from this handbook, and it works wonders. It's just one thrilling set piece after another, with the most intense involving a silo, an unfortunately protruding nail, a bathtub, and many more. Its final, abrupt image is literally packed with power.

The film at times, feels like a standalone episode of THE WALKING DEAD, with aliens replacing the zombies. I also thought of the terrible IT COMES AT NIGHT. Luckily, A QUIET PLACE benefits from strong direction, cinematography, and people you care about and a non-stop sense of pace.

Blunt, with her expressive eyes, gives what is basically a great silent movie performance. You'll be talking about her big scene for some time, which is one of those sequences where the writers clearly asked, "What is the absolute worst thing that can happen to you in this situation? And now, how can we make that even worse?" But most importantly, you root for these flawed people. I wish the script had made a little more out of the flawed parenting skills of our leads, but I also appreciated the economical way things unfold. You have to fill in the backstory with the clues provided. The aliens exist and that's about all you need to know. A QUIET PLACE may fumble the ball a few times when it comes to logic, but it's the most beautifully sustained rush of excitement I've seen since ALIENS.

You Were Never Really Here
11 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

IT'S HAMMER TIME - My Review of YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (2 Stars)

Lynne Ramsay needs to make a horror film asap...and she must collaborate again with her composer Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead fame. The two of them know exactly how to scare and unnerve viewers, how to use tremulous sounds and eerie silences to shake you to your core or fill you with dread. These visceral talents don't come along very often, and when matched with the proper genre has the possibilities of greatness.

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE, has great things in it, but is far from great. The pair worked so well together on Ramsay's prior feature, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, that I was excited to see their latest efforts. What transpires has incredible cinematic heft, gorgeous, deeply felt cinematography by Thomas Townend (another KEVIN alum), fantastic use of sound, shocking violence juxtaposed with unexpected tenderness, all in the service of something I found to be criminally underwritten.

It's rare that I'll complain about a film being too visual. I did so with last year's TWO LOVERS, which wasted its best resource, Debra Winger's indelible rasp getting the chance to talk and talk and talk. I'm doing so again with a potentially powerful film that, for me, could have used a little more talking and a little less visual oomph, despite its utter gorgeousness.

Your enjoyment of this film may also be dependent on your feelings for Joaquin Phoenix as an actor. While I loved him in TO DIE FOR, WALK THE LINE, and HER, sometimes his method style of performing leans heavily on navel gazing aspects I find the opposite of entertaining. It doesn't mean he isn't skilled. He's a great actor, and his role as Joe, an Avenging Angel of sorts who makes a living saving young girls kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery, certainly has power and a deeply lived-in quality. But...except for some surprisingly sweet scenes with Judith Roberts (great actor), as his ailing mother, I grew tired of this endless mumble of a character.

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE feels like DEATH WISH married PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD, which in layman's terms means a revenge fantasy with an elliptical, artistic aesthetic. Imagine TAXI DRIVER, which the film closely resembles, without much dialogue. You're left wondering, where's that "You talking to me?" scene. Fifteen year old Ekaterina Samsonov has a wonderfully sullen look as Nina, the main missing girl in the story, but she barely ever speaks. Compare that to the unforgettable scene in TAXI DRIVER, where a young Jodie Foster shares a meal with Robert DeNiro and justifies her life as a young sex worker. Foster had so much to work with in that scene, whereas Samsonov just stares blankly most of the time.

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE also has plenty of violence, with Phoenix wielding a hammer against the awful people he seeks to avenge. This is truly upsetting stuff. The film also builds and builds as it peels back the layers of corruption to reveal something more sick and insidious than imagined, although in this current cultural moment, I expect nothing less of powerful people than what they do here.

More than anything, this film felt like an experiment in how to convey so much with so little talking. At times, the imagery more than makes up for that, especially with its underwater scenes reminiscent of TRAINSPOTTING. Greenwood and editor Joe Bini make sure their jump scares have maximum impact, and Ramsay remains a one-of-a-kind filmmaker. It's a case of great filmmaker, wrong genre. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE feels underdeveloped and gets monotonous, yet Ramsay has the skills to make pure cinema. Get her a horror movie now!

