John, Egerton’s duet at Cannes

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Rocketman’s world premiere was met with a standing ovation. Dexter Fletcher’s musical biopic of Elton John starring Taron Egerton as the glittery pop idol is currently sitting at 86% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. If that isn’t enough to whet your appetite for the movie, there’s this: the legendary piano man and the actor who portrays him in a sublime duet of the song that gave the film its title. —Pam Grady

The action never stops: JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM

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JW3_DAY042_070818_0907077.ARWJohn Wick (Keanu Reeves) is quite the timepiece. He is the Timex watch of assassins: He’s takes a licking and keeps on ticking. In John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum he takes more licks than seems possible and still survive and even thrive, but if John Wick (it doesn’t seem right to call him either just “John”or just “Wick”) has a superpower, it is his preternatural ability to get up and keep fighting even when every fiber of his being is no doubt willing him to just stay down. John Wick is determined to live and no worldwide assassin army is going to stop him—or so he chooses to believe.

Mr. Wick is in quite the pickle in this latest extravagant and darkly humorous display of nonstop mayhem. He has become the enemy of The High Table, the worldwide crime syndicate that controls the activities and lives of assassins like John Wick. The Continental Hotel, overseen by slippery manager Winston (the magnificent Ian McShane) and always accommodating concierge Charon (Lance Reddick), the killers’ neutral ground, is off-limits to him. More worrisome, The High Table has declared him “excommunicado” and placed a $14 million bounty on his head. There is no safe place in the world for John Wick.

This latest chapter of John Wick’s saga ups the action ante. Not only does he face horde upon horde of extreme fighters and martial artists, including John Wick superfan Zero (Marc Dacascos, hilarious), but director Chad Stahelski stages fights on horseback and motorcycles. It is rock ’em sock ’em robots into infinity and beyond. The battles almost never cease save for a quick sojourn into the Sahara Desert, one of the few instances where John Wick appears in daylight. He is a nocturnal creature, emphasized by the dark alleys where much of the action takes place and the subdued lighting in the Continental, the theater where he seeks help from the mysterious Director (Anjelica Huston), and the Moroccan hideout of his reluctant ally Sofia (Halle Berry). Most film noirs aren’t this dark.

Reeves receives valuable support from McShane, Reddick, Dacascos, Huston, Berry, Laurence Fishburne as John Wick’s fellow High Table rebel The Bowery King, and Asia Kate Dillon as The Adjudicator, The High Table’s punishment enforcer. But make no mistake, the success of the John Wick franchise is all due to Reeves. Despite the fact that John Wick is a lethal killing machine, he cuts an empathetic figure thanks to Reeves’ quiet charm. And it is Reeves’ athleticism and grace during the movie’s many fight sequences that elevate what could be ho-hum action into a kind of adrenaline-inducing murderous ballet. Reeves makes John Wick an assassin worth rooting for, no small feat with the body count he’s accrued over three outings. In his mid-50s, Reeves hardly seems to have lost a step off of his Matrix days and that is a beautiful thing to behold. —Pam Grady

Maigret Steps into Spotlight at San Francisco Fest

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San Francisco may be gentrifying at a terrifying rate, but at least we’ll always have homicide. Of the movie variety. The City is lucky to be awash in noir festivals: Elliot Lavine’s I Wake Up Dreaming (Elliot’s moved up near Portland, but we hope he hasn’t totally abandoned us), Eddie Muller’s Noir City, and Don Malcom’s The French Had a Name for It, which is teeing up its latest menu of mystery, mayhem, and murder May 10-13 at the Roxie Theater.

Fourteen films will unreel, opening with Z director Costa-Gavras’ 1965 debut feature, The Sleeping Car Murders (Compartiment tueurs), a jazz-inflected thriller starring Yves Montand as the detective investigating a case where a woman’s strangulation on a train is only the beginning of a gruesome spree. It is a fast-paced, involving drama and the perfect film to set the mood for the four-day series.

Malcolm has put together a strong slate. Pick any of the 14 and you won’t go wrong, but I want to make a special plea for three films in the festival: Night at the Crossroads (La nuit du carrefour) (1932) and the closing night double-bill of Maigret Sets a Trap (Maigret tend un piége) (1958) and The Head of a Man (La tête d’un homme) (1933).  Georges Simenon’s great French detective, Commissaire Jules Maigret, the protagonist of 76 novels and 28 short stories published over four decades from 1931 to 1972, remains a popular figure in movies and TV to this day. The French Had a Name for It is screening three of the most memorable.

