REVIEW: “Ana” (2020)

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Hurricane Maria was a massive Category 5 storm that made landfall in September 2017 and was responsible for catastrophic damage and loss of life. In Puerto Rico alone at least 3,000 people died, there was an estimated $95 billion in damage, 80% of its agriculture was destroyed and much of the commonwealth’s economy was left mostly in ruin.

In director Charles McDougall’s “Ana”, post-Maria Puerto Rico offers a compelling setting and is a key player throughout the film. Its residents struggle to get by any way they can while corrupt congressmen exploit the crisis for political gain. To add an even uglier layer, American mainland con-artists swoop in to swindle gullible locals desperate for some semblance of hope. The movie was shot entirely in Puerto Rico by a Puerto Rican crew who capture not just the island’s hardships but also its immense and diverse beauty. Shot after shot is brimming with local character and flavor.

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Slightly subverting the rich visual portrayal of Puerto Rico is the story itself, a tender little drama with a very measured comedic sensibility. Andy Garcia plays Rafa, a struggling used car salesman in San Juan who discovers 11-year-old Ana sleeping in one of the vehicles on his lot. She’s played by Dafne Keen, the mutant youngster from 2017’s “Logan”. Ana had slipped away as her mother was being arrested and now has no place to go.

You know pretty quickly how things are going to go: Ana will take a liking to Rafa, he will push back but eventually warm up, and the two will develop a heart-warming relationship. That’s essentially what happens here. But McDougall and writer Chris Cole make it all about the journey these two take, both individually and as friends. Much like the island itself, Ana and Rafa’s lives are troubled yet they navigate their circumstances the best they can.

The two embark on a road trip of sorts to find someone to take care of Ana but also to drum up $5000 after Rafa runs up a gambling debt with a shady local shark (Ramon Franco). As the odd couple drives Rafa’s beat-up Lincoln TownCar across the island we get some pretty good laughs in large part thanks to Garcia and Keen’s sweet chemistry. But again what sets the film apart is Puerto Rico itself, always in the background slyly expressing some level of social and economic commentary through the camera’s lens.

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The movie does hit a speed bump in the second half when a popular local church is introduced into the story. It’s led by the charismatic Pastor Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a Miami-based prosperity preacher who peddles false hope for profit. While this does take the story into some interesting directions, it also causes it to lose a touch of its intimacy and parts of it gets a little far-fetched. But the movie does get back on track on its way to a warm and pleasing conclusion.

Releasing your film’s first trailer and then one week later dropping the movie straight to streaming doesn’t do much for expectations. But “Ana” turns out to be a surprisingly sweet and heartfelt movie. It’s full of warmth and its humor operates at just the right temperature. Best of all, the steady visual portrayal of Puerto Rico is full of character and beauty while also having some thoughtful and important things to say. That’s the piece that separates “Ana” from other movies like it.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

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In 2018 Morgan Neville gave us “Won’t You Be My Neighborhood”, a documentary that told the heartwarming story of children’s television icon Fred Rogers. The film brought back a rush of memories for many of us who grew up watching his program while introducing Mister Rogers to an entirely new and younger audience. Now Marielle Heller gives us an intriguing companion piece with “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”.

Where Neville’s film was more about Rogers the man, Heller’s speaks more to the influence he had. Her film is inspired by a real-life encounter between Rogers and Tom Junod, an accomplished investigative journalist for Esquire magazine. At Junod’s request screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster changed his name to Lloyd Vogel and adjusted a few details of their story. Junod was brought to tears after seeing the finished movie which captures the very essence of their meeting and eventually friendship.

Tom Hanks (Finalized);Matthew Rhys (Finalized)

Matthew Rhys plays Lloyd, a successful yet notorious writer living in New York with his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and their infant son. Lloyd is harboring some deep, pent-up anger towards his father (played by Chris Cooper) who ran out on his family at the worst time imaginable. Lloyd’s bitterness shows up in his work which over time earns him a toxic reputation.

As Esquire magazine prepares to do a series on American heroes, Lloyd is given the job of profiling Mister Rogers. He thinks the assignment is beneath him, but it turns out Mister Rogers is the only one willing to speak to him. And his caring but adamant editor (Christine Lahti) insists believing it will do Lloyd some good. So he sets out to interview Mister Rogers on the set of his show at WQED studios in Pittsburgh.

I can’t believe it has taken me this long to mention that Mister Rogers is played by Tom Hanks. The quintessential good guy actor playing the quintessential television good guy. It’s such a perfect bit of casting with Hanks deftly channeling Rogers’ kindly tone, subtle mannerisms, and his inquisitive nature that is always born out of his compassion. It’s a supporting role but obviously it’s the one most people will be going to see.

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But that’s not to shortchange Rhys who gives a really good performance. Obviously the scenes he shares with Hanks are the highlights, but Rhys stands on his own and makes his character’s inevitable transformation both believable and uplifting. And when he does get with Hanks their characters’ connections are palatable and have an almost spiritual quality to them.

The picture we get of Rogers is that of a gentle genius at psychology and at getting children (and in this case Lloyd) to come to terms with and express their feelings. That really is the meat of the entire film and Heller is the right person to handle it. She has so many interesting touches (I absolutely love how she uses miniatures) and approaches the story with just the right sensibility. And in the end it’s kindness, hope, and compassion that wins the day.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “A Hidden Life” (2019)

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It’s probably safe to say that Terrence Malick is an acquired taste. Many sing the praises of his eloquent visuals and deeply meditative style of filmmaking. Yet I know others who find his films to be boring, overly long, and essentially plotless. While the boring part is up for debate, it’s kinda hard for even the most ardent Malick apologists to argue against the other two points.

At the same time those are some of the Malickian trademarks I love most. With the exception of his last two feature films, I tend to enjoy Malick’s lengthy, extensive meditations. Sure, there are times when you would like to see him surrender more control to his editor. But when he’s hitting his marks I find it breathtaking. And even though plot is hardly his focus, he has such command of his own unique visual language that it’s easy for me to get lost in the artistry.

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His latest film “A Hidden Life” is certainly lengthy, clocking in at a hefty three hours. But it does see Malick going a slightly different route by following a more structured narrative. The film is still filled with his signature contemplative voice-overs and captivating gazes across divine landscapes. But it also sees him focused on telling a more traditional story, one of righteousness versus evil, which is served by all of these distinct flourishes we have come to expect.

“A Hidden Life” tells the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector who refused to fight for Nazi Germany or pledge his loyalty to Hitler. Inspiration was taken from a collection of Jägerstätter’s letters from prison compiled and edited by theologian Erna Putz. And in the process of telling this profoundly moving story of quiet resistance, Malick delivers his most deeply spiritual exploration since “The Tree of Life”.

Franz is played by August Diehl whose tender minimalism gives us clear insight into his character’s soul. Everything is well when we first meet Franz. He lives with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and their three daughters in the small village of Radegund cozily nestled in an Alpine valley in northern Austria. It’s a hard-working life but one filled with beauty, love, and family. Malick’s opening act is exquisite, full of warmth and images which remind us that no other filmmaker’s camera is as in tune with the majesty of nature as his. But the imagery is not without purpose. It’s meant to help convey the idea of serenity and happiness. “We lived above the clouds,” Fani recalls.

 

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One afternoon their halcyon existence changes when Fani hears the distant hum of plane engines over their valley. War has come and brought with it fear and uncertainty. Franz willingly accepts the call for a brief stint of military training, but he quickly begins questioning what he sees as an unjust war. “What has happened to our country?” he asks Fani in one of many letters Malick will incorporate into his film the rest of the way.

