REVIEW: “Maudie”

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The heart-wrenching yet inspirational true story of folk artist Maud Lewis seems tailor-made for the movie biopic treatment. At the same time it’s a type of story that demands a sensitive and sure-handed approach. There are several examples of films that lost themselves in sentimentality and showiness when attempting to work with similar material.

Aisling Walsh’s “Maudie” falls for none of those trappings. The Irish director’s deftly handled portrait resembles one of Maud’s paintings in that it keeps things simple. At the same time Walsh never compromises the genuine emotion inextricably linked to Maud’s life and she utilizes two phenomenal performances to fill in the details.

Sherry White’s patient, poignant script features a clear-eyed focus on Maud’s unique relationship with a local fish peddler named Everett Lewis . White and Walsh want us in the role of observer, not so much on any extensive plotting, but on these two characters and their fascinating relationship which emotionally ranges from heart-crushing to uplifting.

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Sally Hawkins takes on the title role and gives a performance that should light up the eyes of Academy voters. Hawkins vanishes into her character and fearlessly tackles the challenges of portraying Maud’s frail body, soft voice, and irrepressible positive spirit. Hawkins captures both the debilitating nature of Maud’s rheumatoid arthritis and well as the her wide-eyed optimism and ability to see the good in the harsh world surrounding her.

We first see Maud cast off by her brother to live with her curmudgeon of an aunt in 1930s small town Nova Scotia. She sees a means of escape when Everett Lewis, a local fish peddler and jack of all trades, places a “Help Wanted” advertisement for a housekeeper. He’s played with a wheelbarrow load of grumbling temperamental snarl by Ethan Hawke. It’s another great performance from Hawke who continues to extend himself as an actor.

He eventually hires Maud as the live-in maid for his tiny one-room shack (minus the tinier loft upstairs). Everett is a tough nut to crack – a socially dysfuctional recluse who is terrified at the very idea of loving. This leads to some moments of uncomfortable cruelty often spawned from his “King of my Castle” mentality (In one particularly cruel scene Everett berates Maud letting her know she falls below his dogs and chickens in the house pecking order). But it also comes from Everett’s own awkwardness and osctracism – a bond he shares with Maud.

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As their unconventional relationship takes a new form Maud begins to express herself through painting – on postcards, on wood planks, even on the walls of their shack. After an art-loving New Yorker (Kari Matchett) takes a liking to her paintings word quickly spreads and soon people from all over are travelling to see the little house and Maud’s artwork.

Regardless of how it may sound, this isn’t a rags-to-riches story. In fact, despite making money from her paintings, Maud and Everett lived for in their “Little House” for over 30 years. It now sits on display in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Instead this is a quirky but uplifting love story ripe with inspiring life lessons – that beauty lies in the simplest of things; that genuine contentment can often lead to genuine happiness; that true love can be found in the most unexpected places – just to name a few.

Simply put “Maudie” is a delight. It is a life-affirming movie that feels both tragic and beautiful. Guy Godfree’s cinematography is superb framing shot after shot as if they were settled on a canvas. The Michael Timmins score is simple, fitting, and never manipulative. And of course White’s script and Walsh’s direction. But it all comes back to the two lead performers particularly Sally Hawkins. She brings this lovely soul to life with such heart and vivid detail. It’s a performance certain to leave an impression on any viewer and I can guarantee that by the end you will want to know more about Maud Lewis.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

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REVIEW: “Macbeth”

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Easily one of William Shakespeare’s most renowned plays, “Macbeth” is believed to have been first performed 1606. Since then it has been adapted to nearly every form of media. The tragedy deals with several themes but at its core it examines unbridled ambition and the destruction it brings if unchecked.

Director Justin Kurzel along with a trio of screenwriters and a fantastic supporting cast begin their telling with a couple of notable deviations from the Bard’s classic text. The first is the opening scene – a haunting overhead shot of a deceased young child in a straw bassinet laying upon a funeral pyre. The infant is surrounded by loved ones shrouded in black including the child’s grieving parents Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard).

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Shakespeare alludes to the Macbeth’s loss of a child, but Kurzel focuses on it as an entry point to their story. It’s significant in that it adds another layer (a far more penetrating one) to the couple aside from the lust for power that eventually consumes them. Here we see the sorrow of such a loss emphasized and for the Macbeth’s the wounds never fully heal. It’s an effective focus for the story.

Another deviation is that Kurzel shows the final battle sequence spoken of by Shakespeare. Still mourning the death of his young son, we see Macbeth on the battlefield preparing his ragtag group for what’s ahead. Among his soldiers is a young boy, undoubtedly a reminder of his own. Macbeth leads his band to victory but there are heavy casualties. During this sequence we see Macbeth as a mighty soldier but war has clearly taken its toll. Fassbender’s eyes do wonders in revealing the fragility hidden underneath the rugged exterior. This is another key defining point to what lies ahead.

