REVIEW: “Fitzcarraldo”

fitzposterI’m not sure you can look at “Fitzcarraldo” without comparing the film’s obsessively tenacious lead character with its equally mulish and unyielding director. In fact the entire production testifies to a specific type of incomprehendible creative madness. Yet without that very madness “Fitzcarraldo”  would have been a lesser movie.

“Fitzcarraldo” was written and directed by Werner Herzog and the making of his film is a legendary story in itself. Herzog was determined to bring as much realism as possible to his picture by steering free of any special effects. This meant shooting in the jungle next to an ongoing border war between Peru and Ecuador. It meant facing natural hardships brought on by shooting on location.But those obstacles would shy in comparison to the human hurdles. Jason Robards was originally cast as the lead character Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald but almost halfway through shooting he contracted dysentery and was flown back to the States. Doctors refused to let him return meaning Herzog had to recast the role and restart shooting from the beginning. Herzog regular Klaus Kinski was given the role which brought a slew of new problems.

Kinski was known for his volatile run-ins with his directors and crew. It was no different here. He repeatedly fought with Herzog and even angered the natives serving as extras (It’s said one of the local chiefs offered to kill Kinski for Herzog). This obviously complicated production in a number of ways, but Kinski’s flirtation with madness is also what made him perfect for the role. His wild, eccentric nature was an ideal fit for a character possessed with realizing his dream of bringing opera to the Amazon.

Fitzgerald (called Fitzcarraldo by locales who can’t pronounce his name) comes across as delusional but he is driven by the best intentions. He’s not a bad guy. He believes in a transcendent quality to opera which could have magnificent effects in the heart of the Amazon. But time and again his optimism and determination crashes into walls of ridicule and disparagement.His one light comes from Claudia Cardinale. She plays Molly, his girlfriend who upholds Fitz with her faith and her money. Kinski and Cardinale couldn’t be more different either in character or real-life personalities yet the two work well together. Molly is a constant encouragement even when Fitz’s dream seems all but squashed.

Herzog’s film makes a dramatic change of direction at the midway mark. Fitz realizes his ice-making contraption won’t fund his opera house so he dives into the region’s one lucrative business – rubber. He purchases a steamboat with a loan from Molly, puts together a ragtag crew, and heads down the Amazon River towards his isolated patch of land rich with rubber trees. There’s a reason the land was previously unclaimed. It’s inhabited by a threatening indigenous people and the path to it is blocked by the dangerous Pongo das Mortes (which tellingly means Rapids of Death). But Fitz has a plan as improbable as his opera dream itself – take his 350 ton steamboat down a branch of the river, literally pull the ship over a hillside and into another river branch that bypasses the deadly rapids.The attempt to haul the massive steamboat over a steep, muddy hill became the film’s signature sequence. Herzog’s insistence on actually doing it instead of relying on special effects became a legendary tale that mirrored the fanaticism of the movie’s lead character. Herzog was convinced his audience would never buy it unless they saw it with their own eyes. The difficulty and frustration it brought often threatened to kill the production, but the end product is a shining example of true movie magic.

“Fitzcarraldo” and the story of its filming (much of it chronicled in the documentary “Burden of Dreams”) are like inseparable companion pieces. Each reveals unique sides to this fascinating picture yet together they feel undeniably one. And we are the true beneficiaries. Much like the frazzled Fitz himself playing Caruso on his beaten up Victrola record player, we sense there is something special in the art we are consuming. And for that reason Herzog’s intense creative labor and all of the accompanying hardships were worth it.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Les Cowboys”

cowboys-poster

In “Les Cowboys” (or simply “The Cowboys” if you prefer) director Thomas Bidegain attempts to bring a modern French flavor to the John Ford western “The Searchers”. It’s certainly not the easiest undertaking considering the lofty status of the 1956 John Wayne classic, but Bidegain isn’t simply rehashing old material. He has his own story to tell. He just happens to nestle it within this well made homage.

