Blind Spot Review: “The King of Comedy”

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In the entirety of director Martin Scorsese’s diverse filmography few of his pictures stand out quite like “The King of Comedy”. It’s a tough movie to grasp with its peculiar tone and unbridled cynicism. It’s a movie filled with undesirable characters and we are left with practically no emotional connection to any of them. Yet, despite all of these apparent issues and conflicts, I found myself glued to this offbeat bit of satire.

So I said ‘undesirable’ but for the film’s main character Rupert Pupkin that may be a tad harsh. Despite being delusional, obsessive, and a bit creepy there is a sympathetic quality to Pupkin. Similar to Scorsese’s Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver”, Rupert is an outsider desperately wanting on the inside. Both are sad and pathetic eccentrics who refuse to be creatures of circumstance. They have pride and aspirations – misguided but genuine. Slowly both men mentally unravel and the question becomes how far will they go?

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Both characters are played by Robert De Niro (at the time this was his fifth collaboration with Scorsese). Yet while similar in some areas, Rupert Pupkin has a uniqueness all his own. He doesn’t want power or to win the heart of a special lady. He simply wants to be a famous standup comic. He dupes his way into seeing late night talk show host and comedian Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis) in hopes that it will lead to his big break. Rupert is given the old ‘contact my office’ brush off which he optimistically buys. Of course we know better.

A big chunk of the movie focuses on Rupert’s attempts to meet with Jerry. Some of the film’s best scenes take place in the lobby of Jerry’s office. Scorsese brings us back there several times as a persistent (and delusional) Rupert is repeatedly turned away by the receptionist and by Jerry’s secretary Cathy (played by a very good Shelley Hack). Each visit is a little kookier and slightly more uncomfortable than the previous one.

With each rejection Rupert becomes more unhinged and even more impulsive. Desperate, he seeks the help of fellow deranged stalker Masha (Sandra Bernhard). The two hatch an idiotic but well thought-out plan to satisfy both of their unique Jerry Langford obsessions. It’s here that the movie goes into some pretty weird directions but Scorsese keeps it all under control and unpredictable.

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One thing that struck me is how the film keeps Rupert’s act hidden for most of its running time. His passion is unquestioned and his determination is limitless. But is he funny? Can he make people laugh? Scorsese eventually gets around to answering that question in a really fun way and it’s a perfect wrap up to this zany concoction.

When people talk about Martin Scorsese movies “The King of Comedy” often falls through the cracks. That’s a shame. It may not belong among the director’s best, but it certainly stands out for its uniqueness. It’s quirky, a bit bizarre actually, and that’s a big positive. DeNiro is a blast and offers up another example of why he and Scorsese are such a good team.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Avengers: Infinity War”

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There was never any doubt that Disney’s superhero goldmine “Avengers: Infinity War” would make a lot of money. The only suspense was in seeing how much. Turns out more than any other movie ever for an opening weekend and it should easily top $1 billion by its second weekend. That’s a lot of money.

With a budget of nearly $400 million, “Infinity War” is easily one of the most expensive films ever made. Marvel Studios swings for the fences in framing this as a through-and-through event picture – a culmination of their decade-long and nineteen movie strong Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a gargantuan production with as many moving parts as big special effects (and that’s a lot) and a massive cast that will require a scorecard and pencil for those not well versed in Marvel’s vast movie landscape.

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Anthony and Joe Russo are tasked with directing this juggernaut of a story based on the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. The Russo brothers are a good fit as they helmed two of Marvel’s best films: “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and “Captain America: Civil War”. Markus and McFeely penned all three Captain America movies in addition to the not so hot “Thor: Dark World”. Thankfully “Infinity War” is much more in line with the Cap movies than their Thor misfire.

You could say all of the recent MCU movies have been setting up for this intergalactic crisis. Through various passing dialogues and end credits scenes we have been introduced to Thanos (Josh Brolin), a despot of unshakable conviction scouring the universe for the six magical Infinity Stones. The one who wields all six stones will gain unlimited power to bend reality with a snap of their finger. You could say this is Thanos’ movie and it seems that Brolin has more screen time than any other character.

“Infinity War” has a lot on its plate and a ton of narrative threads to bring together. That means characters crossing paths often for the first time. This can be pretty satisfying and a lot of fun for followers of the MCU. The aftermath of “Thor: Ragnarok”, decisions made in Wakanda, lingering tensions from “Civil War” are just a few of the past storylines that influence Markus and McFeely’s script. On top of that the film does a pretty incredible juggling act in giving each character their moments. Only a handful of characters are missing and the movie doesn’t do the best job of explaining their absence.

