REVIEW: “The King” (2019)

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It would be really hard for David Michôd’s “The King” to be misconstrued as a thorough treatment of William Shakespeare’s “Henriad”. Some of the earliest scenes tell us otherwise. Instead his new film is a much more concentrated adaptation that puts its focus primarily on young Henry V and his rise from dissolute prince to the reluctant King of England.

“The King” is more than a condensed version of the Bard’s renowned series of plays. It’s still a medieval yarn about early 15th century power and the men who wield it. But it’s a uniquely contemporary retelling that takes plenty of liberties while sporting a slyly modern philosophical edge. It marks the third feature film collaboration between Michôd (director and co-writer) and fellow Aussie Joel Edgerton (co-writer and supporting actor).

Whether it’s earned or not, Timothée Chalamet has been the hottest thing in Hollywood since, I don’t know, Jennifer Lawrence. And much like her, he is immensely talented and has been showered with an almost unfair level of adulation. Here he shines, first as young Prince Hal, the rebellious son of the ailing King Henry IV (the always good Ben Mendelsohn). Hal is content with swilling ale with his boozy friend and mentor Falstaff (Edgerton), once a proficient knight on the battlefield but now the Prince’s portly protector and confidante.

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Hal’s defiance prompts his father to name his more devoted and by-the-royal-book son Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman) as the heir to his throne. There’s an interesting family dynamic here, but one of the few weaknesses of Michôd and Edgerton’s script is in how little they explore it. Instead we breeze through the demise of the petulant and overly-ambitious Thomas, their father’s inevitable death, and Prince Hal’s coronation as King of England.

Hal, now King Henry V, is a pacifist at heart and determined not to follow in the footsteps of his warmongering father. But he quickly realizes the urgings towards war aren’t easy to quell especially when so many around him seem to want it. And finding a trustworthy voice among the politicians and clergy proves to be difficult. Re-enter Falstaff who is brought in out of the rabble and into the King’s court as a military adviser. Needless to say, his presence irks many of those already in the King’s ear.

It’s here that Chalamet’s performance really grabs your attention. With maturity and gravitas, he brings a deep, troubled solemnity to his character. At the same time his internalized portrayal shrewdly conveys the deep psychological conflict of a young king aspiring for peace while burdened under his father’s shadow. Chalamet’s chemistry with his co-stars is a real strength particularly Edgerton who gives us a much different take on Falstaff.

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We also get a stellar supporting turn from Sean Harris who plays the hissing Chief Justice William Gascoigne. Lily-Rose Depp gets a small but meaty moment playing Catherine of Valois. Thomasin McKenzie briefly but effectively offers some gentle wisdom as Hal’s sister and the Queen and Denmark. But the real scene-stealer (and sure to be off-putting for some) could be Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin, the pompous heir to the French crown and perpetual thorn in Henry’s side. Pattinson swans around with a healthy dose of camp and enough absurdity to lighten up the otherwise dark and gloomy proceedings.

Michôd and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw bathe the first half of their film in the washed out blues and grays often seen with these types of period pieces. Yet despite its familiarity, the color palette fits and works well within the early setting. But the visuals truly pop once Hal and his army leave the dark castle for the shores of France. Specifically, it’s the fierce, mud-splattered Battle of Agincourt that stands out the most. It’s exquisitely shot from its tense buildup to the brutal, claustrophobic hand-to-hand combat.

“The King” does a good job reinventing Shakespeare’s characters and using them to offer up a meaningful critique of imperialism and the politics of war. It’s also a compelling character study of a son who wants no part of his father’s royal legacy but struggles to forge his own path as king. Shakespeare purists are sure to grit their teeth at Michôd’s dramatic license and willingness to take the popular story in new directions. But I loved the gritty fresh take and the strong, sturdy performances that drives the film from start to finish.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Kill Bill: Vol. 2”

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I doubt Quentin Tarantino would seriously object to his Kill Bill films being reviewed as two separate movies, but apparently there is a fairly long-running debate among a handful fans. Is Kill Bill one single movie or two? In a recent interview with CinemaBlend the acclaimed yet always controversial filmmaker threw in his two cents – “I made it as one movie and I wrote it as one movie.” Fair enough, but it still feels like a film that justifies its two parts.