Oh Lucy!
Oh Lucy! (2018)
14 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

WIG OUT - My Review of OH LUCY! (4 Stars)

Sometimes the most deceptively simple of films can sneak up on you and elicit an unforeseen emotional response. OH LUCY!, the feature debut of San Francisco-based filmmaker, Atsuko Hirayanagi, reminded me so much of the work of Jim Jarmusch, but with a more layered, less deadpan approach to its characters.

Based on a childhood friend she observed in her native Japan, OH LUCY! follows Setsuko (the remarkable Shinobu Terajima), a dead-inside woman who works as an office drone and lives in a tiny, messy apartment. We first see her on a subway platform, her face covered in an air pollution face mask, where she witnesses a horrific incident. That it seems par for the course to her tells us in such an economical way how soul-deadened she's become.

Setsuko's only real connection to humanity lies with her adorable niece Mika (Shioli Kutsuna), a waitress and delightful schemer/dreamer. When Mika asks her aunt to take her place in an ESL class, Setsuko, out of sheer boredom, takes the leap. Located in what can best be described as a cross between a brothel and a den of prostitution mixed with a taste of whorehouse, the teacher, John (a fully engaged and engaging Josh Hartnett), welcomes her with a big hug.

Not used to human contact, Setsuko seems put off, but grows intrigued when John's unusual teaching methods come into play. These include insisting Setsuko assume a more American name and don a wig. In short order, we welcome "Lucy" to the story, Setsuko's alter-ego. Lucy hilariously has all of the assertiveness and humor that Setsuko lacks. John pairs her up with another student, "Tom" (Kji Yakusho), and they soon trade delightful English phrases and high-fives.

Circumstances will eventually bring "Lucy" to San Diego, and without giving anything away, this section of the film forces us to rethink the immigrant experience. Hirayanagi brings such humor and pathos to the table in what can best be described as a generous and twisted. Comic moments butt up against surprisingly tragic ones so seamlessly and feel completely organic and true. Life seems to unfold in such a believable way. "Lucy", while enormously empathetic, has a tendency to screw up royally or be incredibly mean, yet we understand every one of her many mood shifts. It's a wonderful marriage of filmmaker and star.

"Lucy", with her silly wig and overly-rounded mouth when she attempts American colloquialisms, upends the usual existential drama by constantly surprising us with her observations and reactions to things. We've all seen this story a thousand times, but we haven't seen it through this cultural filter before. She's a character in crisis from beginning to end, often the victim of her own making, but we root for her nonetheless.

Matching Terajima every step of the way is a terrific cast. Aside from the aforementioned Hartnett, who really steps up, especially in a tough, come-to-Jesus moment near the end, I loved Kaho Minami's sly performance as Setsuko's more put-together but equally damaged sister. I believed every push and pull of their complicated relationship. Only Megan Mullally stands out as ill-used in a fairly useless cameo on board a plane, but it's a very minor quibble in a film this sweet, funny, dark and ultimately moving. Who hasn't been or known the Setsuko's of the world, who, with the help of a little hairpiece and a gentle push, can have their shot at a happier life?

Ready Player One
22 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

VIDEO KILLED THE MOVIE STAR - My Review of READY PLAYER ONE (3 Stars)

I didn't grow up on video games. An occasional round of Ms. Pac Man was about as far as I wanted to indulge. I much preferred allowing a strong director guide me through a film story rather than trusting my own instincts and limited knob control skills with a game. One of those directors I'd follow anywhere was/is Steven Spielberg. Love him or hate him, there's no denying he's a Great American Showman with a keen knack for making sure his audience is invested enough in his main characters to follow them on their sometimes epic journeys. His latest, which comes fresh off the heels of the decidedly more adult THE POST, has wonderful sweep and many pleasures, but aims squarely for the gamers and 80s nostalgia buffs out there.

