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Rating History

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)
19 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

AIMEE MANN OVERBOARD - My Review of IN THE FADE (2 1/2 Stars)

Fresh off its Golden Globe win for Best Foreign Language Film, and its star, Diane Kruger (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS), in what is surprisingly her first German language film, winning the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, IN THE FADE carried with it a lot of expectations from me. The fact that it's not a very good film, but a memorable one with a stellar lead performance, comes as a disappointment, but it's still worth a look nonetheless.

Kruger plays Katja, who at the outset joyously weds her Turkish immigrant husband Nuri in a prison wedding, where he serves time for drug dealing. Cut to six years later, and he's an honest businessman in Hamburg who clearly loves his wife and their adorkable, bespectacled son Rocco. When she dons glasses, Kruger is the spitting image of pop star Aimee Mann, who herself carries a lot of sadness in her music, so by association alone, misery is bound to occur.

We quickly experience this family's natural, humorous bonds, which will be key to appreciating what soon follows. It shouldn't spoil anything that in the first few minutes of the film, Nuri and Rocco fall victim to a terrorist bombing, leaving Katja shattered. Kruger's raw reaction to their deaths feels viscerally real, elevating her performance instantaneously.

Quickly descending into depression and drug use, Katja slowly comes to realize her husband was the target of Neo-Nazis, whereas the police wrongfully zero in on his drug-related past to hunt down a motive. A tipoff from one of the perpetrator's father, along with Katja's astute recollection of a suspicious woman outside her husband's office, leads to a trial, which covers the entire second act of the film.

It's here where this gut-wrenching story turns into a more by-the-numbers courtroom procedural. It's helped by two powerful supporting performances, Johannes Krisch (A CURE FOR WELLNESS) as the commanding defense attorney, and Denis Moschitto as the dreamboat prosecutor who looks like he's gonna make out with Katja at any moment when he's not speaking eloquently for the victims who no longer have a voice. Still, we've seen these legal proceedings countless times, and despite Kruger's exceptionally explosive moment where she lets loose on one of the accused, it's pretty ho-hum stuff where the outcome feels telegraphed from miles away.

From there, the film allows its third act to descend into a revenge thriller of sorts. It's suspenseful in a quiet, dread-filled way, and it has an ending you won't soon forget, but this film feels like a treatise on Germany's terrible recent record with how its immigrants are treated, and not a particularly layered look at its characters. Kruger, however, is the exception, and she is fantastic.

Writer/Director Fatih Akin (HEAD-ON) employs a somewhat artless, hand-held shooting style , except for some incredible shots late in the film of Kruger sitting in a windy, field, but it feel immediate and appropriate for its subject matter. It's just not the most urgently told story, or the most innovative. Despite this, we're with Kruger every step of the way, and we come to understand her behavior, as off the rails as it becomes. Kruger keeps the film grounded, even when it lacks those juicy fillers that made a film story so rich and complex. It's as if they knew the film was coming out in January, so they figured they would Liam Neeson the shit out of it, because as you know, every new year, LIAM NEESON WILL KILL SOMEONE. IN THE FAD opts for a more subtle approach than what we see in his films, but it's still borderline pulpy nonetheless. You'll still be talking about that ending afterwards and will likely be wanting a hug.

Paddington 2
Paddington 2 (2018)
19 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

LADDY MARMALADE - My Review of PADDINGTON 2 (5 Stars)

Trust me, this comes as much of a surprise to me as it probably does to you, but PADDINGTON 2 is a masterpiece. A sequel to the 2014 film, based on the famous characters created by Michael Bond, it's a film made for children by a major studio, two usual strikes in my book, and not only surpasses the original, but reaches emotional and artistic peaks I didn't think was possible in these cynical, quick buck, "movies are product" times.

I'm late to the Paddington universe. I never read the books when I was younger and only caught the original film this past week on Netflix. I loved it, with its popping Wes Anderson-meets-Jeunet/Caro stylized aesthetic and its ability to ooze empathy out of a CGI creation. Mainly, it's great storytelling with great care paid to its marmalade-living title character's feelings. As a comedy, its Rube Goldberg contraption style of slapstick and beautifully written setups and payoffs proved endlessly entertaining, especially every time Paddington would create sheer chaos out of the simplest of situations. I couldn't wait for him to mess up the Brown home again in the sequel.