Rewatching the first movie I was reminded of why Kill Bill is easily among my favorite Tarantino pictures. I’m so often at odds with his obsessions and excesses to the point of seeing some of his films as exercises in unbridled self-indulgence. Sure, “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” could also be considered very excessive and self-indulgent. In many ways it is. But for the most part it feels much more compact and focused. It’s fully committed to its influences and the excesses are very much a part of the genre he’s most interested in celebrating.

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Volume 2 begins at Chapter Six with what may be the movie’s best sequence. It’s a flashback dripping in Sergio Leone influence that digs into the events which sparked the Bride’s quest for revenge. She and a handful of others have gathered for a wedding rehearsal in a little chapel outside of El Paso, Texas. Volume 1 tells us how things turn out and Tarantino uses that knowledge to add a very effective layer of tension to the scene. The opening 15 minutes mixes together some of the film’s sharpest dialogue and savviest camerawork.

In his signature non-linear fashion, Tarantino bounces forward to the Bride (Uma Thurman) and her continued bloodlust for those who killed her unborn baby and left her for dead. Her top target is Bill (David Carradine), the head of the disbanded Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. But first she must hunt down and cut through each of his four former assassins. Two were handled in Volume 1. That leaves Bud (Michael Madsen) and Elle (Darryl Hannah).

Once again this is very much a direct continuation of the first film and both were shot at the same time. Yet despite the clear cohesion, Volume 2 uniquely stands out as its own thing. It surprisingly digs deeper into its characters, something the first film mostly skimmed over but for good table-setting reasons. And you could say Volume 2 comes across as less spectacular and more driven by Tarantino’s signature savory dialogue.

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It also stands apart in how much ground it explores. Volume 1 saw Tarantino exquisitely and violently indulging his adoration for the grindhouse martial arts movies of his childhood. This time around his cinematic focus is considerably broader, pulling influence from a wider catalog and experimenting with a number of different techniques and style choices. And all through storytelling that moves to a much different rhythm than the first film.

Tarantino is also known for reintroducing forgotten actors/actresses who have (for one reason or another) fallen off the map. Just think about it, Pam Grier (“Jackie Brown”), Kurt Russell (“Death Proof”, “The Hateful Eight”), Don Johnson (“Django Unchained“), and of course John Travolta (“Pulp Fiction”). This time it’s Carradine and Hannah who get the treatment. Both are great. Tarantino makes perfect use of Carradine’s gravelly, mellow deliveries and Hannah’s sultry ferocity.

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“Kill Bill: Vol. 1″ set some lofty expectations and Volume 2 meets them while taking a dramatically different approach to storytelling. But the marvel of it all is in how well both films gel together. It makes sense that Tarantino would consider them one movie despite each having their own uniqueness.

And as with most of his films, Kill Bill is a celebration of cinema. But with Volume 2 he adds layers of humanity and pathos that makes this more than a filmmaker indulging his inner cinephile. There’s actual heart among the grit and the violence along with a dynamic Uma Thurman who fully commits to every line, every emotion, and every swing of her lethal Hattori Hanzō blade.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Kill Bill: Vol. 1”

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Quentin Tarantino’s fourth film “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” is in many ways the craziest of the nine (or ten depending on how you look at it) he has made thus far. And I realize that’s truly saying something considering every one of his movies from “Reservoir Dogs” to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” embrace at least some degree of craziness.

Released in 2003, “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” could be defined as a spaghetti western meets chopsocky theater. But even that description seems too narrow considering how much Tarantino stuffs into this picture. We see the influences of blaxploitation and grindhouse cinema. We even get a lengthy flashback in full Japanese anime for goodness sake! And of course there are pop-culture references galore, one of the truest Tarantino signatures.