Oddly enough the film begins at an American cowboy festival in France. Yep, a French hoedown complete with Stetsons, Wrangler jeans, line dancing, and the Tennessee Waltz. The entire cowboy fair is a celebration of the American country/western culture and you can’t help but giggle at the entire thing. At the same time it kinda fits with the story that will follow.

cowboys7

This is where we meet Alain (Francois Damiens), his wife Nicole (Agathe Dronne), his teenaged daughter Kelly (Iliana Zabeth), and son Georges (Finnegan Oldfield). They seem like a normal, tight-knit family, well liked by everyone else in attendance. But as the family prepares to leave after a full day of festivities they notice Kelly is missing.

It’s hard to gauge how much more I should say about the story. It takes several dramatic turns and becomes a much different film as it moves forward. Alain’s obsession to find his daughter is both understandable and sympathetic. But it consumes Alain to the point where he loses everything. Bidegain doesn’t give a black-or-white depiction of Alain’s state of mind. Constant dead-ends drive his obsession to darker more complex places.

cowboys1

A significant hunk of the story focuses on Alain’s son Georges. He joins the hunt for his sister, but pulls back after witnessing what it does to his father. Much like his father, his life is dramatically changed due to the disappearance of Kelly. It allows for an interesting conversation on grief, family communication, religion, and more. Bidegain has the writing chops having penned the scripts for “The Prophet” and “Rust and Bone”. Here we get some of the same intriguing character exploration.

I’ve tried dancing around the details of “Les Cowboys” simply because specific details  drastically alter the course of the story. Knowing them in advance would cost the film its edge. As it takes these turns the film ventures into several unexpected areas both narratively and geographically. It can be a bit clunky especially with its use of time lapses and setting changes. But if you’re able to navigate those storytelling hurdles “Les Cowboys” gives you plenty of emotional meat to chew on.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3.5 stars

REVIEW: “Wonder Woman”

Wonderposter

You could almost sense the collective exhale from the heads of both DC Films and Warner Brothers – a profound release of sheer relief after seeing the first wave of rave reviews for the latest installment into their DC cinematic universe. It’s a monumental understatement to say, but they needed this. “Wonder Woman” was always rich with potential, but how many times has the same thing been said about other films in the DC fold (I’m looking at you “Suicide Squad”)? Well toss aside your concerns. “Wonder Woman” is not only a great movie, it unquestionably raises the bar for the entire genre.

DC has determinedly pushed forward with their Marvel-like vision despite the steady floggings from critics. Some of the rabid criticisms have been justified but certainly not all of them (Sorry folks, take out your stones, but despite its issues, “Batman vs Superman” wasn’t nearly as bad as the fashionable hate indicates). Still, only a dyed-in-the-wool fanboy would believe DC didn’t have significant ground to make up against its Disney-owned competitor.

wonder3

That’s one reason you could call “Wonder Woman” a game-changer. I don’t want to lean too heavily on that description, but it is a film that’s makes a strong creative statement for DC. It could also be said that it’s better than the bulk of Marvel movies from the past few years. That’s because “Wonder Woman” carves out its own identity while still playing by some of the genre’s basic rules. Sure, it’s another superhero origin story, but it avoids the formulaic quicksand that many recent superhero pictures have fallen into.

“Wonder Woman” has many things that work, but I keep coming back to the word ‘balance’. Director Patty Jenkins (a curious choice at first but one proven to be perfect) skillfully manages her movie in a fashion that never allows it to lean too heavily in one direction or the other. There is just the right amount of humor, just the right amount of suspense, and just the right amount of action. More importantly all of these mechanics work in harmony to serve the characters. So much so that even the seemingly mandatory bombastic finale feels rightly dramatic and laced with more emotional heft than most of these movies give us.

wonder2

An old photo triggers the story of Diana of Themyscira – a beautiful island paradise of high cliffs, lush greenery, and gorgeous waterfalls hidden from the world of man by none other than Zeus himself. As a young girl Diana is the golden child among her people, an all-female warrior race known as the Amazons. The daughter of Queen Hyppolita (Connie Nielsen), Diana grows up desiring to be warrior against the wishes of her intensely protective mother. Hyppolita soon realizes there is no stopping her determined daughter’s will to train.