Little did I know that I would experience a true gem of filmmaking craft with genuine laugh out loud moments and a flood of uncontrollable tears. This is movie heaven for people with no guile and big hearts, a rare sequel that will easily rank among the best films of 2018. At its core, PADDINGTON 2, directed by Paul King, who helmed the original and co-wrote with Simon Farnaby, tells the story of an immigrant Peruvian bear who, through sheer goodness, brightens up the lives of his London friends and neighbors, many of them immigrants themselves. Whereas an evil Nicole Kidman provided the drama in the first by wanting to make taxidermy out of our cute little hero, Hugh Grant steps in here as the villainous down-on-his-luck yet still narcissistic actor who hears of a valuable pop-up book from Paddington which he intends to steal. It's just silly enough to not scare the kids, yet it speaks to adults who recognize Grant's level of entitlement as a curse on civilization. Paddington just wants everyone to love life and Grant's Phoenix Buchanan stands in the way.

Paddington still lives with the Browns, all of whom get wonderfully fulfilling story arcs here, all with sly setups you can trust will again pay off astutely and at surprising times. Sally Hawkins, who again ends up in the water two films in a row (!), brings so much quirky charm to Mary Brown, and is matched well with Hugh Bonneville's dead-end job Henry and their teen kids Judy, an aspiring journalist, and Jonathan, a closet model train lover who fronts with his new Hip Hop persona.

The engine that drives the plot is that pop-up book of London, which Paddington wants to buy for his beloved, aging Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton). To earn money to make his purchase, he disastrously tries his hand working at a Barber Shop before moving on to a window washing career. When Phoenix steals the book, the chase begins.

All of this is swoopingly shot, exciting and just plain fun to watch. Whether Paddington is struggling with a set of clippers or cleaning windows with his furry butt, he wins your over. It helps that Ben Wishaw voices Paddington with a quiet, sweet dignity, and has the ability to bring people together. Could this be the "kinder, gentler nation" George W. Bush spoke of? If so, I'm in.

I don't want to spoil any more of the story, because it's so airtight and so fully satisfying, but I do want to point out a simply stunning sequence in which Paddington fantasizes about taking his Aunt through London via the pop-up book. As they traverse page after page, with transitions so gorgeously realized, traveling from a subway station to Piccadilly Circus, you'll get lost in the glory of discovery. If this section were a short film, it would be immensely satisfying just on its own.

King also use space perfectly, giving us a hair-raising scene where Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo try to save Paddington from the certain death of a waterfall or a breathless underwater scene in which drowning feels like a real possibility. I haven't been this excited by a character trapped in a submerged car since John Travolta saved Nancy Allen in BLOW OUT! King's use of wide shots and close-ups infused with an unexpected depth of feeling truly blew me away. Paddington is one of the most lovable heroes in cinema history. Period.

What should appear to be a low stakes entertainment, feels revolutionary in these "shithole" times. PADDINGTON 2 is that rare, big studio film that gets everything right.


Minor quibble: I could have done without the gay-baiting musical number in the end credits, which rivals "The French Mistake" scene in BLAZING SADDLES for kinda-sorta making fun of a certain gay stereotype while also kinda-sorta celebrating it. Let's just say it's pink, crazy, and funny, but shouldn't be in a children's film sending the message that gay people are the party clowns you get to laugh at...but I won't deduct any points, because I think its heart is in the right place.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
50 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

I SEE RED - My Review of STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (3 Stars)

Full disclosure: I'm the last person you should be listening to as I review any STAR WARS movie, or any fantasy movie for that matter. They all have pretty colors and exciting set pieces. Some have memorable characters. But I can barely keep up with the lore and can't tell a Boba Fett apart from a Boba Tea. I kinda just go with it and assume that good will battle evil, leaving one or the other the victor with each installment. Having said that, I think THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is a bonafide masterpiece and got more of a kick out of THE FORCE AWAKENS than I did the OG Episode 4, but going into THE LAST JEDI, I didn't remember a thing from the previous film except that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was about to make his long-awaited return. Oh! And I recall a major character biting the dust, but for the two of you who haven't seen Episode 7, I won't spoil it here.

Since THE FORCE AWAKENS felt like a beat-by-beat retread of THE NEW HOPE, I expected THE LAST JEDI to resemble THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, especially with Rain Johnson, no stranger to dark material, on board as writer/director. While it doesn't quite go there, it does achieve a tone of melancholy all its own. One can credit the late Carrie Fisher's final film appearance for much of this, but Hamill's wonderful performance adds a healthy dose of gravitas.