For the most part the plot is as bare-bones as they come. It’s essentially a blood-soaked revenge tale that is set in motion from the very first frame. The opening sequence is shot in vivid black-and-white and mostly focuses on the bloody and battered face of a young bride. Outside of her pained pants, all we hear are the condescending tones of a mysterious man’s voice as he asks “Do you find me sadistic?” These are the first words spoken in the film and you can almost hear the notorious filmmaker posing that very question to his audience.

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Uma Thurman plays the young woman who we simply know as the Bride. The voice of the unseen man belongs to Bill (David Carradine), the head of a hit squad known as the Deadly Vipers. The Bride was once part of Bill’s crew but now she lays the victim of their brutality. He and several of his remaining assassins kill the young woman and the unborn baby she is carrying.

Or so they think…

Fast-forward four years. The Bride is very much alive and on a personal mission to kill everyone on her hand-written hit-list. One-by-one she will check them off until finally getting to her main objective – Bill himself. But she will have her work cut out for her. The Deadly Vipers have since disbanded and tracking them down won’t be easy. And when she does find them they certainly won’t go down without a fight.

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Tarantino has always been a fan of non-linear storytelling and he fully embraces it here. He hops back-and-forth on his timeline and for the most part it works. There is one particular sequence that seems rooted in an apparent desire to make the Bride’s experience even more agonizing. In a flashback we see her lying comatose in the hospital following the attempted murder. What follows is disgustingly vile and cruel and if that’s the desired effect I guess it works. For me it felt like needless torturing of a character who already possesses a strong enough motive to fuel her thirst for revenge.

Aside from that slight foray into repugnancy, Tarantino keeps his eyes on the road. Things get really nutty in the final third and I say that as the highest compliment. The spaghetti western and kung fu influences take over and Tarantino loses himself in a hyper-violent collage of carnage. Amid the sprays of blood and severed limbs is a fascinating array of visual flair, a motley blend of music, and one intensely effective Hattori Hanzo Samurai sword. It’s a hyper-homage in its truest form but with plenty of individuality from a filmmaker truly in love with what he is creating.

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When looking at the acting you almost need an entirely new measuring stick. Each performance leans on rich personality and an intense yet graceful physicality far more than simple line delivery. Uma Thurman is the perfect choice to carry the workload. She’s strong, steely, and as expressive as she is committed. Compare that with the lethal elegance of Lucy Liu’s O-Ren Ishii, tops on the Bride’s hit-list, second on Tarantino’s manic timeline. Or Vivica Fox’s more volatile Vernita Green (aka Copperhead). Both offer really fun supporting turns.

“Kill Bill: Vol. 1” ends on a rousing note, setting the table for the inevitable Vol. 2 (hint: it takes the Bride more than one movie to get through her entire hit-list). It’s a fitting ending for a movie that revels in pulpy, old-school escapism. Tarantino runs wild showing an unquenchable love for genre filmmaking and an almost callous disregard for the squeamish. The result is a sensationally bloody revenge yarn full of cinematic wizardry and driven by a filmmaker’s insatiable appetite for the movies he grew up with. To be honest, it’s astonishing that this kind of crazy throwback even exists.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Kid” (2019)

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Vincent D’Onofrio’s “The Kid” is a fresh venture across some well-traveled cinematic territory. Over the years we’ve seen the legend of Billy the Kid explored through numerous movies and television shows. D’Onofrio doesn’t so much retell William H. Bonney’s story as he does intersect with it.

“The Kid” puts its main focus on a young boy named Rio (Jake Schur). In the opening scene we see him and his older sister Sara (Leila George) fleeing their home. Rio has shot and killed his abusive father and his equally violent uncle (a rather menacing Chris Pratt) wants revenge for his brother’s death.

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The siblings cross paths with the notorious Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan) who sees shades of himself in Rio and promises to keep the two safe. But in no time the dogged Sheriff Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke) sweeps in and takes them all into custody. Pat and his men intend to get Billy to Lincoln, New Mexico to pay for his crimes. The opportunistic Billy keeps his eyes open for any chance to escape.

