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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Stockholm

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

 

Mikkelsen battles the elements in ARCTIC 

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Six years ago, writer/director J.C. Chandor placed an elderly sailor played by Robert Redford in the middle of the sea on a yacht steadily taking on water in the tense and nearly wordless All Is Lost. As a tale of a man trying to survive against all odds it was irresistible. Arctic, from director Joe Penna and his co-writer Ryan Morrison, is another such indelible story with similar notes to Chandor’s story but taking place in a remote, frozen wilderness after a plane crash. Mads Mikkelsen rivets in this suspenseful drama as a resourceful man who refuses to surrender to the apparent hopelessness of his situation. 

The film opens sometime after the crash. Who Mikkelsen is, what his role was on the plane, and how many people died in the disaster are questions Penna and Morrison never attempt to answer. Instead, we are introduced to this sole survivor stomping through the snow to write “SOS” in large enough letters to be seen by passing aircraft and checking fishing lines sunk into holes cut into the ice, the catch his only source of food. How long he’s been stranded is open to question, but when he strips off his socks at night before getting into his sleeping bag, he reveals feet ruined by frostbite. 

Circumstances eventually force him out of the relative safety of the plane fuselage and into the wilderness in search of a settlement where he will find rescue. Blowing snow, subzero temperatures, a questionable map, a hungry polar bear, and a blanketed topography that hides unseen dangers might end the man’s life at any moment. Still, he perseveres. Rarely has the adage, “Where there’s life, there’s hope,” been better illustrated. 

São Paulo, Brazil, native Penna makes his feature debut in this icy climate, shooting on a forbidding volcanic plateau in Iceland a world away from the sunny, subtropical temperatures of his homeland. Stunning cinematography by Tómas Örn Tómasson depicts an endless, snow-draped landscape of lethal beauty. That this was a shoot with a high degree of difficulty is evident in every frame, a situation which only underlines the dire straits Mikkelsen’s character faces. That thin line between life and death that accompanies us all every day of our existence is frayed, stretched, and nearly obliterated, but the man soldiers on. 

With little dialogue and no back story to speak of, Mikkelsen nevertheless creates a character we come to care about, his actions pointing to someone whose life we would like to see saved even as the odds against just that continue to grow. This is one of the Danish actor’s great performances. Penna and Morrison set the stage in writing a tale of nonstop suspense, but it is Mikkelsen who transforms an ice-bound thriller into something bigger, a saga of a human being reaching beyond his limits through his sheer will to live. —Pam Grady 

 

 

 

She Who Laughs Last: WHAT MEN WANT

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WHAT MEN WANT

Taraji P. Henson is a blast as Ali in the breezy screwball comedy What Men Want, a quasi-remake of the 2000 Mel Gibson comedy What Women Want. As Ali, a female sports agent in a male-dominated profession who is so laser-focused on overcoming her colleagues’ sexism and becoming partner that it leads her to ignore her friends; browbeat her loyal assistant, Brandon (Silicon Valley’s John Brener); and use her new man, single dad Will (Aldis Hodge), and his young son to further her campaign to sign basketball phenom Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie). Add to the mix a sudden ability to read men’s minds—thanks to an accident and some sips of a psychic’s (Erykah Badu) funky tea—and the stage is set for laughs, which the movie mostly delivers.

“Mostly.” Clocking it at one hour, 57 minutes, What Men Wantis one of those movies that would have benefited with some judicious pruning. Most of the fat is on the front end. Director Adam Shankman (Hairspray) and a team of screenwriters take their time setting up Ali’s situation, which makes for a flaccid initial half hour until the plot fully kicks in.

Luckily, the film’s virtues far outweigh its faults. Henson is a pure delight, throwing herself with abandon into the movie’s physical comedy and delivering her tart dialogue with aplomb. Brener is equally hilarious in a lower key as the long-suffering Brandon and so is Tracy Morgan as Jamal’s controlling, LaVar Ball-like father, while Hodge is pure sexy charm. Badu has some wonderfully daffy moments (including during the end credits) as the woman who sets the whole plot in motion. And simmering beneath the laughs is a pointed critique of the work environment that the real Alis of the world face when they are forced to compete on an uneven playing field that has been rigged against them. –Pam Grady

Orchard drops THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT trailer

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One of the more unusual thrillers to come down the pike in recent years, The Hummingbird Project revolves around the construction of a high-speed fiber optics cable to facilitate high-frequency stock trades where every millisecond counts. The project pits cousins Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and Anton (an almost unrecognizable Alexander Skarsgård) against their high-flying trader ex-boss Eva (Salma Hayak) who is determined to put a stop to the upstarts’ attempt to usurp her business. The Orchard release debuts in March.