REVIEW: “Fitzcarraldo”

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Fate of the Furious”

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It remains the most unlikely and surprising movie mega-franchise, yet that’s exactly what the “Fast and Furious” films have become. Now we are eight movies in (yes, EIGHT) and it has done nothing to lessen its position as a box office juggernaut. “Furious 8” had a worldwide debut of $532.5 million, shattering the global record for an opening weekend. And after three weeks it has already cleared $1 billion. Not bad for a series once about street racing in Los Angeles.

I heard it speculated that the previous film got a box office boost from being the last installment featuring Paul Walker following his sad, untimely death. That may be selling the franchise short. Since it’s identity shift in 2011’s “Fast Five” the series has steadily grown in budget and gross. “Fate” sports a whopping $250 million budget which helps it follow its successful formula – bigger, louder, and more over-the-top that its predecessor.

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The gang’s all back plus a few (or should I say the family is back since that is the one thin but central running theme). Big names have steadily been added including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Kurt Russell, and Jason Statham to name a few. But this is still Vin Diesel’s show and he returns as Dominic Toretto. Dom is enjoying his honeymoon with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) in Havana, Cuba. That is until he is confronted by a shadowy cyberterrorist ominously named Cipher (Charlize Theron).

Cipher has a big secret and uses it to force Dom to do her bidding. Doing so requires him to turn on his family and go rogue. Hobbs (Johnson), Letty, Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) are approached by the mysterious Mr. Nobody (Russell) and tasked with stopping Dom before he enables Cipher to carry out her nefarious master plan.

F. Gary Gray takes the directing baton from James Wan and crafts a FF installment that hits on every cylinder particularly for fans of the series (interesting fact – “Fate” has already become the highest grossing film for an African-American director). Writer Chris Morgan returns and has now written six of the franchise’s eight movies. It can’t be easy for Morgan to meet the ‘bigger, crazier’ expectations nor can it be a breeze for Gray to capture it with such mammoth studio demands. For the most part they pull it off.

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Now don’t get me wrong, “Fate” still requires you to turn off an entire portion of your brain. It’s absurdities can’t be calculated by the human mind. But it works because it maintains a keen sense of self-awareness. It knows it’s nuts and doesn’t shy away from it. In fact it has fun with the craziness of its scenarios. It consistently flashes its vital sense of humor which is absolutely essential. And one thing about it, you can sense everyone on screen is having a blast (I say that despite the much publicized real-life heat between Diesel and Johnson. But don’t worry, all it well now between the two stars meaning a ninth installment is all but assured).

Like most of its predecessors “The Fate of the Furious” is true to its ambitions. Fans of the series are sure to be pleased; detractors will be able to use their same arguments. I tend to enjoy these things. They’re goofy, action-packed, escapist entertainment. That’s why I had a good time with “Fate”. The characters are still fun, the action is a hoot, and the story had enough interesting turns to keep me engaged. Still, let’s be honest, these will never be considered ‘great movies’, but there seems to be enough under the the hood to keep it going. How long it can continue, well, that’s the real question.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Florence Foster Jenkins”

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When it comes to Meryl Streep one thing is for sure – you can expect her to put out a new movie each year. And if you’re a betting man or woman you can consider it a sure thing that she will get some type of awards attention. Her 2016 effort, “Florence Foster Jenkins” has once again led her to a Best Actress Oscar nomination despite it feeling like an incredibly familiar Meryl Streep performance. 

“Florence Foster Jenkins” is a weird one – a bit off-balance yet entertaining. It’s an offbeat biopic about a New York City socialite and music lover and I bet you can guess her name. It’s 1944 and Florence (a quirky character custom-made for Streep) spends her time and fortune promoting opera and who aspires to be a singer. The problem is she hasn’t an ounce of talent. Her husband St. Clair (Hugh Grant in his best role in years), a failed Shakespearean actor, knows she can’t sing but he doesn’t dare reveal that truth to her.

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That becomes a bit tricky after Florence decides to invest more time into her singing ‘career’. St. Clair goes out of his way to protect her from the truth including paying off her voice coach and secretly screening those who attend her small performances. At first it seems a bit nutty, but we quickly learn Florence has a terrible disease. So is St. Clair looking out for her or is he looking out for himself? It’s never that clear thanks to another layer of the story regarding St. Clair’s secret mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson).

As this stranger-than-fiction story unfolds it’s hard to gauge exactly how we are to approach it. Much of Florence’s flamboyance and caterwauling is framed as comedy and effectively so. But later the film wants to scold us for laughing even though it basically does the same thing. It’s a strange and confusing moral high ground to take.