Everything changes when a plane crashes in the ocean near Themyscira’s shore. Diana (Gal Gadot) saves the lone pilot, an American named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who happens to be the first man Diana has ever laid eyes on. Trevor tells the Amazons of the violence and carnage just outside their protected home. It’s the waning years of World War I yet countless lives still hang in the balance. Against her mothers wishes, Diana offers to accompany Trevor off the island and to the war front where she believes she can end the war and the suffering.

wonder1

Allan Heinberg handles the writing and, much like Jenkins, keeps everything in balance. A handful of devices will feel familiar but Heinberg keenly keeps them under control. For example we get the often used fish-out-of-water angle which provides some genuine laughs while also holding up a mirror to some society norms worth discussing. Yet it never goes overboard. The same could be said for the Etta Candy character (played by Lucy Davis), Trevor’s loyal and peppy secretary who offers a dash of comic relief. But where many movies would have ran her into the ground, Heinberg and Jenkins stick to the “all things in moderation” idea. Smart move.

Another key to the film’s success is its persistent human-scale vision. While it’s often hard the glean the human element in many of these movies, “Wonder Woman” makes it a focal point. Jenkins shows off a stunningly astute knack for depicting human suffering without reveling in it. As it should, human loss feels significant and is never exploited. At the same time the film asks thoughtful questions about good and evil, not from the upright superhero and devious super-villain perspective, but from the very core of humanity.

It’s those questions that eventually weigh on Diana. That’s because she is presented exactly as she should be – consistently moral and just. Thank goodness Jenkins and Heinberg steer clear of any modern day tinkering and portray Diana much closer to William Moulton Marston’s original comic book vision. Gal Gadot is an essential ingredient and the strength of her performance shouldn’t be understated. Combined with her amazing physicality, Gadot portrays innocence, confliction, determination, and strength as naturally as the most seasoned actress. From her indomitable warrior gaze to her visible deep-rooted affections, the expressive Gadot serves as a magnificent centerpiece.

wonder4

Lots has been said about a woman finally being given the reins of a superhero movie. I usually don’t get into that yet I also recognize its significance. But for me it’s not just about a woman getting the job. That has happened before with less than stellar results. Instead it’s about a woman getting the job and making a film that is one of the very best of its genre. Patty Jenkins has done just that and if it doesn’t open eyes and open doors I don’t know what will.

“Wonder Woman” stands among the very best of its contemporaries. A visual splendor of precise period recreation and breathtaking superhero action. An emotional exploration of human proclivities towards good and evil and the ugliness of oppression and suffering. And at the center is a character who is a true untarnished hero – easy to care about, root for, and rally behind. “Wonder Woman” never loses that focus which is one of the many reasons it deserves every ounce of praise it has been getting.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5-starss

5STAR K&M

REVIEW: “The Accountant”

account-poster

A title like “The Accountant” doesn’t exactly scream action and thrills. Instead it triggers thoughts of financial statements and tax analysis. Not exactly riveting cinema, right? But who says you can’t have a movie with just as many ledgers and spreadsheets as guns and bullets? Okay perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but you get what I mean. The idea is pretty outlandish.

Despite sounding preposterous “The Accountant” is a solid bit of entertainment. It’s a heavily plotted thriller featuring mobsters, hitmen, corporate CEOs, Treasury agents, and of course number crunchers. As it peels back layer upon layer of its story (much of it through flashbacks), it makes a strong effort to cover every base in order to maintain even the smallest level of plausibility. At the same time it’s pretty honest about what it wants to be. It just wants to be a little too much.

The Accountant

Ben Affleck stars as Christian Wolff, a forensic accountant working out of a strip-mall in Plainfield, Illinois. Christian has high-functioning autism which is detailed through a series of childhood flashbacks. It inhibits his social skills and causes him distress if he is unable to carry out a task to its end. But it also contributes to his accelerated comprehension of mathematics and deduction. The film has a surprisingly warm and respectful touch in its handling of autism and its effects.

Here’s where things take a twist. As an accountant Christian does more than just help farm families with their tax returns. He also traces insider financial fraud for some of the world’s biggest criminal organizations. This attracts the attention of Ray King (J.K. Simmons) of the Treasury Department who blackmails a young Treasury agent (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) into helping locate and identify the man known only as “The Accountant”.