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The ‘Phase One’ big hitters are all here. Robert Downey, Jr’s Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, and Chris Evans’ Captain America are major players (although Cap seems back-burnered a bit). Surprisingly the Guardians of the Galaxy have just as much screen time and play equally significant roles. Overall it’s cool to see characters like Vision (Paul Bettany), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) all given meaningful story angles. But again, the true centerpiece is indeed Thanos and we are fed morsels of information which give form to his motivations and mindsets. Brolin is quite good presenting a villain with more on his mind than the generic quest to rule the universe despite what it may look like on the surface.

While “Infinity War” is plump with plot, the Russos offer just as much CGI-fueled PG-13 action. The scenes shift between feverish hand-held camerawork and bigger digitally enhanced polish. I can already anticipate complaints from those tired of the superhero genre and it’s big action formula. This film certainly doesn’t stray from that. But I go back to this being an ‘event movie’ and I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit to being thrilled by some of the large-scaled battles and big character moments.

Another big piece is the humor which has become a signature of the overall MCU. “Infinity War” definitely has some big laughs and the audience I sat with really went with it. It does clash just a tad later in the film as things begin to get dire. Still this is where some of the characters really shine (Dave Bautista’s Drax is nothing short of hysterical).

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All of this is worthy of conversation, but what most people will be talking about is the ending. It’s truly a gutsy move by the Russo brothers and company but I’m a bit mixed on its effect. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil a thing, but let’s just say it felt unquestionably inevitable especially for a film clearly framed as the first of a two-parter. For me that has definitely effected the impact since first seeing it. Nevertheless, in those moments I was captivated and glued to the big screen.

The fact that “Infinity War” managed to pull off such a feat especially in the face of earth-shattering expectations deserves praise in itself. This is a mammoth-sized movie in every possible way and simply making it all coherent is impressive. “Infinity War” does much more than that. It’s a thrilling, funny, emotional, rip-roaring crowd-pleaser that serves as a fitting culmination of their decade-long buildup. Now let’s see if they can pull it all together in a satisfying way. We will know next May.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Isle of Dogs”

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There isn’t much middle ground when it comes to Wes Anderson movies. As is often the case, his films either work for you or they don’t. They definitely work for me. My wife, not as much. But it’s not because she doesn’t try. I’m pretty sure I’ve shown her every Anderson flick and we usually have some pretty good discussions after each viewing. Deep down I like to think she actually has an untapped appreciation.

But we’ll leave that for another time. Wes Anderson movies are special because without fail they always feel refreshingly different from anything else in theaters. His latest film is no different. From the very first frame of “Isle of Dogs” we know we are watching an Anderson picture. The stop-motion animation (ala 2009’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox”), the slightly offbeat music, and the almost instant deadpan humor are unquestionably Andersonian. It instantly fits right into his spectacular comic movie catalog. So why am I hesitant to fully embrace this film in the same way I have his others?

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Now don’t get me wrong, “Isle of Dogs” is another fascinating Anderson experience that (like most of his films) begs for multiple viewings to fully appreciate the richness of the visual and thematic language. Once again we find the filmmaker creating and inhabiting another wacky quasi-real place within his own wacky quasi-universe. Japanese culture lends its influence to Anderson’s fictional city of Megasaki City but that’s as far as the similarities go. Anderson doesn’t work within the real world. He only borrows from it and speaks to elements of it.

In “Isle of Dogs” the conniving cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) runs a dystopian not-to-distant-future Japan with an iron fist. Exploiting a dog flu virus outbreak, the authoritarian mayor banishes the entire dog population to Trash Island. Among the dogs is Spots (Live Schreiber), the best buddy to the mayor’s nephew and ward Atari (Koyu Rankin). But Atari will have none of it. He sneaks away and flies a rickety mini-plane to Trash Island to find his canine companion.

After crash landing Atari is taken in by an eccentric pack of pups led by the reluctant Chief (Bryan Cranston). The rest of the group is voiced by a fun assortment of actors including Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Goldblum as the scene-stealing gossip of the group. They venture across Trash Island to find Spots while back home a youth protest against the Mayor’s doggie decrees is led by a foreign exchange student named Tracy (Greta Gerwig), one of many outcasts found throughout the story.

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As the movie moves forward you can’t help but be smitten by the superb animation and art direction. The vivid detail in both the backgrounds and the characters (both human and hairy) are quite stunning. And so often it’s the gorgeous yet quirky visuals that spur some of the film’s bigger laughs. But normally it’s Anderson’s dry, offbeat, deadpan humor, cleverly balanced throughout his movies, that carry them. Here it isn’t nearly as pronounced. In fact, in the final act it’s fairly sparse. And as the pieces all-too-neatly fall into place, I found myself not knowing how to feel about the ending.