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Something the film nails is the casting. Streep excels with these eccentric characters that she constantly falls back on at this stage of her career. Hugh Grant is very good as is Rebecca Ferguson in a much smaller role. But it’s Simon Helberg who steals the show. He is a hoot playing the skittish yet ambitious pianist Cosmé McMoon. He’s hired to be Florence’s personal piano player but is dumbfounded by her horrible singing. Helberg can be wildly expressive which adds to the humor.

“Florence Foster Jenkins” is an impossible movie to nail down. It’s a veritable stew of comedy, drama, and commentary. Yet despite being uneven and a bit stodgy, it’s hard not to be sucked in by its quirkiness. It can be laugh-out-loud hilarious but also tender and heart-breaking. At the same time it does little to stand out and its uneven story is a problem despite being entertaining.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “The Founder”

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The true story of a 53 year-old milkshake machine salesman who builds a fast food franchise may not come across as compelling cinema. But when that franchise is none other than McDonald’s and the salesman is as fascinating as Ray Kroc, let’s just say there is plenty there to anchor your interest.

McDonald’s has come a long way since its humble beginning in 1940. What started as a barbecue restaurant in San Bernardino, California has become a global phenomenon. Currently McDonald’s employs nearly 450,000 people and sports over 36,500 locations worldwide. They are everywhere. My wife and I even came across one while strolling down Paris’ famous Champs-Elysees? Ray Kroc’s shrewd and ambitious vision turned McDonald’s into a multi-billion dollar franchise and he barreled over anyone who got in his way.

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Ray is played by Michael Keaton, a crafty actor with plenty of variation to bring out his character’s many layers. When we first see Ray it’s 1954 and he’s peddling milkshake machines to drive-in restaurants across the midwest. Despite numerous failing business ventures he still manages a modest comfortable living with his supportive but neglected wife Ethel (Laura Dern). But contentment isn’t in Ray’s vocabulary. He firmly believes he’s one deal away from his ship coming in.

After a small California diner named McDonald’s orders six of his five-spindle multimixers a surprised Ray heads out to San Bernardino to check out their restaurant. There he meets the owners, the sociable Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and his intuitive brother Dick (Nick Offerman). Their family-ran diner is built on the idea of good food and fast service (Dick defines it as a “symphony of efficiency”). Ray immediately sees the franchise potential and persuades the reluctant brothers to let him in as their partner.

The screenplay from Robert D. Siegel (who also wrote 2008’s “The Wrestler”) was inspired by Ray Kroc’s 1977 autobiography but also an unauthorized biography. This enabled Siegel to learn the good and bad sides of this complex man. He and director John Lee Hancock move through Kroc’s story with a clear-eyed rhythm, hitting most of the high points and avoiding any lulls. They portray the businessman as both sympathetic and repulsive. Siegel himself said that after seven viewings he still didn’t know whether he liked Ray Kroc or not.

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Underneath its biopic epidermis is a surprisingly rich character study that can be as shrewd as Kroc himself and that doesn’t shy away from looking at him with a skeptical eye. It also gives Michael Keaton good material to work with. He is magnetic and endlessly charismatic, so much so that we remain glued to him even as our impression of his character sours. Offerman is also very good as is Dern. Unfortunately she gets left behind (as does a lot of the of Kroc’s personal details) in favor of the business end of the story. But you could say that’s an authentic portrayal – business before everything else.

Over the years McDonald’s has certainly changed. The food you now get is a far cry from the delicious all-beef patties we see on the McDonald brothers’ grill. And it’s funny, the same can be said for the Ray Kroc character. He’s a much different person by the end of the movie. That’s what makes “The Founder” such a fascinating watch. Sadly it hasn’t gotten much traction in theaters, but hopefully people will give it a look. It’s a great way to start the 2017 movie year.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Fences”

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I love many things about movies, but perhaps nothing more than watching great actors and actresses ply their trade. And when top-tier performers are given meaty, robust material to work with, the results are often spellbinding. A prime example – Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the riveting family drama “Fences”.

The film is based on the 1983 Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson. The play was revived on Broadway in 2010 starring both Washington and Davis. Both would win Tony Awards for their performances. Although Wilson had penned a screenplay, his insistence on an African-American director left a film adaptation in limbo. Washington’s stage experience with the story inspired him to star in and direct the film version (his third time in the director’s chair).

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“Fences” begins in 1957 Pittsburgh and tells the story of the Maxson family. Troy (Washington) works on a garbage truck with his life-long friend Bono (played by Stephen Henderson who, along with many other cast members, also starred in the Broadway revival). Troy is a particularly prickly character. He’s a man bruised by his past and bitter from racial inequalities both realistic and imagined. His wife Rose (Davis) is the anchor of their relationship. She’s a soothing presence, a voice of reason, and often times a peacemaker between Troy and their teenage son Corey (Jovan Adepo).