Christian is given his assignments by a mysterious Siri-like voice over the phone. He’s sent to audit Living Robotics after the company’s accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) discovers discrepancies with their financial numbers. Christian must maneuver through the relationships of the company’s CEO (John Lithgow), his sister and associate (Jean Smart), and his best friend and company CFO (Andy Umberger). Christian’s discoveries thrusts him and Dana into a web of corporate corruption with violent reverberations. And with his life in jeopardy, Christian reveals yet another layer to his character – a much more lethal layer.

account2

Director Gavin O’Conner’s previous two films couldn’t be more different – the surprisingly great MMA family drama “Warrior” and the not so good Natalie Portman western “Jane Got A Gun”. With “The Accountant” he has a lot to juggle, more than in his previous two films combined. For the most part he keeps the many moving parts and duel storylines in sync. At the same time we get a few too many conveniences that we are supposed to buy into. It also relies too heavily on the flashbacks, most likely a result of simply having too much story to tell.

By the film’s end you almost get the sense that they are teasing a franchise. Several pieces are put in place that invite a sequel. “The Accountant” does plenty right – a good cast with good performances; bursts of intense well-shot action (occasionally laced with bits of dry humor); a dense but thoughtful story. Give me more of that and I will come back for another movie. But here’s a thought, maybe not so thickly plotted next time. More isn’t always better.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

2017 Blind Spot Series: “Umberto D.”

2017blindspot

A perfect introduction to the beauty and potency of Italian neorealism would be a double feature from acclaimed director Vittorio De Sica. His movies “The Bicycle Thief” and this one, “Umberto D.” showcases everything that led the movement to be called “The Golden Age of Italian Cinema”.

Neorealism dealt honestly with Italy’s moral and economic post-World War 2 difficulties. Film’s focused on the hardships facing the working class and explored the deep effects of poverty and injustice. They often explored the everyday suffering and survival of those living under economic stress. De Sica was a pillar of the movement which spanned a ten year period although its influence could be see in movies well past its time.

UMBERTO1

“Umberto D.” is a reference to the film’s main character, Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti). He’s an elderly man whose only source of income is a small state pension. As we watch we can glean many things about Umberto. He once had a respectable career and made a good living. We see remnants of that life in his tattered suit and topcoat. He took pride in always paying his bills. This is something we see clearly as he struggles to avoid eviction by his mean, condescending landlady (Lina Ginnari).

Umberto’s only family is his loyal dog Flike who he describes as “a mutt with intelligent eyes. The two have a loving relationship and both would be lost without the other. Umberto treats Flike like he would his own child sometimes even skipping a meal so that Flike can eat. To go a bit deeper, we also get the sense that their relationship is what keeps Umberto going. It’s especially evident in one sequence where he loses Flike. His desperation to find his dog is a reflection of his love but also of his need.

One of the many things De Sica does well is capture Umberto’s basic struggle to get by. He does so without manufacturing stakes or relying on heavy doses of melodrama. As the story moves forward De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini portray a proud man’s battle to maintain some semblance of his dignity. Umberto’s circumstances steadily chisel away at his optimism and self-respect. Even his physical appearance bears the marks of a burdened soul.

UMBERTO2

Not only does the story strip away any hint of artifice, but the characters do as well. As was customary for Neorealism, “Umberto D.” doesn’t feature big stars or accomplished actors. Big actors or big performances ran the risk of drawing attention to themselves. The idea was to keep every bit of the focus on the story being told. Therefore Battisti was cast to play Umberto. It would be his first and only acting role. Ginnari was also relatively unknown as was first time actress Maria-Pia Casilio who plays a naïve young housekeeper.

The story of “Umberto D.” is very simple in scope but powerful in message. Aside from a slow patch or two, it carefully explores a harsh reality that most certainly spoke to the people of its time. More impressive is its ability to still feel strikingly relevant. The heartbreaking story of Umberto and Flike may have originated 64 years ago, but its message doesn’t feel out of our current reach. That’s a testament to its truth and authenticity.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

Guardiansposter

Marvel Studios showed its true muscle in 2014 with “Guardians of the Galaxy”. It was an intriguing undertaking that required either a lot of risk or a lot of confidence. Maybe a little of both. Regardless, the gamble paid off. “Guardians” was a surprise hit and introduced a new set of players to “Phase Two” of Marvel’s cinematic universe.

