REVIEW: “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”

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In my eyes Chiwetel Ejiofor has clearly established himself as an exceptional actor. Netflix’s latest original film “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” proves that Ejiofor has more in his filmmaking skill set than what we have seen in front of the camera. Here he not only stars in the film, but directs and writes the screenplay for what is at its core a soulful and affecting family drama.

“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is based on the true story of a 13-year-old boy who built a wind turbine out of scrap to save his small African village from a devastating famine. So you kind of know from the start where the movie is heading. But as cliché as it may sound, this film is genuinely all about the journey and the characters who make up its center – characters who Ejiofor clearly cares about and who are given plenty of room to develop.

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Ejiofor plays Trywell Kamkwamba, a husband and father who farms a dry patch of land in the small village of Wimbe. It’s hard work but Trywell and his wife Agnes (Aïssa Maïga) have managed to put enough back to send their bright and resourceful son William (an excellent Maxwell Simba) to middle school. Their older daughter Annie (Lily Banda) anxiously awaits her chance to go to college once her turn comes back around.

But a series of misfortunes dramatically changes things not only for the Kamkwambas but the entire region. Flooding during the sowing season and a crippling drought that follows leads to a poor harvest. An upcoming election has the troubled government in political turmoil making it an unreliable source for any kind of aid. Economically-strapped villages are left to fend for themselves which sends many into chaos.

This brings a heartbreaking strain on the Kamkwamba family. During this time Ejiofor subtly shifts the point of view from Trywell to William. He observes his father slowly cracking under the pressure, his frustrated sister fighting the urge to leave the village, and his mother desperately trying to keep their household together. Ever the inventive one, William conceives a wild plan to build a wind-powered turbine to provide water for his village. But will anyone buy into his idea?

I really appreciate Ejiofor’s willingness to look at his characters through different lenses. These people are fleshed out and multidimensional with real strengths, faults, and a range of organic emotions. They feel like a living, breathing part of the world Ejiofor vividly presents. It also helps that he shot on location in Malawi. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dick Pope, much as he did in “Mr. Turner”, creates a beautiful and immersive canvas that is visually stunning but with enough subtlety to keep from drawing attention to itself.

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I loved “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”. The predictability may be a hurdle for some and it could be a bit too restrained for those looking for edgier storytelling. But I found it to be a beautiful and at times heartbreaking slice of real life. Ejiofor’s script and direction captures the heart of William Kamkwamba’s touching and inspirational memoir. The performances are even better with Ejiofor rivaling his Oscar-nominated work from “12 Years a Slave” and young Simba standing out as a true revelation.

Ejiofor has said he bought the films rights to this incredible story after being drawn by its optimism and hopefulness. Next he found it essential to be as authentic as possible by learning and incorporating the Chichewa language and by shooting on actual Malawi locations. Finally it was about telling William’s story – a young boy far removed from the privileges we tend to take for granted, living in a village crippled by a famine, but with the heart and know-how to help. The results of Ejiofor’s efforts are exceptional.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Bohemian Rhapsody”

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When you think of rock-and-roll biopics it’s hard to come up with a better subject than the incandescent and enigmatic Freddie Mercury. As lead singer for the legendary British rock band Queen, the wildly flamboyant Mercury became a household name across the globe. He would perform with Queen for over 20 years until his AIDS-related death in 1991. He was just 45.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” sets out to tell the story of Freddie Mercury starting around the time Queen was formed in 1970 and finishing up with their famous twenty-one minute Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium in 1985. In between it hits on a several significant moments in Mercury’s life while making up a few of its own. The results are a by-the-numbers musical biopic that feels pretty basic despite the compelling character at its center.

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The embattled Bryan Singer handled the bulk of the direction before being fired due to constant no-shows and clashes with the cast and crew most notably the film’s star Rami Malek. Dexter Fletcher replaced Singer with around two-thirds of the movie shot and ready for post-production. I’ll let others figure out which one deserves the most credit and/or the most blame for how things turned out.

Rami Malek is easily the film’s biggest strength. He seamlessly maneuvers between the two sides of Freddie Mercury – the shy and intensely private man and his garish, energetic stage persona. He deftly unveils Mercury’s quiet sensitivity and insecurity. But even more impressive is watching Malek lose himself onstage, perfectly reflecting Mercury’s rock-and-roll alter-ego. Whether strutting charismatically or belting out (kinda) classics with a four-octave range. It’s amazing to watch.

Mercury is very much the centerpiece to the point where the rest of the band almost gets lost in the background. It’s a shame because the movie is best when viewed as a simple celebration of their music. The very best scenes are when the band is together fighting over and making music. That includes a fabulous final twenty minutes which recreates Queen’s Live Aid concert performance and perfectly captures the band’s remarkable chemistry and energy.

