REVIEW: “Leave No Trace” (2018)

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It’s hard to believe it has been eight years since director Debra Granik’s last narrative feature. That movie was “Winter’s Bone” and it portrayed a distinct slice of America as foreign to most people as a distant alien planet. Her latest is “Leave No Trace” and while not nearly as grim as her previous film, it’s a movie that once again explores a segment of our population on the fringes.

Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini base their script on Peter Rock’s 2009 novel “My Abandonment”. It tells the story of a father and daughter living off the grid in a National Forest outside Portland, Oregon (beautifully visualized through Michael McDonough’s camera). Ben Foster gives the performance of his career as Will, a beaten-down veteran and father to his 13-year-old daughter Tom. She’s played by New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie, a relatively fresh new face who matches Foster’s brilliance scene for scene.

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With the exception of necessary trips into the city for supplies and to pick up Will’s check from the VA, the pair survive off the land. By nearly every societal standard they are homeless (as a case worker later explains “It’s not a crime to be unhoused, but it’s illegal to live on public land”), but for Will living on their own provides his only sense of freedom. Foster is known for playing intense characters on the edge, but here he so naturally falls into the role with a quietness and restraint that conveys a surprising amount of insight into his character.

Take Will’s struggles with PTSD. He’s haunted by nightmares and flashbacks but we never see any of them, only the effects. Ultimately it’s up to Foster to show the weight of the trauma. It’s a tricky role that the seasoned actor nails.

The story takes a significant shift when Will and Tom are discovered and taken into custody. They are met with compassion and given a place to stay. For Tom this opens up the possibility for stability, to make friends, and to be part of a community (something Granik has a true knack for portraying). Will attempts to adapt but ultimately feels smothered in society’s cage. For the rest of the way the film wrestles with the idea of ‘home’ and what that means to both Will and Tom.

I’ve read some comparisons, but this is no “Captain Fantastic” scenario. If you remember, in that film Viggo Mortensen raises his family to the wilderness as a hippie’s statement against the evils of modern culture. “Stick it to the man!” was their battle cry. There is none of that in “Leave No Trace”. Will has no idealistic stand he’s making. He loves his daughter and is raising her the best way he knows how. The movie makes no harsh judgements on him, but Tom is our conduit and her experience brings us to some inevitable conclusions. She loves her father and wants to be with him. But she’s also becoming her own person. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes Tom lovingly tells her father “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.”

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Much like she did for Vera Farmiga in 2004 (“Down to the Bone”) and Jennifer Lawrence in 2010 (“Winter’s Bone”), Debra Granik has developed a star-making role for Thomasin McKenzie. The young actress is such a vital piece of the movie – gentle and earnest but with a quiet strength. And you won’t catch a false line in her entire performance. Every soft-spoken word comes from a place of pure sincerity. She’s really good and this is a name you’ll be hearing a lot of.

“Leave No Trace” struck a chord with me early and I could feel its emotional tug all the way till the end. It’s not a movie deeply concerned with plot. Instead it is all about character. Granik’s biggest investment is in creating two people we can care about and can connect with. Maybe not with their specific circumstances but on a deeper human level (while subtly opening some eyes along the way). It certainly worked for me.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Logan Lucky”

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You could argue that Steven Soderbergh is the architect of the modern heist film. Look no further than his hit movie “Ocean’s Eleven”. In that 2001 remake Soderbergh pretty much wrote his own set of rules for a heist flick and would follow them through two sequels. Now years later he returns with “Logan Lucky”, a working class version of the “Ocean’s” formula, less focused on being cool and more on straight southern-fried humor.

Channing Tatum (an actor I have steadily warmed up to) plays Jimmy Logan, a down-on-his-luck blue collar construction worker who loses his job at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Soon after, Jimmy learns that his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) and her slug of a husband Moody (played with just the right amount of macho slime by David Denman) plan to move to Lynchburg making it harder for Jimmy to see his daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie).

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Tatum’s performance is funny in a number of ways. One is in how he reacts to all of his bad luck (referenced several times in the film as the ‘Logan Hex’). He takes everything in stride, never getting worked up. But he doesn’t sit around and take it. You could say he’s a man of action. So needing money in order to stay closer to Sadie, Jimmy concocts an elaborate plan to rob the speedway. But he’s going to need a crew.

First he recruits his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), an Iraq war veteran and bartender with a prosthetic hand, and his hairdresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough). Needing someone experienced with vaults they contact the currently in-car-cer-ated Joe Bang. He’s played by Daniel Craig channeling something far different than his dapper James Bond persona. Joe’s two numbskull brothers (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid) join in to fill out the wacky team.