I loved the 80s, with its magical explosion of power pop songs, music videos, and multiplexes filled with one great teen comedy after another. Sure, we had Reagan, the onset of AIDS, and oppressive regimes committing atrocities without the internet's ability to expose them with a well-placed Tweet, but as far as pop culture was concerned, it was pretty special. READY PLAYER ONE, co-written by its novelist, Ernest Cline and Zak Penn, fills every frame with 80s references when its not emulating an immersive, virtual reality video game. While fun and light, it wore out its welcome with me due to a bloated 2 hour, 20 minute running time and a fairly confused message.

It's 2045, and our hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan of MUD), lives in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic Columbus, Ohio. After a series of wars and shortages, most people live in squalor in RVs stacked high on top of each other (called The Stacks). With such miserable living conditions, their only escape is to strap on VR goggles and enter the "Oasis", where life resembles the unlimited imagination of an ever-expanding game. In addition its endless pleasures lies planets filled with war and terror, but it's all make believe. The big drawback is that a giant corporation controls the Oasis, and its players can either collect or lose coins, the latter resulting in imprisonment, enslavement, or worse. Bottom line: The world is addicted to the game and are willing to take the risks it presents.

When James Halliday, one of the founders of the Oasis dies (a terrific performance by Speilberg's lucky charm, Mark Rylance), he leaves behind a video message ceding ownership of his baby and trillions of dollars if a player can locate three keys hidden somewhere in the game. Along with a slew of individuals competing for this great prize, an evil corporation forces its minions to vie for the prize. It's the 99 percenters like Wade and his Merry Band of Misfits versus the 1% as the great race begins. Unlike so many of its fantasy-driver counterparts...I see you VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS!...READY PLAYER ONE lays out its premise rather flawlessly. Despite its overstuffed imagery, it's an easy film to follow, thanks to its screenwriters and Spielberg's career-long insistence on clean storytelling.

Unfortunately, we spend so much time inside the Oasis, an entirely animated world where our main characters get replaced by CGI avatars. As such, we don't get to see very much of Sheridan or his scrappy cohort/love interest played by Olivia Cooke (ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL) in the flesh. Sure, their avatars defy gravity at times and bounce deliriously through the many well-staged chase sequences, but there's a human connection missing at times. I kept wishing the avatars looked just like the actors so that we could get more of their performances. If Keanu Reeves can enter THE MATRIX intact, so could they!

That's not to say that the Oasis is without its fun. This film contains so many Easter Eggs in the form of movie and music references from the 80s, including a funny but not for children sequence inside one of the most influential horror movies of all time. We also get Freddie Krueger, Beetlejuice, Aliens, and Chucky to namecheck along the way. I may want to see it again just to spot the references. Also, TJ Miller (late of SILICON VALLEY) does great voice work as does Lena Waithe (MASTER OF NONE), but, call me crazy, I would have invested more in this story had I been able to watch more human faces. Hell, Ben Mendelsohn, as an evil corporate villain, has an avatar that looks just like him, so why can't everyone else have that luxury?

My biggest problem with the film, however, is that for a story with a message that we need to put down our computers and phones once in a while to enjoy the reality in front of us, it spends a disproportionate amount of time in the VR sector trying to entertain and thrill us. The marketing sucks us in with its promise of non-stop virtual action...and the film does this so, so well...but then it pulls the rug out from under us to sell us on a different, opposing message. Spielberg seems to want to have his pixelated cake and eat it too! As such, I left the film somewhat confused. With its I LOVE THE 80s soundtrack, I'm not complaining that Van Halen's "Jump" found its way in there, but as a non-gamer, I was exhausted. I wanted to go home afterward, curl up into a ball and watch two people talking MY DINNER WITH ANDRE-style to cleanse myself of the audio and video assault I had just witnessed.