Franz returns to the valley carrying the weight of his convictions. How could he fight in a war built around unspeakable evil yet call himself a servant of Christ? What should he do if draft papers come his way? How will standing up for his beliefs effect those whom he loves? The joy that once filled his heart gives way to worry, uncertainty, and inner-conflict. Many of the villagers turns against him and his family branding them traitors. Franz seeks counsel from the church but is told by the bishop (compromised by fear of his own) “You have a duty to the fatherland. The church tells you so.”

As a literal and metaphorical storm brews in the distance it becomes clear that bad news is on the way. Franz is called to active duty and ordered to report to the Wehrmacht garrison in Enns. But after refusing to take the Hitler oath he is immediately thrown into prison. Fani, back home tending to the farm and taking care of their daughters, is notified of Franz’s arrest and through a series of letters the two begin dealing with their circumstances. It’s here that Malick captures an even deeper expression of their faith and love for one another.

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Malick’s sweeping impressionistic gaze does more than just capture stunning scenery. It’s true he and cinematographer Jörg Widmer swoon over snow-capped mountains, cascading waterfalls, and lush green valleys. But here it’s more than simple musings on nature. Early on the scenes help convey love, peace, and contentment. But later with Franz in prison and Fani laboring in the fields, the scenery (though still exquisite) looms in the background like a haunting memory. Again, unlike some of his recent films, Malick uses his intensely visual approach (along with James Newton Howard’s elegant and gentle score) to feed the narrative and bring life and depth to his characters.

“A Hidden Life” is a Terrence Malick movie through and through. Stirring and meditative, intimate and challenging. But here he is guided by one man’s inspirational journey. Malick gives us a three-dimensional portrait of a rare type of hero, told through a true story of faith, family, and the unquenchable human spirit in the face of tremendous persecution. Malick’s storytelling methodology may still be an issue for those with little patience. But I was spellbound from the very start and found this to be one of the most soul-stirring movie experiences of the year.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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REVIEW: “A Simple Favor”

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If you’re following director Paul Feig’s hit-and-miss trajectory “A Simple Favor” was on schedule to be a good movie. Turns out it’s considerably more okay than good. There is just enough dark wit, plenty of snappy dialogue, and an entertaining off-beat tone that makes it fairly fun. But despite those strengths, Feig’s film still comes off as a needlessly abrasive Lifetime Original.

“A Simple Favor” would be a disaster if not for the chemistry between its two leads. Anna Kendrick plays a single mother named Stephanie whose nerdy quirks and can-do spirit doesn’t exactly ingratiate her to her son’s home room teacher and other parents. This role isn’t a stretch for Kendrick who basically plays this type of perky character in every movie she’s in. But to her credit she’s good at them.

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Stephanie hits it off with the most unlikeliest of moms – Emily Nelson (played by Blake Lively). She’s a glamorous and overly crass diva who is married to hunky novelist Sean (Henry Golding in what is becoming a pretty routine role for him). Stephanie is quickly seduced by the boozy Emily’s high fashion, fancy home, and care-free attitude. Emily’s interest in Stephanie is harder to figure out and becomes even more of a puzzle once Emily up and vanishes.

From there the movie essentially turns into “Gone Girl” minus the suspense. Feig and writer Jessica Sharzer try to nurture a layer of mystery, but it’s hard to buy any of what they’re selling. You know pretty early that plenty of twists are on the way and the movie doesn’t do a great job of hiding them. And by the time you get to the ridiculous finale it feels like Feig is just throwing a bunch of endings against the wall and seeing which one sticks.

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But again, the chemistry between Kendrick and Lively keeps the film afloat. Neither of their characters make much sense and their actions often leave you scratching your head. But both seem to be having a lot of fun. Minus her astonishingly poor judgement and glaring naïveté, Kendrick’s Stephanie adds the most levity especially when she’s shooting her video blog. Lively is often pointlessly racy, but she shows off a savagely fun personality.

But again, I end up right back in the same place. It’s an odd movie that’s all over the genre map yet it doesn’t firmly land anywhere. It certainly has its moments but I couldn’t help but think it could have worked better if it dove further into its zany black comedy. As it is, “A Simple Favor” doesn’t do enough with its two snappy lead performances and it loses its way the further it goes.