Several other names round off the cast – Sebastian Stan, Dwight Yoakam, Katherine Waterston. And then there are a couple who don’t quite fit. Seth MacFarlane plays a scumbag NASCAR team owner with a bad British accent and an even worse wig. Not sure what he’s going for but it doesn’t work. And then there is Hillary Swank as a not so hot on the trail FBI agent. Swank’s performance is hard to interpret and feels out of tune with the rest of the film. Thankfully both are smaller roles and are easy to look past, but they do stand out.

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This zany bunch of country folk is a far cry from Danny Ocean’s good-looking and snazzy dressed band of burglars. That’s part of the fun. In many ways Soderbergh is spoofing his own “Ocean’s” trilogy and has a lot of fun doing it. You can’t help but notice similarities in the two story structures, but “Logan Lucky” adds its own unique twist and is by far the broader comedy.

Out of the blue newcomer Rebecca Blunt is credited with the screenplay but there is a catch. Many say Rebecca Blunt doesn’t exist. No one can seem to find her. Some believe it’s a pseudonym for Soderbergh himself. Others have speculated that Soderbergh’s wife, former E! personality Jules Asner, is the real screenwriter. This weird little mystery surrounding Rebecca Blunt seems only fitting for such weird little movie. Whoever wrote it deserves some attention for dishing out a fun madcap caper with big personalities and even bigger laughs. Toss in that Soderbergh flavor and an all-in cast and you have one of last year’s funniest movies.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Logan”

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It could be argued that Hugh Jackman as Wolverine has been the best bit of superhero casting since this wave of comic book movies started in 2000. Not only does Jackman keenly capture the adamantium-clawed mutant’s look and personality, but he’s been incredibly committed to fleshing out the character through the good movies and even the rotten ones.

“Logan” is the tenth actual X-Men movie and the third Wolverine solo adventure behind 2009’s abysmal “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and 2013’s surprisingly good “The Wolverine” directed by James Mangold. Mangold returns to direct “Logan” based on a story he began writing following the previous film. After some rather cryptic messaging it was confirmed that “Logan” would be Jackman’s final turn as Wolverine. The star worked closely in development even taking a pay cut to ensure an R-rating, something he and Mangold felt was imperative to the character’s final violent chapter.

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“Logan” could easily be categorized as a superhero western and the influences are everywhere. “Shane” and “Unforgiven” instantly came to mind and readers of the original “Old Man Logan” comic book series will see a handful of similarities.

The film is set in 2029 and there have been no new mutants in 25 years. Logan has been off the grid, making money as a limo driver in El Paso, Texas. He has aged and his body is showing it. The claws don’t pop like they used to, his eye sight is failing, and his healing factor isn’t as effective. Essentially the adamantium inside of him is taking its toll.

He uses the money he makes to take care of his old friend and mentor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) who is kept hidden in an old dilapidated factory just across the US/Mexico border. The ailing Charles is suffering from a form of Alzheimer’s which causes devastating psychic seizures if left unmedicated. Caliban (Stephen Merchant), an albino mutant tracker, helps as a caretaker for Charles while Logan is away.

While on the job Logan is approached by a woman beseeching him to take 11 year-old Laura (a fabulous Dafne Keen) away. She tells him of Transigen, an illegal bioengineering lab doing mutant experiments on children. Laura is one of many children set free by nurses but now being tracked for extermination by Transigen. Logan wants no part of it but when events bring Laura and her trackers to his hideout in Mexico a violent exchange ensues and he sees first-hand why Laura is so ‘special’. With Xavier’s prodding they take off with Laura, Transigen not far behind.

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“Logan” is an interesting stew. Fans of the character will find plenty to like as he is let off the proverbial leash in terms of violence. The feral nature of it is fitting in most cases, but there are times when the movie seems to be saying “Look, we’re doing an R-Rated Wolverine picture.” And I would be lying if I didn’t mention a conflict in the handling of the violence. There is an interesting theme on the nature of violence that runs throughout the film. Logan wants no part of it. He tries to abstain from it. His body is breaking down because of it. He’s shown to be mentally scarred from it. He warns Laura away from it even saying “Don’t be what they made you to be.” But while offering this compelling angle on violence, the movie sometimes relishes in its depiction of it. It’s not a big problem but it does mute the film’s message a bit.

You could say “Logan” becomes a road trip movie and along the way we learn that this isn’t a traditional superhero tale. It isn’t as profoundly fresh as its press would lead you to believe, but it does tell a good story. There are no punchy jokes or one-liners. There are no colorful, larger than life characters. Mangold’s tone remains intensely serious and his characters are broken and struggling. Laura represents a glimmer of life – a reminder to Logan and Charles of what they once fought for. It’s an interesting take on the genre. And then there is Jackman who has played Wolverine for 17 years. His passion for the character is undeniable and he ends his run in a fitting and satisfying way. And Mangold’s final shot – it couldn’t be a more perfect ending.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Last Men in Aleppo”

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In early 2012 a series of bombings triggered the brutal Syrian Civil War. Some of the fiercest fighting and severest human rights violations took place in Aleppo. Over the next several years the city was decimated, its civilian death toll skyrocketed, and over 500,000 refugees fled the violence. It was once Syria’s largest city, but the war has had a dramatic effect on its standing.

Several documentaries have offered sobering insight to the Syrian Civil War. The latest (and arguably best) is Firas Fayyad’s “Last Men in Aleppo”, recently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. The film’s follows a handful of men, particularly Khalid, Mahmoud, and Subhi. The three men are leaders of the White Helmets, a group of volunteers who serve as first responders to bombings and civilian evacuations across the city.

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Fayyad’s film splits its focus between the bravery these men exhibit daily and their inner conflict between staying in Aleppo or getting out with their families. It’s a struggle that we see in some of the film’s quieter moments where Fayyad stills his camera and simply observes the heartfelt conversations these men share. Can they supply a life of normalcy for their family in Aleppo? Can they keep their family safe?

One scene potently captures these questions. Khalid takes his family to a playground where a large group has gathered for an afternoon of fun. It’s a tender reprieve from the bombings and one of the few bright moments we get. But the distant scream of a Russian jet and a radio warning of a potential attack cuts the day short. Khalid scrambles to get his family in their van and away since we learn that bigger groups of people (even civilians) are often targeted. It’s a sobering sequence.

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Then you have the intense scenes showing Khalid, Mahmoud and Subhi rushing into the chaos of fresh bombings. They lead their teams in search and rescue attempts, sifting through rubble and ash looking to save anyone they can. Fayyad’s images are raw and unflinching, highlighting the unvarnished ugliness of the attacks and the horrible civilian cost. Some of their efforts end in relief, other times horror.

The film ends with a startling reminder of the perpetual danger the city’s citizens live in and the immense sacrifice of the White Helmet volunteers. Obviously subject matter like this is hard viewing and Fayyad doesn’t cut any corners. Some sequences will leave you speechless and the final moments with undoubtedly stick with you.  There aforementioned rawness of “Last Men in Aleppo” leaves the film a little rough around the edges, but it also keeps it grounded in reality and delivers a truly eye-opening experience.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Love in the Afternoon”

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Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn. Folks, that’s all I needed to hear to be interested in 1957’s “Love in the Afternoon”. And as if I needed any more prodding, this romantic comedy was directed, produced, and co-written by the great Billy Wilder. And then to add even more personal intrigue, “Love in the Afternoon” is set in the magical city of Paris. So you have an unlikely love story filled with good humor, some really strong central performances and the City of Lights. Sounds good.

One of the first things you’ll notice when watching the film is the dramatic age difference between Cooper and Hepburn. Cooper was 55 years old at the time and there were some people who had a problem with his casting. Hepburn plays a beautiful (and much younger) girl named Ariane. She lives in Paris with her father Claude (brilliantly played by Maurice Chevalier) who works out of their home as a private investigator. Watching Hepburn and Chevalier is pure joy. They have an adorable father/daughter chemistry which shows itself in her playful curiosity about his work and his father-like encouragement of her cello playing.

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One day Ariane eavesdrops as her father reveals to a client that his wife is having a fling with a wealthy American named Frank Flannagan (Cooper). She hears the trysts are taking place in Flannagan’s hotel room and that the husband plans to kill him. The curious and adventurous Ariane decides to go warn Flannagan of his upcoming demise. In doing so she finds herself smitten by the millionaire playboy’s charm. Her innocence and inexperience with love creates new feelings within her. On the other hand Ariane is initially just another victim of Flannagan’s globetrotting womanizing. But she leaves him in the dark about many things including her name and her far-fetched tales of her many boyfriends intrigues him. But is that enough to cure him of his playboy ways?

Wilder does a great job of getting us to love Hepburn and her character. She instantly comes off as pure and sweet and her childlike curiosity is adorable. That’s one reason we dislike Gary Cooper and his Flannagan character. We see that she is enamored with him but he sees her as just another toy. We genuinely worry for her as this unusual story plays out. But Wilder also shows that she’s not just a child with a bout of puppy love. She’s clever and, as Flannagan finds out, she can be abstruse. All of this is key to developing what is a well conceived love story.

This was the first of many screenplay collaborations between Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. As you would expect from anything that Wilder has a hand in writing, the dialogue is slick and smart and his two lead actors handle it nicely. Hepburn was Wilder’s one and only choice to play Ariane but he wanted Cary Grant to play Flannagan. Grant turned down the role (as he did with several other Wilder offerings) which opened the door for Cooper. I admit, Cooper was an unusual choice and at first I wondered if he was going to fit. But as things move along, I think he captures what the role calls for.