While their game of cat-and-mouse plays out, the film’s centerpiece (Rio) is forced to decide what kind of man he’s going to be. So amid a slew of western violence and oneupmanship, an unexpected coming-of-age story springs up. Does Rio follow the path of the charismatic outlaw or the principled lawman?

The story was conceived by D’Onofrio and screenwriter Andrew Lanham. The bulk of it is told through Rio’s eyes as his innocence is steadily being chiseled away. The two influences in front of him couldn’t be more different and watching him wrestle with both adds an interesting and unexpected twist. It keeps the whole thing from being yet another telling of Billy the Kid’s story.

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But I don’t want to shortchange the Billy vs. Pat angle. It will certainly be familiar for many and D’Onofrio doesn’t bring much new too it. But it’s still fun to watch mainly due to the performances given by DeHaan and Hawke. I’ve long struggled to fully embrace DeHaan as an actor but this is definitely a step in the right direction. He has always had a hard-to-define screen presence and it actually works really well here. Hawke on the other hand gives another rock solid showing, continuing a streak of great performances that have become his norm.

D’Onofrio frames all of this through a nicely realized western backdrop. He shows off a good eye for setting and a nice sense of the genre he’s working in. His pacing is a bit uneven at times and many won’t be able to shake the feelings that they’ve seen some of this before. But “The Kid” offers enough of a mixture of fresh and familiar to not only warrant its existence, but to provide an unorthodox and entertaining Old West experience.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Kodachrome”

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For those who aren’t photography enthusiasts or who weren’t around when taking photos was more refined than simply whipping out our phones, Kodachrome was first introduced in 1935 and became one of the earliest color films to be commercially successful. It quickly became the preferred choice for both still photography and cinematography before succumbing to digital in 2010.

So why am I talking about photography? It happens to be a key plot device in the father/son road trip drama “Kodachrome”. In this Netflix Original film Ed Harris plays Benjamin Ryder an accomplished photographer who is dying of cancer. His last wish is to carry some of his recently discovered early film to Parsons, Kansas where the last Kodachrome development lab in the world is preparing to shut its doors. His health doesn’t permit him to fly so he sends his nurse/assistant Zooey (Elizabeth Olsen) to recruit his estranged son Matt (Jason Sudeikis) to drive him.

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That quickly proves to be easier said than done. Matt, a struggling record company executive and recent divorcee, has nothing but disdain for his father who ran out on him and his now deceased mother. But he is eventually persuaded by Ben’s manager (Dennis Haysbert) to make the uncomfortable and at times toxic 2,000 mile trip with his dad and Zooey.

This is writer Jonathan Tropper’s second feature film script (his first being 2014’s “This is Where I Leave You”). He works with director Mark Raso to build a deeply character-centered story around a very familiar premise. The pair lean heavily on their actors, the always reliable Harris and Olsen and the surprisingly strong Sudeikis. The performances are genuine and the writing so sincere that it’s easy to look past the fact that we know where things are heading.

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Predictably the film deals with the themes of death and reconciliation, but it doesn’t plow a straight and easy row. Ben doesn’t allow much room for sympathy and the story doesn’t provide him with an easy way out of how we (the audience) perceive him. Look no further than his toxic and often bruising back-and-forths with Matt. This is perhaps best realized when they make an unannounced stop to see Ben’s (also estranged) brother and sister-in-law (played really well by Bruce Greenwood and Wendy Crewson). Let’s just say it unearths yet another unflattering side of Ben.

I think some have mislabeled “Kodachrome” by considering it a comedy when I found it to be far from that. It’s equal parts family drama and character study with maybe a pinch of black comedy. From the very start the familiar story structure appears routine and the movie never quite shakes that feeling. But with three well developed central characters and top-notch performances behind them, “Kodachrome” is able to do the single most essential thing in a movie like this – make us care.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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Blind Spot Review: “The King of Comedy”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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