VERDICT : 2.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Ad Astra”

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What a time to be Brad Pitt. Not only has he delivered some of the year’s best supporting work in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, but now he headlines James Gray’s fascinating space adventure “Ad Astra”. Both performances could (and should) give the 55-year-old Pitt plenty to look forward to come Oscar night.

“Ad Astra” (which is a Latin phrase meaning ‘to the stars’) is Gray’s followup to his brilliant yet under-appreciated “The Lost City of Z”. It’s a cerebral slice of science fiction in the vein of modern space-related think pieces like “Interstellar”, “Gravity” and “Arrival”. Interestingly, each of those three films ended up being my favorite movies from their respected years. So clearly I’m a sucker for these types of stories when they are done well.

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Set in the near future, Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, a steely and intensely dedicated astronaut who lives by the mantra ‘The Mission Always Comes First‘. We learn early that his devotion to his work has earned him the respect of his peers but it has cost him his marriage (Liv Tyler portrays his wife in a handful of brief yet effective flashbacks). As a result Roy finds himself in a self-inflicted state of isolation and emotionally detachment.

Roy is the son of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a highly decorated astronaut famous for leading the first ever manned mission to the outskirts of our solar system. The expedition was called the Lima Project and Clifford’s objective was to answer the big question: Is there intelligent life outside of earth? But it has been sixteen years since the last communication with the Lima Project leading most to believe Clifford and his team are dead.

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The film begins with a jaw-dropping introduction. Roy is working on a communication array high in our upper atmosphere when a massive pulse from deep space triggers a deadly electrical surge. On earth tens of thousands are killed and Space Command scrambles to find the source of the pulse. They trace it to Neptune, which happens to be the last known location of the Lima Project. Command calls in Roy informing him his father may be alive and causing the life-threatening surges. Roy agrees to a top secret mission to Mars where he will try to establish communications with his father. Externally its a matter of saving our solar system. Internally it’s a chance for Roy to reckon with the personal void left by his estranged father.

“Ad Astra” certainly isn’t the first movie to use space as an allegory for a variety of meditative themes. Here James Gray digs into the psyche of a fractured man wrestling with deeply compartmentalized emotions and space is the perfect setting for his expressions of emptiness and solitude. He’s a man full of mixed feelings. One minute he proudly states “I do what I do because of my dad.” But later, in one of his many internal monologues, we hear Roy lament the thought of becoming the very man who left him years ago. And as his ship ventures through the vast darkness of space, the troubling similarities between father and son shine bright.

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There is a striking similarity between Roy’s mission and the hunt for Colonel Kurtz in Frances Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”. Instead of snaking down a Vietnamese river in a patrol boat, Roy ventures through space in hopes of answering the film’s central mystery – What happened to his father? Is he alive? Did he go insane? Is he responsible for what is called “a crisis of unknown magnitude“? Of course with “Ad Astra” there is significantly more going on under the surface. The heart of Gray’s film is profoundly human. Its interests lie in exploring our most intimate human connections and showing what happens when those connections are broken. It’s a soulful meditation on the lasting effects of parental abandonment and the ache of loneliness can be felt in every frame.

Gray’s tightly focused, minimalist approach is sure to surprise (or disappoint) those looking for more traditional science fiction. He tells his story with an indie film intimacy but that doesn’t mean we aren’t given bursts of deep space tension and plenty of exquisite images. We’ve witnessed cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s brilliance in movies like “Dunkirk” and “Interstellar”. Here he dazzles through his audacious uses of light, color and physics. His penetrating close-ups are just as compelling, never losing sight of the human element.

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Without question Pitt’s performance is the heart and soul of “Ad Astra”. It’s brilliantly understated; quiet and restrained with the perfect amount of pathos. Pitt imbues Roy with a delicate stoicism and it’s amazing how much he can say through his weary, melancholic eyes. And despite his character’s confident and controlled facade, Pitt’s haunting portrayal captures a fragility that’s essential to Roy’s journey.