In some ways how Anderson tells his story is more fascinating that the story itself. “Isle of Dogs” is a technical delight both visually and in its use of sound. The huge and talented cast offer up superb voice work and they all meld seamlessly into Anderson’s handsomely idiosyncratic world. It’s another reminder that Wes Anderson is a meticulous master of his craft. Yet from a story standpoint I can’t help but feel ever so slightly conflicted. And whether looking at it as a message piece soaked in political metaphors or simply as a story about a boy and his dog, I still left with the same uncertainties. Maybe I just need to give it another view. Or maybe I’m just too much of a cat person.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “A Quiet Place”

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From the very outset “A Quiet Place” develops a central conceit which it fully embraces throughout its tight, lean 95-minute runtime. But while it’s undoubtedly a genre flick, this John Krasinski directed horror thriller has more of an emotional punch than you would expect.

In addition to directing, Krasinski also co-writes and stars alongside his real-life wife Emily Blunt. They play Lee and Evelyn Abbott who live on a remote farm in a not-to-distant future. The human race has been ravaged by creatures with no sight who hunt via their heightened and lethal sense of hearing. The Abbott’s along with their daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and son Marcus (Noah Jupe) are still coping with grief after a family tragedy while trying to survive in a world where the slightest sound could mean immediate death.

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The great trick of this film is causing us (the audience) to lock in to every sound we hear. We become much more attentive and attune to what we hear rather than what we see. Krasinski does a great job of leading us in that direction both with the sound design and some clever visual cues. It’s also seen in numerous details – trails of sand to silence their steps, crocheted Monopoly pieces, etc. The most everyday things take on a new perspective in this world.

It goes without saying this adds a natural tension to “A Quiet Place”. Even in quieter scenes (no pun intended) the dread of an accidental bump or the smallest sound constantly looms in the background. Krasinski leans heavily into it without going overboard. When sound is employed it can be pretty profound and Marco Beltrami’s score ratchets up the intensity by both adding to the stillness and accentuating the terror. Yet at it’s core you can see the film constantly tipping its hat to the silent film era.

The movie also works because of the small but superb cast who flesh out their characters despite having little dialogue. Kasinski conveys so much through his tired and concerned eyes. Blunt knocks it out of the park as an emotional anchor for her family. But there is also Millicent Simmonds, great in last year’s “Wonderstruck” and just as good here. The young actress (who is deaf in real life) is a fundamental piece of the story and Simmonds is asked to juggle a range of emotions. She does so magnificently.

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And this gets to where “A Quiet Place” scores the most points – the characters themselves and its story of family. Many have looked for more political meaning, but I find it most piercing when observing the family dynamic. I couldn’t help but sympathize with Krasinski’s Lee, a man who would do anything to protect his family, especially his children, yet on some levels struggles to connect with them. Blunt speaks to this particularly in one line where she says “Who are we if we can’t protect them? We have to protect them.” These characters and their relationships matter. The film does a keen job of making us care about what happens to each of them.

You could call “A Quiet Place” an old-fashioned horror picture. It’s smart, light on gore, but heavy on tension. It knows its premise and fully embraces it. Never does it feel the need to give us tedious and uninteresting exposition nor does it overstay its welcome. There are a few instances where you could question the movie’s logic, but for the most part Krasinski cleverly covers all of his bases. In the end he delivers an exhilarating and surprisingly heartfelt experience that is a huge win for the horror genre as a whole.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

Blind Spot Review: “My Night at Maud’s”

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“My Night at Maud’s” is technically the third installment in Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales series even though it was the fourth film made. Due to a required Christmas time shoot and prior commitments, lead actor Jean-Louis Trintignant wasn’t available until the following year. That little nugget aside, the film became Rohmer’s first big critical and commercial success both in France and in the United States.

Rohmer was the oldest of the French New Wave pioneers, nearly ten years the senior of his contemporaries. He was also known for being stylistically reserved compared to Godard, Truffaut and the like. But that doesn’t mean his films weren’t bucking trends. Quite the opposite. Just watch a Rohmer film and you can’t help but see the La Nouvelle Vague sensibility.

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His Six Moral Tales basically follow the same narrative framework. They feature individuals who find their own moral code challenged in one way or another. More specifically, they are men who are in love with a woman but find themselves tempted by another. A big part of the focus is on how each of their personal moral codes lead them through their crisis.