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But the movie struggles when the focus is solely on Mercury. The filmmakers make several weird omissions and peculiar changes to his timeline. In the film’s most glaring bit of fiction an arrogant and selfish Mercury, enamored by his own stardom, breaks up Queen to pursue his solo career. In reality Queen never broke up. It’s a needless demonization. There is an attempt to representation Mercury’s descent into the grips of drugs and debauchery. It gets the message across but isn’t what I would call enlightening.

So with “Bohemian Rhapsody” you end up with a very safe and conventional biopic that aims more at being a crowd-pleaser than an in-depth character exploration. When viewed in that light it’s a pretty enjoyable film. Malek is fantastic as is most of the supporting cast (Gwilym Lee’s resemblance to Brain May is uncanny). And while I learned nothing new about Queen or Freddie Mercury, the movie concentrates enough on the music to make it worthwhile.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “Beautiful Boy”

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Steve Carell is one busy guy. “Beautiful Boy” was one of three movies he put out in 2018 and his sixth in two years. The film also stars Timothée Chalamet, a good young actor who has essentially become the new Jennifer Lawrence. You know what I mean – a hot young newcomer who gets loads of critical attention and awards nominations for pretty much anything he does…at least for a few years.

I don’t want to cut Chalamet short. He is a good actor. Maybe not to a level matching the overflowing praise, but good nonetheless. For proof look no further than “Beautiful Boy”. His portrayal of a drug addicted 18-year-old calls for a big performance that grabs most of the attention. It’s a role that easily could have went the wrong way. But hats off to Chalamet for keeping his performance under control.

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At its core “Beautiful Boy” is a heartbreaking father/son story based on the memoirs of author David Sheff and his son Nic. Carell portrays Sheff, a father broadsided by the discovery that his teenage son Nic (Chalamet) is a drug addict. The two have always had a close loving relationship but the drug abuse drives a wedge between them. So as Nic tries to break the grip of addiction David tries to deal with the painful reality that his relationship with his son may never be the same.

Directed by Felix Van Groeningen and adapted by Van Groeningen and Luke Davies, “Beautiful Boy” has all the ingredients it needs to tell this story and it does a good job dividing its time between father and son. In many ways this is more about David and the problem of hope turning to naiveté. He believes that love and encouragement will cure his son and as a writer he has always had the right words. Reality shows him different. Carell hits most of the right beats, but there are moments, particularly the emotionally heavy ones, that aren’t quite as strong.

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At the same time they wisely don’t overdo it with Nic. He is a very believable representation of a young addict in part because of Chalamet, but just as much due to the the script. Flashbacks reveal a bright teen full of joy yet not always helped by his father’s decisions. But even as he unravels the script never loses sight of his deep human qualities and emotions. This makes the looming uncertainty all the more devastating.

Strangely not all of the film is as engrossing as the performances or the story material. It’s hard to put a finger on why. It’s not that it lacks a realistic edge or the characters fall short. It’s more to do with the rhythm of the storytelling which is a bit uneven in the second half. But it doesn’t undo the film’s ability to evoke empathy and heartache. And in the end that’s what the movie needed to do the most.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Bird Box”

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Arguably the weirdest titled movie of 2018 has debuted on Netflix and with quite a bit of attention. According to the streaming giant “Bird Box” has been watched by 45 million accounts making it the “best first 7 days ever for a Netflix film.” Skeptics notwithstanding, those are pretty impressive numbers especially for a usually tight-lipped company.

“Bird Box” is a genre stew featuring slices of horror, psychological drama, science-fiction, and end-of-the-world thrillers. It’s based on Josh Malerman’s 2014 debut novel of the same name and adapted to screen by Oscar nominated screenwriter Eric Heisserer (“Arrival”). Danish director Susanne Bier is tasked with corralling it all together and she manages it with a satisfying effectiveness.

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The film opens with a mother named Malorie (Sandra Bullock) giving strict instructions to two children as they prep for a dangerous trek up a river. The three blindfold themselves before feeling their way to a fiberglass rowboat. After a few more pointed warnings they begin the treacherous journey upstream.

Flashback to five years earlier. A terrifying unknown presence surfaces causing anyone who lays eyes on it to suddenly kill themselves. Malorie, now pregnant and a soon to be single mother, finds herself holed up in a house with an assortment of strangers all trying to make sense of the rampant death and chaos.

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“Bird Box” bounces back-and-forth between the present day river scenes and the flashbacks which reveal what led Malorie to that point. Most of that time is spent in the house where survivors battle fear and uncertainty as supplies begin to run out and new survivors show up. A talent-rich supporting cast fill out the group. There’s Tom (Trevante Rhodes), Douglas (John Malkovich), Cheryl (Jackie Weaver), Olympia (Danielle Macdonald), and Charlie (Lil Rey Howery) among others.

Parenting is a central theme and we see it from both literal and metaphorical angles. When it works it’s mostly due to a stellar performance from Bullock who hasn’t lost a step and shows she can still navigate an intense range of emotions. But it’s not always easy to keep the theme in focus especially when the film stumbles into some familiar genre trappings. There is clearly a thematic throughline, but you never lose sight that this is very much a genre(s) movie.

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The film’s opening 20 minutes are its best, introducing its terrifying unseen threat that is undeniably menacing yet intentionally undefined. It turns society upside-down much like the killer first scenes of 2013’s “World War Z” yet on a smaller scale. Bier builds plenty of suspense and then carries it over to the film’s more character-focused house segment. Some of the characters work better than others. Rhodes is a standout. Malkovich is very John Malkovich-like. Weaver is sadly lost in the crowd.

“Bird Box” runs the gambit from riveting to predictable to kinda silly. At the same time it’s never boring and the performances are always worth watching. The convergence of survival and motherhood within such a sinister setting is a cool concept and Bullock wonderfully fleshes it out for us. She’s the movie’s backbone and even when the story sputters at times she puts it on her back and carries it to finish line.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Bumblebee”

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If you’re like me the very notion of a “Bumblebee” movie was easy to dismiss. I have been numb to the Transformers movie franchise since its second installment 2009. For me the movies spiraled into the kind of blockbuster I generally push back on – tons of CGI-fueled spectacle but barely a shred of story or character substance to sink your teeth into.

Then along comes “Bumblebee” and several things automatically grab your attention. For starters it’s the first Transformers film not directed by Michael Bay. Second, it stars a really good young actress in Hailee Steinfeld. Lastly, the movie is currently sitting at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. That was just enough to lure me into letting my guard down and actually going to the theater.

“Bumblebee” is both interesting and surprising – a prequel to the 2007 original film and far more intimate and clear-eyed than any of Michael Bay’s concoctions. It’s the second film from director Travis Knight, his first being the exceptional “Kubo and the Two Strings”. He and screenwriter Christina Hodson place a heavy emphasis on character which gives “Bumblebee” an emotional pulse missing from the franchise’s other installments.

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As civil war rages on his home planet, Autobot soldier B-127 (later named Bumblebee) is sent to earth by leader Optimus Prime. His mission is to covertly establish a resistance base while protecting the planet if their enemies the Decepticons happen to show up. Bumblebee lands in 1987 California but has to fend off a testy government agency captained by John Cena and even worse a Decepticon who tailed him to Earth. Bumblebee survives the encounter but ends up seriously damaged, unable to speak and with a broken memory core. As a result he helplessly takes the form of a Volkswagen Beetle and shuts down.

Steinfeld’s Charlie is a bit of an outcast only days away from her 18th birthday. She still grieves the loss of her father and has been unable to move on like her mother (Pamela Adlon) who has since remarried. Charlie’s life is a perpetual state of disappointment and frustration whether it’s her downer job at a local carnival or she’s trying to fix up an old car she and her dad worked on together. She finds a glimmer of purpose in a dusty yellow Volkswagen Beetle (guess who) she discovers in her uncle’s junkyard.

While working on her new ride Charlie inadvertently wakes Bumblebee and in the process emits a signal quickly picked up by the Decepticons. The two quickly form a bond which Knight smartly spends a lot of time on. Both characters share a similar lostness but find a much-needed comfort in their relationship. This could have been an easy misfire but Hodson’s script has a legitimate heartbeat. It’s sweet and surprisingly tender without ever turning to mush. And Steinfeld is such a good actress either in the film’s softer moments or once the inevitable threat eventually arrives.

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Other things that work – the movie’s sense of humor. Most of the Transformers films have tried to incorporate some level of humor. Here it comes from a better and more digestible place. It’s far from the crude and obnoxious nonsense several of Bay’s movies would peddle. “Bumblebee” also leans heavy into its 80’s setting. There are fun little 80’s nuggets spread throughout the film (who else remembers Mr. T cereal?) and the soundtrack is a blast.

As for what doesn’t quite work – while I did fall for the 80’s vibe there are moments where it is glaringly on-the-nose especially with the music. This is most noticeable in the first half (admittedly I still got a kick out of it). And then there is John Cena who inevitably pops back up as the misguided government antagonist. The character isn’t well written to begin with, but Cena doesn’t really help matters. He’s a bit is stiff, cheesy and often too cartoony to be taken seriously.

I realize calling “Bumblebee” the best film in the Transformers franchise isn’t much of a compliment. So let me try this – “Bumblebee” is a good spin-off that easily stands on its own unique merits. It’s able to dodge nearly every comparison to the more abyssmal of Michael Bay’s efforts while also giving us hope that the franchise can offer something worthwhile. The question becomes is it a case of too little too late?

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “BlacKkKlansman”

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Spike Lee has been called an angry filmmaker and it’s hard to argue otherwise. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Throughout his career it’s that anger that has fueled some of his very best scenes. At the same time it’s that very anger that can sometimes drive his movies to be too preachy for their own good. But to his credit I don’t think Lee really cares. He makes the movies he wants and he makes them his way.

“BlacKkKlansman” is his latest hard-nosed socio-political movie and it sports many of the same strengths and frustrations of his past pictures. But what’s most interesting is how “BlacKkKlansman” feels very much its own thing. It’s a bit uneven, yet Lee’s storytelling is thoroughly compelling both in its audacity and its messiness.

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“BlacKkKlansman” is loosely based on a hard to believe true story taken from Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir. Stallworth was the first African American police officer at the Colorado Springs police department. But his claim to fame was infiltrating a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan over the phone. Stallworth duped a local KKK recruiter into not only meeting him but offering him Klan membership. He did all his work over the phone posing as a racist white man. A wired white officer stood in for him during any actual meetings.

Lee dolls up this incredible true story with a ton of dramatic dressing which gives him a bigger space to say whatever he wants. His first change was in shifting the time to 1972 (the actual events took place in 1979). This is where we meet Ron Stallworth (played with confidence and gusto by John David Washington, son of Denzel Washington). He is hired to be what one character calls “the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs police force”.

Lee zips through Ron’s early days on the force, quickly elevating him to detective and soon intelligence with barely a hint of struggle or resistance. It feels rushed, even a little sloppy, and leaves behind a lot that could have been explored. One key player we do meet in this segment is Patrice (a very good Laura Harrier), the president of Colorado College’s black student union who Ron meets while undercover. Their playfully combative relationship highlights a great chemistry between Washington and Harrier.

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When Ron notices a KKK recruitment ad in the newspaper he calls the number pretending to be white man looking for membership. Chapter prez Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) buys the ruse and sets up a meeting. Ron recruits a Jewish narcotics officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to join the investigation and build a case against the Klan. Flip stands in as Ron at the in-person meetings burrowing deeper into “The Organization” and eventually meeting the Grand Wizard himself David Duke (a wonderfully calibrated Topher Grace).

The finally act features Lee going full fiction and letting his creative and dramatic imaginations run wild. Most of it (and the movie as a whole) works and offers a bruising indictment of anyone even remotely sympathetic to the disgusting hate-mongering we see. Lee likes stirring the pot and provoking conversation. His piercing portrait of unbridled racism is rightfully uncomfortable and offers up plenty to talk about.

Other parts don’t quite work as well. Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen plays the ever suspicious and always maniacal Klansman Felix. He is the movie’s epitome of evil and comes across more as a cartoonish caricature than a thought-out character (perhaps by design?). Also, while the trailer highlights the film’s sense of humor, much of it is lost when slapped against the darker stinging reality which makes up most of the movie. There are a handful of really funny moments, but others don’t land as firmly. You also get a few pretty lazy Trump slams that will resonate with some despite their on-the-nose delivery and some pointlessly crude dialogue which isn’t unusual for a Lee picture.

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Yet despite these shortcomings “BlacKkKlansman” is still strikingly magnetic and a fascinating bit of filmmaking. Never a slacker behind the camera, Lee has a fantastic sense of time and space. Every frame drips with early 70’s style and personality. And it’s fed by a stellar soundtrack and Terence Blanchard’s wonderfully jazzy score. Some of my favorite scenes are when Lee sits us down for more personal moments. Take when Ron and Patrice meet up at a predominantly black nightclub. Their sweet ‘get to know you’ conversation ends with a wonderful dance floor sequence to “Too Late to Turn Back Now” by Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose. It’s a soulful and joyous moment and for them a brief respite from the turmoil of the era.

“BlacKkKlansman” is a skillfully guised epic, far grander in scale than it may appear on the surface. It’s a film rich with metaphors and juxtapositions which we experience through the two main characters, both of whom are carving out their own identities. The entire cast is top-notch led by Washington and Driver who perfectly sink into their multi-layered roles. Lee knows they’re good and utilizes them to the fullest. Of course it’s preachy and at times too on-the-nose. After all it’s Spike Lee we’re talking about. Yet there are still plenty of gray areas which give us room to think for ourselves and reckon with what we see. For me that’s when “BlacKkKlansman” is at its best. “All Power to All People”

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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