In such a franchise-soaked landscape it’s no surprise “Ad Astra” didn’t blow up the box office (It debuted alongside a Downton Abby film and the fifth Rambo installment). Plus it’s a James Gray movie which means it doesn’t pander to common conventions or popular expectations. And that’s what I love about this film. It’s uniquely its own thing and Gray isn’t afraid to challenge us to think and feel. It’s a technical marvel that’s rich with evocative visuals. It’s a tender rumination on the immeasurable value of our closest human relationships. It’s an inspirational call to introspection, forgiveness, and individuality. And that just scratches the thematic surface of this magnificent and unforgettable sci-fi experience.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Angel Has Fallen”

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Ever heard of the phrase ‘a glutton for punishment’? Of course you have. But just in case, Oxford defines it as “a person who is always eager to undertake hard or unpleasant tasks“. Tasks like, I don’t know, watching Gerard Butler movies? By that definition I’m a walking example of ‘a glutton for punishment’.

I really can’t blame anyone but myself. It’s not like Butler doesn’t have a pretty telling track record. But I have this twisted fascination with his movie career which is marked by a bevy of stinkers and the extremely rare gem. And in case you’re wondering if his latest “Angel Has Fallen” is one of the gems…I wouldn’t go that far.

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This is the third film in Butler’s Has Fallen series (for lack of a better title). It sees him reprising his role of Secret Service Superman Mike Banning. To be honest I had fun with the first film “Olympus Has Fallen”. It was a silly, fun throwback to the meat-headed action movies of the early 90’s. “London Has Fallen” failed miserably at capturing what made the first film entertaining. “Angel” falls somewhere in the middle.

Stuntman turned director Ric Roman Waugh helms this sequel that essentially follows the same blueprint as the previous films. Mike Banning is recommended by President Alan Trumball (Morgan Freeman) to replace the retiring Secret Service Director (played by the always fun Lance Reddick). But as the series has shown us, the job can take a pretty big toll and Banning’s body and psyche is letting him know it. Hilariously this seemingly important story-thread vanishes once the action kicks in.

While out on a country fishing trip, an assassination attempt is carried out with a swarm of high-tech drones. Banning barely saves the President’s life but everyone else including his Secret Service team are killed. The two lone survivors are taken back to Washington where the President is comatose and Banning finds himself framed for the attack. It doesn’t take much investigating before a tunnel-visioned FBI Agent Thompson (Jada Pinkett Smith) puts Banning under arrest. So much for all of that ‘service to his country’ bull.

Of course like any good Gerry Butler movie, Mike doesn’t take it sitting down. He breaks out of custody and sets out to find who framed him and who wants the President dead. He has to seek the help of the last person he wants to see – his father Clay (Nick Nolte), a wooly, off-the-grid mountain hermit who (as you can probably guess) ran out on his family when Mike was a child. That is clearly the go-to offense for scorned fathers in movies. Nolte’s character adds a little levity but there is little new or fresh about him beyond that.

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As you should expect, “Angel Has Fallen” leans heavily on its action. Some of it is fairly exciting and well shot. Other times it can be pretty generic, even frustrating especially when the scene-killing shaky-cam kicks in. And it’s all built around a paper-thin plot full of logic-defying silliness and ridiculous conveniences that are just there to get the story from Point A to Point B. By the way, am I the only one who wants to scream when a character won’t say the most obvious and necessary thing simply because a storyline hinges on their silence?

So basically this is another film worthy of being in Gerry Butler’s filmography. But feeling like a silver-lining kind of guy, I will say this is a step up from most of Butler’s recent efforts. Nolte earns a few chuckles, I really liked Danny Huston as one of Banning’s old military buddies, and the action can sometimes muster up some thrills. But that’s about all. Silly plot contrivances and head-scratching character decisions end up standing out more than the action. And for a movie like this, that’s not a good thing.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

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