But why was it a gamble you ask? I wouldn’t go as far as to call the Guardians an obscure band of characters from the comics, but they were a far cry from Marvel’s heavy-hitters. Yet they tossed in  $200 million and hoped their broad vision was established enough to ensure success. It proved to be money well spent. Audiences went wild and the box office results reflected it.

GUARDIANS1

I wish I could say I was onboard the love train, but the first “Guardians” film, while good, wasn’t without problems and it left me with no lasting impression. That’s why I wasn’t gushing with anticipation for its inevitable sequel. But now “Guardians Vol. 2” has landed to equally loud applauds and equally loud “cha-chings”. Once again James Gunn writes and directs a film that works really hard to recapture the offbeat vibe of its predecessor. But at the same time there is a conscience effort to inject more heart into the characters and their storylines. Both attempts are hit-or-miss, but thankfully more ‘hit’ than ‘miss’.

All the main characters return: Chris Pratt’s Peter “Star-lord” Quill, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, Dave Bautista’s Drax, the Bradley Cooper-voiced Rocket, and the (barely) Vin Diesel-voiced Baby Groot. We are reintroduced to them as they take on a giant space monster as part of a deal with a golden group known as the Sovereigns. But Rocket’s sticky fingers gets them in trouble with the Sovereign leader (Elizabeth Debicki). Just as the Guardians are about to be wiped out they are rescued by a mysterious man named Ego. He’s played by Kurt Russell who I couldn’t help but constantly chuckle at not because he jokes, but because…well it’s Kurt Russell in a very…unusual role.

Guardians2

Gunn tosses in quite a few angles. The team gets separated, Yondu returns (via a great supporting performance from Michael Rooker), we get more about the Ravagers, Gamora’s vengeful sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) causes a stink. Impressively, all of these moving parts (plus a few) come together fairly seamlessly. That’s saying a lot because the film sports an insanely busy script. This is made more evident with the movie’s attempt to (for lack of a better word) humanize the characters.

One of my complaints with the first film is that a barely offered any backstory to the characters which truly are the heartbeat of this series. Volume 2 seeks to rectify that to some degree. There are some really nice moments that add some needed depth to this wacky band. The best ones are the smaller insights into some of their pasts which help to explain certain anti-hero ways. Peter and Gamora get bigger backstory treatments, much of which is good, but sometimes a bit on the nose. Still it all works together to feed the film’s biggest running theme – family.

It also seemed like every main character had to be given their own serious moment of self-reflection. It’s here where things get a bit stilted and sometimes downright corny. Some of these scenes work, other times not so much. The same can be said for the comedy. Yes I know the wacky sense of humor is what fans love most about these films. But much like the first one, the jokes sometimes make a splash but a lot of times land with a thud. Ultimately the clever gags get lost among the broader, lamer humor – a potty-mouthed raccoon, jokes about ‘turd’ sizes, etc.  Oh, and then there is the steady 60s and 70s music gag that Gunn milks dry. Hard not to love the tunes though.

guardians3

Much like the first film, I wouldn’t call this film’s antagonist ‘cool’ or particularly memorable. But there is an effort to give this one more weight. It works…kind of. And then there is the ending – the moment when every conceivable rein is handed over to the CGI and sound team. It’s loud, frantic, and it flirts with a “Man of Steel” level numbness. Yes it’s pretty much the common Marvel formula but ‘whew’.

And yet, while issues remain, “Guardians 2” does make strides in the right direction. Attempts to make the characters more than incessant joke boxes pays off (for the most part) and despite the humor’s inconsistency there are some truly funny moments. Also the characters still pack enough charm to hold your affection. The visual effects are a treat (and there are a ton of them). But perhaps what I’m drawn to the most is movie’s cosmic setting. It genuinely feels unique among the huge catalog of Marvel movies. But even with this uniqueness, its playful tone, and fun characters “Guardians 2” follows in the footsteps of its predecessor and still misses the mark of greatness.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars