REVIEW: “Cold War” (2018)

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In 2013 Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski released the brilliantly concise and thoroughly evocative “Ida”. It was a haunting movie filled with beauty and intrigue. Also it was the first Polish picture to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It took five years but we finally have his follow-up and it’s just as mysterious and tantalizing.

“Cold War” is a much different film than Pawlikowski’s previous effort but you’ll quickly recognize some of the same artistic choices that made “Ida” so visually arresting. Once again he teams with cinematographer Lukasz Zal who shoots in gorgeous black-and-white and uses the desaturated palette to convey the mood of a postwar Poland struggling under the weight of Communism. This time even more emphasis is put on the strategic use of shadows and lighting.

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The Warsaw-born Pawlikowski tells a story loosely based on the tempestuous and constantly intersecting romance of his own parents from whom the two lead characters take their names. Structurally it moves from point to point along the relationship timeline of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig). Their earnest yet troubled romance serves as the film’s centerpiece.

The story opens in 1949 with Wiktor and his colleague Irena (played by the excellent and underused Agata Kulesza) visiting rural villages to find undiscovered singing talent for their state-sponsored folk music project. Those chosen are brought to a school to be trained for an upcoming tour. It’s here that Wiktor is drawn to young Zula. He sees something special in her and his curiosity quickly turns to captivation.

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Telling too much more would hurt the experience, but let’s just say their mutual attraction grows into a romance – passionate and sincere but troubled from the start. Pawlikowski skips across their timeline making stops in Warsaw, Paris, and Yugoslavia. Along the way we watch Wiktor and Zula separate, reunite, and then separate again all amid an ever-changing European post-war landscape (something else Pawlikowski and Zal capture with incredible clarity through their lens).

From early on you can sense that “Cold War” is a deeply personal story. It’s a love story that is both romantic and tragic. Two fine lead performances drive the central relationship which is filled with intense passion but also missed opportunities at every turn. At the same time Pawlikowski has several things to say about the time period and much of it is vividly told through his camera. That extra layer is what pushes “Cold War” into truly special territory.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Creed II”

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One of my biggest regrets of 2018 was missing “Creed II” in the theaters. The first film was a wonderful surprise. At first I didn’t buy into the idea of a “Rocky” spin-off focused on Apollo Creed’s son. It turns out I was selling short both Ryan Coogler as a writer-director and Michael B. Jordan as an actor. They actually had a good story to tell and it was one of my favorite films of 2015.

“Creed II” features most of the key elements that made its predecessor great. Ryan Coogler who wrote and directed the first film isn’t here for the sequel but the deeply grounded and character-centered approach he used definitely returns. Yes, it’s a boxing movie so there are certain sequences you know you’re going to get. But this is first and foremost a movie about its characters and the lives they live.

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As if we needed more proof, “Creed II” cements Michael B. Jordan as an all-out star. He returns as Adonis Creed, three years removed from the events of the first film and now on a streak of significant boxing wins that puts him in line for a title shot. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) still sits in his corner and his relationship with girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) has intensified.

Meanwhile in the Ukraine we see Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) training and handily winning a series of lopsided boxing matches. If that last name sounds familiar, it should. Viktor is the son of Ivan Drago (a returning Dolph Lundren) who killed Adonis’ father in the ring over thirty years earlier. Ivan then lost to Rocky earning the scorn of the entire Soviet government. See where this is going?

Adonis gets his title shot and wins the WBC World Heavyweight Championship. On top of the boxing world, he proposes to Bianca and the two contemplate leaving Philly for Los Angeles. The Dragos get word from an opportunistic promoter (Russell Hornsby) that Apollo Creed’s son is champion leading them to come to the States and issue a challenge to Adonis. Rocky wants no part of it which infuriates the bull-headed Adonis who sets out to fight Viktor Drago without his mentor in his corner. Gulp!