Since I probably won't remember the story by the time the next installment comes around, won't describe it here. Our heroes fight the Evil Empire, or the First Order, or whatever the hell they call it now, and nothing short of the end of the universe is at stake. Our new young cast (Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega and Adam Driver) basically replaces Luke, Han, Leia and Darth Vader somewhat respectively as light saber and spaceship battles ensue. The plot ping pongs around from character to character so often that I couldn't remember who knew whom. An introductory scene at the end between two major characters took me by surprise as I shrugged, "They hadn't met already?" Laura Dern has a fairly large role but I didn't think she looked right for the part. Her acting style is grounded in so much painful reality, that I had a hard time recognizing her as a future action figure. Same goes for Benecio Del Toro. STAR WARS characters aren't usually played by Method Actors! Don't get me started on the waste of Gwendoline Christie and Lupita Nyong'o. Like, I said, I am THE WRONG person to review this movie!

For the most part, I enjoyed this overlong film very much. It contains many beautifully shot set pieces, especially a great light saber battle in front of a big bred backdrop and another face-off on white soil which gets smeared with red salt. There's a LOT of red in this film, which allows it to have its own identity of sorts. The others don't tell this color story, so I'll always think of this installment as the red one.

While all of the STAR WARS films contain humor, and no, I don't consider Jar Jar Binks a successful stab at it, the jokes here, right from the opening scene on, feel different. Some moments wouldn't feel out of place in SPACEBALLS, whereas in the past, the humor came from our expectations of its characters. We knew Han Solo would say something snarky, because he was a snarky snark. Here, we get a slight Monty Python drollness based on silly circumstances. Personally, I enjoyed it as welcome levity to the plethora of dire, hopeless events. Driver's Kylo Ren seems louder and angrier now as his relentless assault on his enemies bears the hallmarks of a ruthless dictator. Kim Jong Ren much? When not cracking wise, this film gets dark and metaphysical. Issues of mortality, of giving up, and of passing the torch give it heft, perhaps too much so for a popcorn flick.

For those who look to the STAR WARS films for its toy collectibles, absolutely nobody will regret putting a cute little Porg or a Crystal Fox on the shelf next to their BB8. It's the entire experience, in fact, that I think people remember. The toys, the fandom, the colorful battles, the speeding X-Wings, the trying to figure out when Prince Harry appears, all just may mean more to people than the actual storylines. Yes, this film has a wonderful twist and a surprise cameo from a fan favorite. Yes, the universe finally feels truly diverse, with the great addition of Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a terrific new Asian character, but for those still thirsty for a Poe/Finn hookup, you're gonna have to settle for a strong hug and meaningful eye contact! Finn has his eyes on someone else, I'm afraid.

So all of this is to say that I liked this film very much while not really understanding or remembering it at all. Just lots and lots of glorious red! Rian Johnson may pretty much color inside the lines of the Star Wars Universe, but he does infuse the film with his own brand of weightiness. Some will embrace it, while others will...wait for it...rebel.

Darkest Hour
Darkest Hour (2017)
51 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

DUNKIRK: BEHIND-THE-SCENES - My Review of DARKEST HOUR (3 1/2 Stars)

As a filmmaker, Joe Wright has a great sense of rhythm. A look at ATONEMENT or his "Nosedive" episode of BLACK MIRROR shows a director in full control of timing and punctuation, a kind of ticking clock precision. Yes, a lot of the credit goes to his Editors and Composers, but time and time again, he has shown off his particular voice. His latest, DARKEST HOUR, a look at Winston Churchill in the early stages of World War II, which has all the earmarks of a stuffy biopic, succeeds wonderfully because of Wright's distinctive stamp. It doesn't hurt that he benefits from great performances and a creative team at the top of their game.

I'm not the typical fan of this particular genre I like to call MUSTY BRITISH HOMEWORK. I look at DOWNTON ABBEY, THE CROWN, THE KING'S SPEECH and others as the champagne problems of people who never had to worry about rent and bills as they tut tut about their expansive manors, droning on and on about petty slights and ruinous affairs. There's not enough tea in the world to keep me awake for such low stakes drivel. Sure, DARKEST HOUR takes place within the halls of Parliament, but Churchill literally couldn't pay his rent AND the stakes surrounding the Nazi advance on England could not have been higher. What could easily have been stuffy ends up bracing and powerful.