A long time friend of Simenon’s, since long before the writer even conceived the great detective, Jean Renoir (Boudu Saved from Drowning, The Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game) introduced the cinematic Maigret to the world in 1932 with Night at the Crossroads. His older brother Pierre played the detective, called to a desolate town that consists of a gas station and a few houses, to solve the murder of a jewel thief. Made years before the term “noir” was even coined to describe the genre, of the three Maigret films, it is the most noir of them all. It is there in the atmosphere, so foggy and damp it’s almost tactile, creating an aura of doom. It is there in the rogues’ gallery of suspects that include gas station jockey Oscar (Dignimont, one name only, probably artist André Dignimont) and Germans Karl (Georges Koudria) and Else (Winna Winifried), whose claims of being brother and sister Maigret doesn’t believe. As portrayed by Pierre Renoir, Maigret is a frank investigator, willing to forego social niceties in his quest for the truth—as the unfortunate Else comes to discover. An almost documentary-like car chase adds to the suspense in a thriller that is short, nasty, and efficient.

Julien Duvivier’s (Pepe le Moko) The Head of a Man takes a more psychological approach as Maigret (here played by the great Harry Baur in a wonderful performance) refuses to give up on a case that is apparently solved. Joseph Heurtin (Alexandre Rignault) had to have killed the old lady found stabbed in her bedroom. His bloody finger and shoeprints are all over the murder scene and he’s captured on the run. The slow-witted man admits that he was there to rob the woman but denies his guilt in her murder and won’t talk about any accomplices. Case closed, but Maigret thinks otherwise. Gaston Jacquet as Willy Ferrière, the woman’s nephew and heir, and Valéry Inkijinoff as Radek, an ailing immigrant with a serious chip on his shoulder, are part of the detective’s puzzle. The Head of a Man delights, not just in its central mystery, but also in the cop’s dogged determination to seek justice instead of an easy win and in his uncanny ability to get into the heads of his array of suspects.

The immortal Jean Gabin steps into the legendary detective’s shoes in Maigret Sets a Trap, directed by Jean Delannoy (Obsession, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and co-written by Michel Audiard, A Prophet writer-director Jacques Audiard’s father. Someone is killing women in Montmarte and Maigret and his officers are determined to find the culprit before he can murder again. All clues lead one way, but Maigret follows a different path. In this outing, Maigret could give Columbo a run for his money when it comes to needling suspects into either confessing or putting themselves in a position to be caught in the act. The most stylish of the three films—Midcentury furnishings fans will find a lot of eye candy in one suspect’s apartment—it is also the most buoyant. Maigret is at a low point at the film’s start, wondering if it is time to retire and let someone else solve the case. Watching him recover his mojo and joie de vivre is a joy. Gabin is terrific and so is a mystery rooted ultimately in twisted relationships. Together with The Head of a Man, it is the perfect double bill on which to end The French Had a Name for It, one that will leave you wanting more. –Pam Grady

The French Had a Name for It 5 1/2 , May 10-13, Roxie Theater, 3117 – 16th Street, San Francisco. http://www.midcenturyproductions.com/

Crocodile Glam Rock: The Fashions of ROCKETMAN

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The latest promo to drop on Rocketman is all about the fashion. To see Elton John back in the ’70s would have been an experience: Not just the music, but the clothes, the glasses, the larger-than-life flamboyancy. From the looks of it, Rocketman captures that. Certainly, star Taron Egerton wears it well. Whether the movie lives up to the hype remains to be seen, but for now, bravo!

Spoiler-free review: AVENGERS: ENDGAME

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No spoilers here about Avengers: Endgame. No in-depth review, either, since it would be far too easy to fall into spoiler territory. Instead just a few observations:

A three-hour runtime could easily have been punishing (and it might be—to your bladder), but directors Anthony and Joe Russo have delivered an epic that is light on its feet: Action-packed, full of suspense relieved by liberal doses of humor, and emotionally resonant, this is what action adventure storytelling should be and so often isn’t.

In a large ensemble full of memorable performances, Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans stand out, respectively burnishing the legends of Howard Stark/Iron Man and Steve Rogers/Captain America with turns that emphasize their characters’ humanity. This might be just another day at the office for Evans, whose Captain America has always been imbued with a huge dose of empathy along with sorrow for what he lost during the decades he spent in suspended animation. His superb emotional performance is hardly surprising. Downey, on the other hand—Howard Stark has always been a smug, snarky character hovering on the insufferable. While he doesn’t exactly lose those traits in Endgame, he does evolve. Thanos (Josh Brolin) did a number on him in Infinity Wars and it shows in an altogether warmer, more open, and a somewhat humbled (if not humbler) Howard Stark.