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The film also features some good bits of humor. The dialogue itself can be quite funny and there are several running gags that become pretty outrageous. There’s a hilarious reoccurring bit with gypsy musicians who Flannagan pays to play for him whenever he has a woman over. But we later see them popping up in some of the most absurd locations. It’s very funny. I also have to again mention the fun moments between Hepburn and Chevalier. She is her usual peppy and sprightly self. But Chevalier is a real scene stealer and for me some of the best moments featured him on screen.

“Love in the Afternoon” is a movie I’m glad I finally caught up with. This is another energetic and intelligent Wilder film that hits the romance and humor it shoots for. “Love in the Afternoon” may not be up there with the great romantic comedies of its time, but it’s still a solid film featuring a wonderful cast, beautiful Paris locations, and a smart director who has no problem putting all of his pieces together.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Lady Bird”

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Over the years Greta Gerwig has shown herself to be much more than simply Noah Baumbach’s muse. That unfair moniker does a disservice to her talents and accomplishments as an actress and co-writer. With her new film “Lady Bird” she can now add director to that list.

Speaking of unfair, for some “Lady Bird” is burdened by expectations it can’t possible meet. Adoring fans have been passionately shouting its praises since it debuted in September at the Telluride Film Festival. “Lady Bird” made news headlines everywhere after Rotten Tomatoes declared it to be the “Best Reviewed Movie of All Time”. No pressure.

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I’ve got good news for those who can go see “Lady Bird” openly and unaffected by the hype. It’s a good movie. It has some issues which I’ll get into, but ultimately it reveals yet another side of Gerwig, this time completely behind the camera. “Lady Bird” shows her to be much more attuned to the art of filmmaking than many first-time directors. She’s nimble and assured of what she wants from each scene and the film benefits from her understanding and confidence.

Gerwig began writing the script years ago (the full writing credit is hers) under the name “Mothers and Daughters”. The story’s framework is inspired by her own life growing up in Sacramento, attending a Catholic High School, and desperately longing to leave for the east coast. That is also the film’s main character, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. She’s played by Saoirse Ronan, an Oscar nominee for “Brooklyn” and the perfect canvas for this movie both physically and expressively.

Gerwig’s coming-of-age story is unique in that its interests are internal and personal. Its narrative centerpiece isn’t the tired ‘girl likes boy, girl gets boy’ plot line. Similar to Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”, “Lady Bird” deals more with the experience of life and the various elements outside of this young girl’s control that shape her experience. Lady Bird navigates these sometimes turbulent waters while seeking out her own identity and trying to define “her best self”.

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Ronan personifies Gerwig’s vision in what could be called a case study of adolescence (and not the Hollywood version). She effortlessly moves from fireball to introvert and few can sell insecurity quite like Ronan. It’s realized through her many interactions including with her best friend (played in just the right tone by Beanie Feldstein). Mostly it’s in the scenes with her family particularly her deeply caring but passive-aggressive mother. She’s played by Laurie Metcalf who delivers one of the year’s best supporting performances.

Ronan and Metcalf have a staggering chemistry and Gerwig utilizes it in every scene they share. You could say this is a mother who loves her daughter to a fault. She’s a remarkably true yet complex person who one character describes as “warm but also kinda scary”. Lady Bird rebels in her own quirky way but you also see the longing she has for her mother’s acceptance. Look no further than the movie’s superb opening scene. Gerwig’s dialogue for the two is so precise and their relationship forms the emotional backbone of the entire film.

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As good as the writing often is there are a couple of characters who feel surprisingly conventional. One is the Danny character, well played by Lucas Hedges, but hampered by the tidy and predictable thread that runs throughout his story. Also there is Lady Bird’s father played by Tracy Letts. His daddy archetype has been seen from “Sixteen Candles” to “Brave”. Don’t get me wrong, Letts is fantastic and contributes to some of the film’s best scenes. But his father character feels too familiar and easy to read which is surprising in a movie rich with wonderfully-conceived characters.

In a fabulous interview with Rolling Stone, Gerwig said “I just don’t feel like I’ve seen very many movies about 17-year-old girls where the question is not, ‘Will she find the right guy’ or ‘Will he find her?’ The question should be: ‘Is she going to occupy her personhood?’ Because I think we’re very unused to seeing female characters, particularly young female characters, as people.” This approach from Gerwig is what makes “Lady Bird” such a good movie. Its 2002 post-911 setting feels relevant, its portrait of adolescence feels genuine and personal, and its pitch-perfect and bittersweet final shot lands just right. I can understand the adoration especially from women who see reflections of their own mother/daughter relationships. The film has that kind of powerful resonance, but also expect to enjoy some good laughs along the way.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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