It's May 1940, and with Neville Chamberlain (a fine Ronald Pickup) stepping down as Prime Minister, Churchill gets selected by a reluctant Parliament and an even more hesitant King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, also fine). Seen as a fickle warmonger (Trump comparisons anyone?), Churchill has the daunting task of winning over his colleagues, his King, and, oh yeah, the entire rest of the world, which stands on the brink of obliteration by Hitler. The film almost exclusively takes us through the many behind-closed-doors maneuverings. As such, it makes for a talky yet compelling companion piece to Christopher Nolan's DUNKIRK, and I'm happy to say I was riveted the entire time.

Gary Oldman, in seamless prosthetics, plays Churchill as the prickly, short-tempered bulldog we've all come to know and love and hate and maybe love again. It's a towering, magnetic, humorous, passionate performance and one of the more memorable of this year. It's amazing this is the same actor who first came to my attention in the great SID AND NANCY back in 1986. He has amassed such an incredibly diverse roster of characters over the years, and his Churchill stunningly caps a great career so far.

Kristin Scott Thomas matches Oldman as his adoring wife Clementine, a woman of admirable strength who knew how to tame this beast of a man, and who, adorably, wanted the world to see him the loving way she did. Their love story goes a long way towards humanizing the man while refusing to dilute his dark, impetuous sides.

Lily James, so underused in BABY DRIVER, shines here as Churchill's secretary, Elizabeth Nel. Simultaneously scared of and amazed by the man, her pride in the man grows as the story progresses, acting as a surrogate for the audience. It's a sly, playful performance, although the real Elizabeth didn't start working for Churchill until after the events of the film.

Yes, Anthony McCarten's screenplay plays a little fast and loose with the facts at times, but it all seems in service of rounding out this complicated man. One standout sequence in the London Tube, for example, probably never occurred, but Churchill was known to go AWOL at times during the War and hang out with the common folk. Never mind that this scene didn't really happen as it captures the spirit of the man. One could also quibble that the scene supposedly takes place between one train stop, yet lasts for over 5 minutes. Maybe trains traveled slower back then? Regardless, most of the details have been rigorously researched, and his rousing speeches to the nation have that movie magic.

Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who did such a great job on INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, has beautifully shot this film. Churchill's isolation gets conveyed by these terrific wide shots framing Winston inside a small rectangle, leaving dark negative space in the rest of the frame. The slight overexposure on the many faces in Parliament also contribute the disquieting effect needed to show that it's one tough room! Frequent Wright collaborators, composer Dario Marianelli and editor Valerio Bonelli also help give the film its click click urgency. For a film filled with wall to wall dialogue, I found it to be extremely cinematic. So many delicious Churchill pauses, where you have no idea what's gonna come out of his mouth next, add to the odd sense of fun. Even in the dire times depicted, the filmmakers never lose sight of Churchill's odd sense of humor.

Is this ultimately a bit of hokum, a revisionist history of a man who may have been much meaner than depicted, and who may have recklessly led his country into a bloody war? Perhaps, but I can't help but think that if things had gone differently, I wouldn't be writing this review. Churchill and the military personnel who carried out his orders, literally helped save the world from the Nazis. I shudder to think that decades from now, we may be celebrating Trump in a film where he saved us all from North Korean nuclear annihilation. It may depict his character flaws as quaint and heroic, and it may be the triumph of Jacob Tremblay's long career. I'll let the historians and those still alive in 2068 to sort that out. Until then, DARKEST HOUR worked very well for me, indeed.

Downsizing
Downsizing (2017)
52 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

THE INCREDIBLY BLAND SHRINKING MAN - My Review of DOWNSIZING (2 1/2 Stars)

A new film by Alexander Payne always gets me excited. I loved CITIZEN RUTH, ELECTION, ABOUT SCHMIDT, SIDEWAYS and NEBRASKA but was not a huge fan of THE DESCENDANTS, feeling it lacked the specificity of his Midwestern upbringing. I can't fault this extremely talented writer/director for stretching, but his deep, wry connection to his Omaha roots has brought out the best in him. ELECTION in particular is the best social satire and the most prescient I've seen in decades. Although Reese Witherspoon got the lion's share of the praise for an iconic performance, Matthew Broderick did the finest work of his career by managing to make his dullard of a high school teacher endlessly compelling to watch. This challenge seems near and dear to Payne's heart, as he has dipped into the dull yet fascinating lead character well frequently throughout his career.

Now with DOWNSIZING, his latest collaboration with co-writer Jim Taylor, the filmmakers have once again featured a dead inside main character, but the results ultimately misfire despite the attempt to stretch themselves. There's much to enjoy, but you have to sift through a lot of messiness to find it.