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“Creed II” is very much an underdog story in the vein of most other “Rocky” pictures. But as I mentioned it’s much more interested in what makes these characters tick. New director Steven Caple Jr. understands that and he never loses that focus. The script was co-written by Stallone and Juel Taylor who plant most things firmly in the real world. This adds real consequences to the boxing matches as well as deep personal conflicts. That is until the big final fight when several of the characters who were once deeply concerned weirdly toss that aside and get onboard without a hint of conflict.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of “Creed II” is that you don’t feel the absence of Ryan Coogler. That’s not a knock on Coogler, but high praise for Caple, Jr. It helps to have a stellar returning cast (I didn’t even mention Phylicia Rashad who is back as Adonis’ mother. She’s so good). It all makes for a truly satisfying sequel and a second installment to a spin-off franchise that I never expected to be this good.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Captain Marvel”

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As tempting as it may be, I’m not wading into the controversies that have swarmed “Captain Marvel” since well before its release. The bulk of criticisms have been silly, pointless, and some of it downright bizarre. Yet through all of the fanboy backlash and insecure outrage Marvel Studios has another big screen cash cow on its hands. “Captain Marvel” is already pushing $1 billion. Not too shabby.

Let me start by laying out my credentials. I’m a comic book guy and I’ve followed the Carol Danvers character for a while. I became a genuine fan in 2006 when her second solo series launched. Much of its 50-issue run was fantastic and it did a good job opening up the character (not to mention giving us 19 stunning covers from artist Greg Horn).

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So I’m more than open to a Carol Danvers/ Ms. Marvel/ Binary/Captain Marvel entry into the MCU. In fact I love the idea of Carol being the first female to have her own movie. And it didn’t hurt when Marvel Studios announced she would be played by Oscar-winner Brie Larson, an actress I really enjoy.

Turns out the movie is a good one. It doesn’t necessarily break the MCU mold but it does an amazing job considering the massive challenges it faced. Think about it, “Captain Marvel” is asked to show that a female-led MCU picture can be a big money-maker. It has to tell a fresh origin story of a character not exactly among Marvel’s upper tier. It must connect itself to the already immense MCU timeline. And it has to put certain pieces in place that lead up to next month’s “Avengers: Endgame”. Talk about a full plate!

There are moments where you can sense the filmmakers working hard to meet the many demands. At the same time the writer-director duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck deserve a ton of credit. They may be unlikely choices to make a blockbuster Marvel picture but they turn out to be solid fits who have a good sense of how the movie should land. Their balancing act is pretty amazing.

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At its core this is a story of a woman (Larson) in search of her true identity. Practically the entire film is a slow drip of information and revelation about who this clearly gifted person truly is. It’s a cool way of telling an origin story as the character is learning alongside of the audience (think along the lines of Jason Bourne). At the same time it doesn’t allow you the chance to get close enough to her past. Call it conventional but I felt her backstory could have used a tad more attention.

We first know her as Vers (pronounced “Veers”), a member of the alien Kree Empire’s elite Starforce. She clearly has untapped power but she’s taught to contain it by her mentor and Starforce commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). This is also where we get our first handful of memory flashes which she dismisses as nothing more than dreams. When a rescue operation goes bad, Vers is abducted by Skrulls, the Kree’s shapeshifting enemies. The Skrull Commander Talos (a really good Ben Mendelsohn) probes her mind giving us yet another batch of memories to parse.

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Vers escapes to nearby Earth where countless gags and a barrage of musical cues lets us know it’s 1995. She quickly draws the attention of the fledgling S.H.I.E.L.D. organization and agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) but his investigation is quickly sidetracked when the Skrulls attack. Vers and Fury set out on the most unusual of buddy-cop adventures to find out what the Skrulls are after. Along the way she learns more about her true self, namely that she was a former Air Force fight pilot named Carol Danvers.

The quest for identity hops from Los Angeles, to Louisiana, and even back to Earth’s orbit. Throughout we watch Vers/Carol wrestle with her otherworldly powers and her humanity. Larson is good, a bit dry but by design. Her character has been trained to suppress her emotions and she’s even told humor is a sign of weakness. As Carol slowly breaks lose from that mindset Larson is given more room to examine the pent-up emotions that not only come with the character but that ultimately unleashes her true power.

The supporting cast is just as strong. Out of the nine MCU films Jackson has appeared it, this may be his beefiest role yet. He and Larson have a good chemistry and he has no problem leading a scene or falling into the background whenever needed. Mendelsohn is excellent giving us as performance a shifty as the slippery Skrull he portrays and Lashana Lynch brings a timely warmth playing Carol’s old friend. Oh, and there is a cat named Goose who is an absolute scene-stealer. Can’t forget the cat.