Washington doesn’t shy away from the story’s stage roots. The film feels very much like a play. It’s thick with dialogue and the vast majority of it takes place at the Maxson’s home. That may push away those hungry for something more traditional, but Washington knows the richness of his material. He doesn’t force any kind of cinematic gimmickry. Instead the performers (Washington included) take the ball and run which is the only way this story should be told.

We the audience get most of our information by listening in on the many lengthy conversations between characters – conversations filled with feelings, observations, or reflection. It’s here we see the many complex sides of Troy. Whether he’s playfully spinning a wild tale about wrestling with the Grim Reaper or reminiscing about his days playing baseball in the Negro Leagues. Other times it’s Troy, the strict, tough-minded father more interested in “doing right” by his children than loving them. As wordy as they sometimes are, every conversation is rich with meaning and substance. They are always shedding another layer to these characters.

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The further the story goes the more darker and painful it becomes. In one particularly tragic scene, Troy’s consuming bitterness and stubbornness drive him to exclaim “I can’t give nothing else.” At the same time there is a level of sympathy as Troy is a scarred product of his past. At one point he laments to his wife “You’re the only decent thing that’s ever happened to me.” And the story subtly looks at the cyclical nature of life. The question is will Troy be the one to finally break the cycle?

“Fences” is lively and vibrant yet aching and tragic. The cast’s rapport carries over beautifully from stage to screen and their handling of August Wilson’s characters comes from an understanding far deeper that simple familiarity. Washington and Davis let it rip and should be getting a call from Oscar, but the supporting cast is just as vital. Henderson, Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson – all essential pieces to the telling of Wilson’s story. In the end, it’s this rhythmic force of dialogue and performance that makes “Fences” such a powerful and soul-piercing experience.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Free State of Jones”

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There are moments in the historical war picture “Free State of Jones” where everything feels right – from its impassioned story to its artful attention to period detail. But then there are times when the flow of the narrative falls apart and the filmmakers seem to be biting off more than it can chew. Such is the dilemma with this riveting yet frustrating Civil War era mini-epic.

Oscar nominated writer Gary Ross pens the screenplay and directs this fictional story based on the historical account of Newton Knight, a southerner who led a group of deserters and escaped slaves up against the confederacy. Ross focuses on Newton and his impact on Jones County, Mississippi from the height of the Civil War through to the Reconstruction Era. Ambitious and  thoughtful, but a bit more than his film can handle.

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A perfectly cast Matthew McConaughey plays Newton. McConaughey almost naturally projects what you need from this character – scraggly unkept beard, tired and worn face, seamless southern drawl. We first see him performing his field medic duties for the Confederates at the Battle of Corinth. His war-weariness and disillusionment finally reach their boiling points and he leaves his unit. Wanted as a deserter, Newton is forced to hide in the swamps where he befriends a group of escaped slaves.

Their numbers begin to grow as more deserters break ranks and seek refuge in the swamps. Ross settles here a bit and builds some relationships particularly between Newton and a young house slave named Rachel (warmly played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw). We also see a growing unease as desperate Confederates begin ransacking local farms and stealing crops to supply the failing war effort. Newton’s newly founded militia fight back across southeastern Mississippi until the war ends in 1865.

From there Ross ventures into the Reconstruction Era which is where his story begins to lose its footing. The smoothly paced narrative gives way to a chopped up historical checklist of events that are interesting but terribly underserved. Post-war subjects such as local manipulation of slavery laws, freedman voter registration, KKK violence and democratic election fraud are addressed by title cards or brief segments. The story is constantly leaping forward in time never staying on a subject for more than a few minutes. It leaves the impression that Ross ran out of time, ran out of funds, or maybe both.

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It’s really a shame because Ross doesn’t shy away from the issues be it southern slave persecution or northern indifference. But he skims over the latter stuff leaning on didacticism over drama. The final third ends up being the film equivalent of history CliffsNotes. And there are instances where time could have been used better. We get a series of flash-forwards to a court room sequence some 85 years into the future. It’s not that effective and it took time away from more interesting parts of the story.

Newton Knight has remained a controversial figure. While Ross portrays his legitimate heroic side, he strategically prunes a portion of Newton’s personal life that you could call objectionable. After the war Newton lived on a farm with his wife AND his common-law wife (the Rachel character). He had fourteen children between the two women. This other layer of Newton would have been fascinating to explore. Then again the film struggles to cover everything it does include. But when it is on point “Free State of Jones” is a well-made film that’s both gripping and informative.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3.5 stars