A clear parable about climate change, DOWNSIZING goes off the rails by also trying to cram immigration, racism, classism, AND a love story into its sci-fi premise. In the not too distant future, with overpopulation and the melting ice caps threatening our very existence, a group of Norwegian scientists perfect a process in which humans can be shrunk to approximately 5" in height, thus saving our planet's resources and reducing spending for the individuals who opt in on the operation. It's a compelling concept, and Payne and Taylor have considered the details and consequences very well, especially the fact that these parking lot-sized communities need netting to protect its small people from insects an UV rays.

Into the fray jumps Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), a struggling, unhappy Omaha couple whose American Dream has turned into a nightmare as they struggle to make ends meet. When they attend a presentation on downsizing, which deftly resembles those ripoff timeshare sales pitches (with perfect cameos by Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern, and Niecy Nash), they opt for a more luxurious and ecologically sound life in the little community of Leisure Land.

Of course, complications ensure, including martial strife and Paul's discovery that all is not quite what it seems in his new environment. When he attends a party at his upstairs neighbor (Christoph Waltz), an opportunist who, along with his friend Konrad (Udo Kier), makes money by importing miniaturized versions of such items as Cuban cigars, he meets a Vietnamese cleaning woman named Ngoc Lan Tran (the incredible Hong Chau) who will change his entire life and worldview. A dissident who was forced into downsizing by her repressive government, Ngoc Lan escapes to the U.S., loses one of her legs and temporarily receives a little notoriety before having to live in a hidden, poor tenement in Leisure Land, filled with minorities who survive by doing the menial work the rest of its citizens prefer not to do. Sound familiar? Welcome to the American 99%!

Chau has received a lot of criticism for what many have called a gross, tone deaf stereotype. Yes, she sounds like Short Round from Indiana Jones, but the fact remains that broken English is a real thing. Her uneasy grasp of the English language may get a few laughs, but her character is no joke. She's an extremely layered creation with heartbreaking, stunning moments of vulnerability and fortitude. She speaks her mind without forethought but also will convey joy and sadness in the same breath in her indelible "I go to Norway" speech. It's one of the best scenes in a movie I've seen all year. So why have I rated this film so low?

Well...there's no question that at a very specific point, this movie goes off the rails. When circumstances change the setting to the fjords of Norway, with terribly performed supporting roles coming out of the woodwork and its environmental issues placed so squarely on the nose, you can't see the nose anymore! It all makes sense story-wise, with it definitely being the likely conclusion to what has come before, but tonally, it's a jarring unwelcome and oh-so-slow shift from what was some fairly astute satire. It doesn't help that with the exception of Ngoc Lan's slum, the rest of the film suffers from cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and production designer Stefania Cella's too glossy, too high key looks. It feels like a cheaper version of Lily Tomlin's THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN with way less perspective effects. After a while, I felt like I was trapped in Disneyland without a Fast Pass.

I'm willing to forgive all of the above, because I love when filmmakers travel outside their comfort zones and have something to say, but the biggest misstep of all is the fact that Damon's character, while well-meaning yet short-tempered, is so completely uninteresting that shrinking him feels redundant. He's not interestingly bland like, he's just bland.

It's clearly the point Payne and Taylor are trying to make, but without a shred of anything interesting about poor Paul, except for the fact that he recognizes the wonderfulness of Ngoc Lan, he brings the whole movie down. I don't even blame Damon. He tries to give us some sweet moments, especially when he and Ngoc Lan discuss the many different ways Americans like to f*ck. This is a problem with the writing. Paul remains a bore from beginning to end.

DOWNSIZING reminded me in so many ways of the 2013 remake of THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY. Both feature a dull lead character who goes on a journey of discovery, both criminally underuse Kristen Wiig, both take huge tonal shifts when they relocate their settings to European environment, and both have a fantastical aesthetic. I enjoyed MITTY more, because it stayed close to Ben Stiller's character, making us understand the sad sack with a hero inside dying to emerge. We never fully understand Damon's character other than his evolving sense of right and wrong. By the end, I liked the decisions he made. I just wish they were made by someone more interesting.

DOWNSIZING isn't a total disaster. I still recommend it for Chau's transcendent work and its GULLIVER'S TRAVELS sense of adventure. It's simply all over the place and is filled with so many characters who don't quite land. Still, I admire Payne so much in the same way I love the work of James L. Brooks, that I'll follow him anywhere...at least for now.