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While I wouldn’t put “Captain Marvel” in the upper echelon of Marvel movies, it does really well at introducing its character and setting her up to be a major player in the MCU. It does some peculiar things with the Marvel lore and it ends in an interesting but weird place in terms of a sequel. But once again Kevin Feige and his Marvel masterminds have shown an incredible knack for expanding their already mammoth cinematic universe. “Captain Marvel” feels right at home and finally fills a sizable hole in MCU.

As for its relevance as the first female-led MCU movie, I’m not sure how much more audiences have to prove. I realize the cultural significance of “Black Panther” and “Captain Marvel”. But audiences have already shown they will not only go see these films but fully embrace them as they do all MCU pictures. Sure, a smattering of internet infants will make an online scene, but clearly their impact has been non-existent. If the story is good, the characters compelling, and the respect for the source material reasonable, any potential “outrage” is all but meaningless. People will come to the theaters. So perhaps it’s time for the fingers to point solely at the studio and not the audience.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Custody” (2018)

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“Custody” is a searing domestic drama and the first feature from French director Xavier Legrand. The 39-year-old started as a child stage actor but is most known for his 29-minute short from 2013 “Just Before Losing Everything”. It was his first effort behind the camera, catching a lot of eyes and even earning Legrand an Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short Film.

Interestingly, with “Custody” Legrand takes on the same subject as his award-winning short, even using the same characters and key performers. His feature-length look at a fractured family is more observant and slightly ambiguous. It allows us more time in the heads of his characters to plow their mindsets and decide for ourselves whose side we’re on. You could say we the audience are positioned to be the judge.

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Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet) are in a contentious custody dispute with their 12-year-old son Julien (Thomas Gioria) caught in the middle. They have a daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) but she is a few days away from being of age to decide things for herself.

The film opens with a mesmerizing closed-door court hearing where the judge sits across from the parents and their lawyers who each make their case for and against custody. Through affidavits the children declare their desire to be with their mother. Miriam’s lawyer poses allegations of violence and abuse. But the claims clash with Antoine’s desire to be involved in his son’s life and the glowing character references from friends and co-workers. It prompts the judge to ask them both “Which of you is the biggest liar?”

Nothing Lagrand does is without thought and purpose, from the quiet intense closeups to the absence of a score. His film is all about the characters and placing them in the most authentic, real-life situations possible. We the audience simply sit back and take it all in, watching as this layered drama unfolds into a tense and unsettling thriller.

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Even the casting feels intentional – the brawny and physically imposing Ménochet; the petite and tightly wound Drucker. These deftly handled characters slowly and meticulously give us all the information we need before the lid bursts off in a final 15 minutes filled with simmering white-knuckled tension. This is where Legrand’s well-calculated restraint pays off the most.

Lagrand comes at everything from a deeply human perspective and tells his story with a hushed realism. It’s the exact opposite of how Hollywood tends to approach these subjects today. Think Dardenne Brothers but with a slightly sharper edge. And it helps to have such top-notch performances from Ménochet, Drucker, and especially young Gioria whose worried eyes and soulful gaze shatters your heart. Actually, the entire movie does.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Cold Pursuit”

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It’s February so you know what that means – a new Liam Neeson movie. Late January and February have become synonymous with these Neeson action flicks in the vein of “Taken”, “Non-Stop”, and “The Commuter”. Not sure how that’s important but consider it information nonetheless.

Right out of the gate his new film “Cold Pursuit” has all the markings of a prototypical Neeson revenge thriller. A gravelly-voiced old-timer loses someone close to him. He then unleashes ‘a particular set of skills’ to find out who is responsible and offer up his own special brand of payback.

Nels Coxman (Neeson) spends his evenings plowing a lonely track of mountain road that connects the fictional tourist town of Kehoe to the rest of civilization. He’s a reserved fellow who lives on a hill outside of town with his wife Grace (a woefully underserved Laura Dern). Outside of helping Nels with his cufflinks, she is given nothing to do but stand in the background.

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The couple’s world is shattered when they get news that their son (played by Neeson’s real world son Micheal Richardson) is found dead of an apparent heroin overdose. Grace closes herself off and Nels doesn’t want to believe it. He gets news that his son’s death is linked to a posh, health food obsessed drug lord affectionately known as Viking (Tom Bateman). Nels sets out to kill the man responsible, cutting through any henchman who is dumb enough to get in his way.