Endgame also pays a fond farewell to Marvel’s Stan Lee with his final cameo appearance. Mr. Lee might’ve died in 2018 at 95, but he is going to live forever through his comic books and through his movies. As an adieu to his physical being, his Endgame cameo is tops, a funny moment in the movie that pays homage to Lee’s humor and zest for life.

That’s it. To say more would be to fall too close to spoiler territory. Not going there. Does Avengers: Endgame live up to the hype? Yes, yes is does. –Pam Grady

 

Review: Roots of Syndrome in STOCKHOLM

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People know the name “Stockholm Syndrome,” but few know its etymology. Writer/director Robert Budreau aims to correct that with his new drama Stockholm. The condition in which hostages begin to trust and ally with their captors owes its moniker to a 1973 bank robbery turned hostage situation in the Swedish capital, recounted here–more or less. Names have been changed, and so have other details. And the lead kidnapper was most definitely not an American, which he is for the film’s purposes. But that alteration makes way for Ethan Hawke, who delivers a charismatic performance that’s not only larger than life, it’s larger than the movie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Lars Nystrom (Hawke) enters the bank alone but is soon joined by his friend Gunnar (Mark Strong in bad hippie hairpiece—actually, so is Hawke, but his is supposed to be a wig). There are three hostages and the bank is surrounded by cops. Lars is a charmer. It doesn’t take him long to gain the sympathy of his captives, particularly bank officer Bianca (Noomi Rapace). Heavy-handed police tactics only encourage the hostages to trust Lars and Gunnar.

Stockholm is entertaining enough, if ultimately forgettable. Hawke is the best thing about it with the rest of the cast saddled with playing characters that are not particularly well drawn. Also, the whole problem with making a movie about the roots of “Stockholm Syndrome” is that the crime for which the condition is named pales in comparison with another caper associated with the syndrome: the 1972 robbery of a Chase Manhattan bank that inspired Sidney Lumet’s 1975 thriller Dog Day Afternoon. That movie with a livewire Al Pacino and John Cazale as his dim-witted sad sack partner set the standard for hostage taking movies where the Stockholm Syndrome comes into play. Stockholm is diverting but Lumet set a high bar that is almost impossible for other films to reach. –Pam Grady

Review: Terry Gilliam realizes a long-time dream with THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE

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Terry Gilliam has been tilting at windmills for 30 years, trying to get his passion project, his spin on Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th century novel Don Quixote, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, made. Most famously, French actor Jean Rochefort donned Quixote’s helmet while Johnny Depp played commercials director Toby who becomes Quixote’s Sancho Panza in an aborted 200 production that was immortalized in the documentary Lost in La Mancha. Among the actors attached or considered for the role of Quixote in subsequent years were Gerard Depardieu, Robert Duvall, Gilliam’s fellow Python Michael Palin, and the late John Hurt (diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just prior to what was supposed to be a 2016 production start state) with Ewan McGregor and Jack O’Connell cast as Toby. This was a production clearly never meant to be, yet sometimes, giants are vanquished and miracles do happen as The Man Who Killed Don Quixote arrives in theaters with Gilliam’s Brazil star Jonathan Pryce as the grizzled Quixote and Adam Driver as Toby, the ad man begging for comeuppance.

The film represents probably the only opportunity to ever see Driver do an impression of vaudeville and early movie star Eddie Cantor, which he does with an inspired performance of “If You Knew Susie” that would be worth the price of admission alone even if Gilliam’s 30-years-in-the-making dream project was an utter failure. Which it isn’t, far from it. It was a given that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote would be an eyepopping production. It couldn’t help but be that, not with Gilliam’s longtime cinematographer Nicola Pecorini’s gorgeous photography, Benjamín Fernández and Gabriel Liste’s exquisite production design, and resonant locations in Spain, Portugal, and the Canary Islands that evoke both the 17th century of Quixote’s time and our modern era. What couldn’t be anticipated was just how well Gilliam succeeds in telling his story. Those three decades and all the cast changes have not gone for naught. This is the director’s most satisfying film since The Fisher King 28 years ago.