In “My Night at Maud’s” we have a devout Catholic named Jean-Louis (Trintignant). He is firm in his beliefs and in the practice of his faith. He’s fallen for a young blonde parishioner (Marie-Christine Barrault) from a church he attends even though he has never spoken with her. But it’s not for lack of trying. He follows her out of church or down the tight city streets only to lose her around a corner.

One evening Jean-Louis bumps into an old childhood friend Vidal (Antoine Vitez), a brash opinionated fellow who rather enjoys the chance to needle and poke. Vidal convinces Jean-Louis to accompany him on a late night visit to a recently divorced friend named Maud (played by the captivating Françoise Fabian). The three share an evening of conversations about love, marriage, Christianity, and the writings of Blaise Pascal. After Vidal leaves Maud encourages Jean-Louis to stay. What follows is a seductive game of cat-and-mouse versus a deeply-held set of moral convictions.

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Rohmer’s audacious middle act is filled with long talky takes mostly between Jean-Louis and Maud and that’s not a knock on it. Just the opposite. The natural flow of the dialogue and the subtle movements of Néstor Almendros’ camera completely sells it and keeps us locked onto these two characters. We also get a good sense of Jean-Louis and Maud’s fascinations with each other and their differing perspectives on practically everything. Plus seeds are planted throughout the conversations that surface in the last act.

Over the years the chatty middle act is what “My Night at Maud’s” has become known for. The title itself contributes to that perception. But there is more to Rohmer’s film than that both before and after the signature scene. As with all French New Wave films, this one still feels fresh and unique. Nearly fifty years after its release you still see it bucking trends and plowing new ground. That alone is a remarkable accomplishment.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Logan Lucky”

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You could argue that Steven Soderbergh is the architect of the modern heist film. Look no further than his hit movie “Ocean’s Eleven”. In that 2001 remake Soderbergh pretty much wrote his own set of rules for a heist flick and would follow them through two sequels. Now years later he returns with “Logan Lucky”, a working class version of the “Ocean’s” formula, less focused on being cool and more on straight southern-fried humor.

Channing Tatum (an actor I have steadily warmed up to) plays Jimmy Logan, a down-on-his-luck blue collar construction worker who loses his job at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Soon after, Jimmy learns that his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) and her slug of a husband Moody (played with just the right amount of macho slime by David Denman) plan to move to Lynchburg making it harder for Jimmy to see his daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie).

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Tatum’s performance is funny in a number of ways. One is in how he reacts to all of his bad luck (referenced several times in the film as the ‘Logan Hex’). He takes everything in stride, never getting worked up. But he doesn’t sit around and take it. You could say he’s a man of action. So needing money in order to stay closer to Sadie, Jimmy concocts an elaborate plan to rob the speedway. But he’s going to need a crew.

First he recruits his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), an Iraq war veteran and bartender with a prosthetic hand, and his hairdresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough). Needing someone experienced with vaults they contact the currently in-car-cer-ated Joe Bang. He’s played by Daniel Craig channeling something far different than his dapper James Bond persona. Joe’s two numbskull brothers (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid) join in to fill out the wacky team.

Several other names round off the cast – Sebastian Stan, Dwight Yoakam, Katherine Waterston. And then there are a couple who don’t quite fit. Seth MacFarlane plays a scumbag NASCAR team owner with a bad British accent and an even worse wig. Not sure what he’s going for but it doesn’t work. And then there is Hillary Swank as a not so hot on the trail FBI agent. Swank’s performance is hard to interpret and feels out of tune with the rest of the film. Thankfully both are smaller roles and are easy to look past, but they do stand out.

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This zany bunch of country folk is a far cry from Danny Ocean’s good-looking and snazzy dressed band of burglars. That’s part of the fun. In many ways Soderbergh is spoofing his own “Ocean’s” trilogy and has a lot of fun doing it. You can’t help but notice similarities in the two story structures, but “Logan Lucky” adds its own unique twist and is by far the broader comedy.

Out of the blue newcomer Rebecca Blunt is credited with the screenplay but there is a catch. Many say Rebecca Blunt doesn’t exist. No one can seem to find her. Some believe it’s a pseudonym for Soderbergh himself. Others have speculated that Soderbergh’s wife, former E! personality Jules Asner, is the real screenwriter. This weird little mystery surrounding Rebecca Blunt seems only fitting for such weird little movie. Whoever wrote it deserves some attention for dishing out a fun madcap caper with big personalities and even bigger laughs. Toss in that Soderbergh flavor and an all-in cast and you have one of last year’s funniest movies.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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