“Cold Pursuit” is director Hans Petter Moland’s remake of his own 2014 Norwegian thriller “In Order of Disappearance”. From one perspective the movie offers up plenty of what Neeson’s fans enjoy. This once unexpected action star has developed a certain gravitas that fits really well with these types of movies. I’ll admit it’s fun to watch him dole out punishment on the wicked. Here the violence can be brutal but intentionally over-the-top which (in a rather perverse way) feels right for this story.

Another plus (and a genuine surprise for me) is the healthy dose of dark comedy that is spread throughout, sometimes at the weirdest and most unexpected moments. It does throw a kink in the overall tone, but I admit to really getting a kick out of it. Some of the humor feels too out of place, but when it lands it can be pretty funny. And in some cases it’s the humor alone that salvages certain scenes hampered by some real shortcomings with the story.

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One of the biggest disappointments is in how little attention Moland gives to the emotions of his characters most notably Nels. The film deals in some pretty heavy subject matter yet it only offers a couple of moments for Nels and Grace to show any hint of sorrow or pain. And as he starts offing Viking’s low-level thugs, he does so in the most detached and dispassionate way. It basically throws away the emotional weight Neeson’s character desperately needs. And as I said Laura Dern is squandered in a truly thankless role. There is a real opportunity to explore grief through them but Moland doesn’t seem at all interested in that.

Moland and writer Frank Baldwin throw in other narrative pieces that aren’t given enough attention to matter. There’s a wedged in custody battle between Viking and his ex-wife (Julia Jones). We also get a Native American drug gang that the movie seems to want to do some interesting things with but who end up serving as little more than a plot device.

So where do I land on “Cold Pursuit”? On one hand it offers up more of Neeson’s early year revenge-fueled action. Plus the unexpected dark humor adds a wacky layer that I enjoyed far more often than not. On the other hand you have the emotional blandness of the lead character and pretty much everyone else we see. They all operate at the exact same temperature. Sometimes it’s a struggle to find the humanity in anyone. And that’s without getting into the ending and the head-scratching loose ends it leaves dangling. So I land in the middle, completely aware of the movie’s sense of uniqueness but also bummed at how it misses a mark it could have easily hit.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

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“I’m a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people.” That’s how Lee Israel describes herself in Marielle Heller’s film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” It’s a biopic with Israel as its subject and an adaptation of her 2008 memoir of the same name. It follows her experience as a struggling writer who ends up making ends meet by forging coveted letters from famous deceased authors.

Melissa McCarthy makes a welcomed dramatic turn playing Lee Israel who has fallen on hard times after her writing career stalls. She’s a depressed and cash-strapped alcoholic who can’t keep a job and owes months of back-rent on her filthy Manhattan apartment. She can’t get an advance for a new book because she has burned every bridge her agent (a wonderful Jane Curtin) has laid down for her.

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You know where things go from here. A desperate Lee begins forging old letters and selling them to bookstores around the city. The true story goes that she sold over 400 documents, a remarkable crime streak that would seem impossible to pull off. The real Lee Israel was an unrepentant sham and the film definitely captures that. But Heller makes an obvious attempt to lace Israel’s story with sympathy.

McCarthy gives a good performance although it doesn’t require as much range as it may seem. She burrows down into Israel’s unlikability and isn’t asked to go much further. She still manages to give us an good character with several interesting layers. Take what is probably her deepest character flaw – the near arrogant insistence that she is a great writer and everyone needs to recognize it. At one point she states “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker”. And the film offers no grand transformation. She maintains this stance to the very end even finding a way to use it to rationalize her crimes.

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Richard E. Grant is getting a lot of attention for playing Lee’s only non-feline friend Jack. Grant is effortlessly good in what is a flamboyant and pretty showy performance. Jack is a fellow boozer and much like Lee he’s far from the most likable person. McCarthy and Grant have really nice chemistry and that makes for some entertaining back-and-forths between two otherwise shady people. Unfortunately I began to sour on their banter after a while.

Even though we know how things are going to end, Heller along with screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty give us enough to sink our teeth into. But it’s McCarthy who pulls off the impossible. She not only has us caring (to some degree) about such an unpleasant curmudgeon but also (in one way or another) she has us relating to her as well. That can’t be an easy task and it’s just enough to carry the film over the finish line.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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