Driver is one of those rare actors that doesn’t need to be liked, which a good thing, since Toby is such a pill: arrogant, rude, craven, betrayer of his boss (Stellan Skarsgård), and just a general pain in the ass. On location in Spain where he is shooting his latest commercial, he stumbles on a DVD of his student film, a Don Quixote story shot in a nearby village. Nostalgia coupled with a need to escape his current circumstances sends him on a visit back to that ancient town where he discovers that his old leading lady Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) has gone away and become an escort, while the cobbler (Pryce) who was his Quixote has fallen into the delusion that he is the character. Reunited with Toby, he’s found his Sancho Panza.

What follows is a kind of wondrous delirium. Reality and fantasy intertwine, complete with cameos from a gallery of Gilliam monsters. Toby resists and embraces his new role, displays cowardice and courage, and wrestles with the idea that his little student film changed the course of people’s lives, and not for the better. Pryce and Driver, even at loggerheads, share a delicious chemistry. Pryce is excellent, imbuing Quixote with warmth and a gentle daftness, while Driver is magnificent as he portrays Toby’s evolution from a brat to a human being who just might reclaim his soul.

Thirty years from idea to execution is a long time to embrace a dream. It was worth the wait to see its reality. Bravo, Terry Gilliam. –Pam Grady

Dumb-NO!

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As boxer Roberto Duran might say, no mas, Tim Burton, no mas. A director whose films used to be greeted with excited anticipation now only summons dread. Somewhere along the way, Burton lost his mojo. Dumbo is merely the latest evidence that he is not getting it back anytime soon, a banal exercise in faux sentimentality and overdone CGI. He doesn’t shoulder all the blame. Disney needs to stop using its back catalog of classics as a springboard for films that lack anything resembling the enchantment of the original films.

Scarcely over an hour long, the 1941 Dumbo is one of Disney’s most tear-jerking features. Humans barely exist in this colorful, musical cartoon about a baby circus elephant who is made a laughingstock because of his extra-large ears before he becomes a star when those ears act as wings allowing him to fly. Adding to the baby’s woes is the separation from his mother, Mrs. Jumbo, locked away from the other pachyderms as a mad elephant. But from Dumbo’s tragedy comes triumph and within that short running time is a scene of sublime brilliance in “Pink Elephants on Parade” as surreal imagery dances before the eyes of a drunken Dumbo and Timothy Mouse.

Burton’s Dumbo pays homage to that number in a scene involving pink soap bubble elephants, but all that does is emphasize how bereft the new film is of inspiration and magic. The now CGI elephant, who has curiously empty eyes, is more or less a supporting character to a cast of humans that include motherless children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins); their one-armed, WWI vet and sidelined circus trick rider Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell, who really needs to stick to independent fare; his Hollywood movies tend toward the terrible); and Max Medici (Danny DeVito), owner of the threadbare tent show to which Dumbo is born.

As in the original film, Dumbo is separated from his mother, leaving him a grieving elephant, but he also seems to be the key to emotionally repairing the heartbroken Farrier family, and once his aeronautic talents are discovered, to insuring the financial health of the circus. But then big city impresario (and megalomaniac sociopath) V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton, whose reunion with his Beetlejuice and Batman director only serves as a reminder of what used to be) and the star of his show, trapeze artist Colette Marchand (Eva Green), sweep in with their own proposal to unite the two enterprises at Vandevere’s Dreamland (think Disneyland meets Coney Island, both on steroids).

There are a lot of “toos” here: The children are too precocious to tug much at heartstrings no matter how much they refer to their dead mother (who seems more of a plot device than someone who actually lived). Their father is too passive to be a true hero (an odd wrinkle in that that missing arm suggests valor to spare). Medici and Vandevere are too cartoony. (And Alan Arkin, in a cameo as a banker who holds Dreamland’s fate in his hands, steals his scenes from DeVito and Keaton with his impeccably dry delivery.) And Dumbo is too CGI. (His 1941 cel animation counterpart seemed far more real).

As usual, Burton seems to have paid most attention to his production design, the rendering of the tatty Medici circus and its sideshow and Dreamland. Dumbo is overstuffed visually and undernourished narratively. The clunky script credited to Ehren Kruger (whose credits include Scream 3, Reindeer Games, and three Transformers sequels) is charmless and prosaic. There is precious little within the movie to delight and enrapt children and even less to keep their parents awake through the long slog. Where Dumbo and its story of a flying elephant ought to soar, instead it crashes and burns. –Pam Grady

Wild Horses Couldn’t Drag Me Away: THE MUSTANG 

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The strong bond between man and animal lives at the heart of actress Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature directorial debut, The Mustang, a drama with roots in a real prison rehabilitation program in which convicts train wild horses. Shot on location in a decommissioned Nevada prison and grounded by a deeply empathetic performance by Flemish actor Matthias Schoenaerts, the film captures the ugly realities of prison life while depicting one very unusual method for changing lives for the better. While these convicts break horses, the horses in a way are breaking the men and restoring them to humanity. 

Roman (Schoenaerts) could easily be irredeemable. Serving a long sentence for a terrible act of domestic violence and a frequent guest of solitary confinement, he is a sullen man who seems only able to express himself in outbursts of anger. He has a 16-year-old daughter, Martha (Gideon Adlon), with whom he is desperate to connect, but communicating his feelings is a Sisyphean challenge for him. He does not appear to be the most likely candidate for rehabilitation, nevertheless he is chosen for the program in which mustangs—recently captured in their natural habitat throughout the American West—are made ready for auction by getting them comfortable with humans. 

The first meetings between Roman and the irate buckskin who wants nothing to do with people aren’t promising. They are a matched set, as Myles (Bruce Dern), the head of the program, and Henry (Jason Mitchell), a fellow convict who has developed into a talented trainer, can see. Roman, as uncomfortable around animals as he is with people, doesn’t appear to have the skill set for calming a wild animal, not when he doesn’t even know how to calm himself. But that’s the point. In learning how to handle the horse, Roman is learning how to handle himself. 

At times, the story is a little too on the nose with Roman and the horse he names Marquis being so perfectly in sync in their temperaments, while a subplot involving a prison drug ring adds an unnecessary element of melodrama. Those are minor quibbles. With Schoenaerts, Dern, Mitchell, and a terrific supporting cast (including some non-actors, ex-convicts who graduated from programs like the one depicted and have successfully reentered society), The Mustang is a film with a lot of heart and one with an unusual take on America’s prison-industrial complex. The world tends to fixate on punishment, but most prisoners get out at some point, and then what? 

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Ruben Impens, The Mustang makes the most of its desert setting and one terrifically suspenseful scene where a driving storm threatens the horses. Clermont-Tonnerre imbues her film with a variety of tones from the simmering tensions of the prison yard to the uncomfortable atmosphere in the visitors’ room where Roman and his daughter fitfully communicate through his guilt and her anger to the camaraderie and sometimes surprising exuberance to be found among the horse trainers. The Mustang began when the director read an article about programs like the one she portrays and she has parlayed that into an impressive first feature. –Pam Grady 

Cinequest review: MINE 9

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Mine 9

Real coal miners appear on the screen during the closing credits of writer/director Eddie Mensore’s sophomore feature Mine 9, which makes its world premiere March 8 at the Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival in Silicon Valley. They talk about their work and how it is a family tradition and how long a workday is and how many years they’ve been going down in the pit. Mensore pays respect to these men in this way, even as the story he has just spun is chilling and leaves the viewer with a question: Why in the world would anyone do this kind of work?

Set in a bucolic Appalachian community and against an evocative soundtrack of country, folk, and blues songs – a few originals, mostly traditional – performed by Atlanta musician Max Godfrey, Mine 9 neatly sets up the circumstances facing a group of miners. They know conditions aren’t safe, but they don’t really have much of a choice except to descend two miles down into the earth and go back to work. Economic conditions are so harsh in the region that the choice comes down to risking one’s life for the sake of a job or starve. All except 18-year-old Ryan (Drew Starkey), joining the family business as he starts his first day of work, have families to feed.

Mensore paints a vivid picture. From the grime that encrusts the men from head to foot to the claustrophobic conditions of working in the pit, this is pitiless, backbreaking work. And that’s before the methane explosion that leaves them with caved in walls and scant oxygen. Given that the concerns expressed by Zeke (Terry Serpico), the miners de facto leader, have been utterly ignored by management, can they even expect rescue or are they truly on their own?

Mine 9 delivers on its premise as a thriller. Mensore’s storytelling is economical as he sets up a situation in which survival is always in question. Characters are only lightly sketched, but terrific performances by Serpico, Starkey, and the rest of the cast give the tale emotional weight. Mine 9 isn’t a horror movie, precisely, but it might as well be. It is certainly horrifying. –Pam Grady