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While still on the battlefield Macbeth and his chief ally Banquo (Paddy Considine) encounter three witches (possibly five depending on your interpretation) wandering and observing through the post-battle haze. The witches prophesy that Macbeth with soon be Thane of Cawdor and eventually King of Scotland. Banquo is told he will be a “father of Kings”. Later the sitting ruler King Duncan (David Thewlis) arrives and determines the Thane of Cawdor to be a traitor. Due to his success in battle Macbeth is given the position seemingly verifying the witches’ prophesy.

Upon hearing this Lady Macbeth begins feeding her husband’s hunger for power. Cotillard has a magnificent presence both as a manipulative and devious conniver and as a grief-stricken mother. Again, the film’s opening scene adds this welcomed bit of nuance and it is something that haunts her character throughout the movie.

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The ascension to power and subsequent spiral into madness is skillfully handled. Macbeth soaks in paranoia and blood. Lady Macbeth is torn by guilt and shame. Through it all Fassbender and Cottilard shine. They both are so keenly in tune with their characters and the unique period dialogue they are given. Visually, stylish flairs are found all through the film. They drive the mood and superbly capture a cold, muddy medieval Scotland.

The true tragedy of this story doesn’t simply lie with the Macbeths. The greater tragedy is how the consequences of their actions shake the entirety of Scotland to its core. Kurzel keenly explores the classic tale while offering a few of his own original twists. Literary purists may be put off by this, but it kept me mesmerized from its heart-shattering opening scene, through a couple of slow patches, and right up to its slightly nihilistic ending. I say nihilistic but like much of the film, I guess it’s all in the interpretation.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Mummy” (2017)

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One of the most popular (and priciest) trends in today’s movie culture is the shared cinematic universe. Easily the biggest belongs to Marvel Studios. DC Films is following behind them. And then outside of the superhero genre you have 2014’s “Godzilla” and this year’s  “Kong: Skull Island”, the first two films in Legendary’s MonsterVerse.

The more recent entry into this craze comes from Universal Pictures. It’s called the Dark Universe and it’s meant to be a shared-world revitalization of the classic Universal monsters. Some couldn’t care less. As a fan of those great oldies I was anxious to see what they would come up with.

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“The Mummy” is the first film to get the reboot treatment and serves as the launching point for the Dark Universe. It’s essentially an origin story but one that doesn’t resemble either the Boris Karloff classic or the more fun-loving Brendan Fraser films. It’s definitely its own thing but defining it beyond that isn’t that easy. Is it an action movie? Is it a horror movie? Is it a Tom Cruise vehicle? Yes to each but especially the third.

Cruise is clearly the centerpiece which works for and against the film. I still like him as an actor and he brings an unquestionable star power to the movie. On the other hand maintaining that star power sometimes outshines everything else. His character resembles roles he has played variations of in other films and he is intent to stick with that type. So much so that when this particular character flirts with some interesting new directions he never goes all the way.

After an obligatory prologue the film introduces us to Cruise’s character Nick. He’s a sergeant with the U.S. military who has a side gig as a soldier of fortune. He and his stereotypical sidekick (played by Jake Johnson) nab artifacts and sell them on the black market. While in Iraq the two stumble across the ancient tomb of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), an Egyptian princess who sold her soul to Set, the God of Death (see the aforementioned obligatory prologue). They extract the sarcophagus with the help of Jennifer Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) a spirited archeologist and Cruise love interest.

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As you can guess they manage to release Ahmanet (aka the Mummy) and computer-generated death and destruction follow. Nick becomes her conduit, Russell Crowe pops up as Dr. Henry Jekyll, Cruise gets a running scene, and a not-so-likely sequel is set up. Here’s the thing, in between that titillating synopsis are moments of good ol’ corny fun. And there are a couple of action sequences that are pretty exciting. But there is just as much that doesn’t work – the goofy humor, a bad ‘return from the dead’ angle inspired by “An American Werewolf in London”, and any attempt at romantic tension.

In the end “The Mummy” is a generic middle-of-the-road movie. I don’t think it’s as bad as many critics say and it’s certainly not as good as a studio would want. It simply has no true identity. It’s all over the map in terms of tone and quality. With big names already signed up for Dark Universe installments – Javier Bardem’s Frankenstein, Johnny Depp’s The Invisible Man, Angelina Jolie’s (rumored) Bride of Frankenstein – it’s clear Universal has big plans. You would think the franchise launching point would be given a little more attention.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Magnificent Seven” (2016)

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It’s no surprise that Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua would work together again on a new project. They certainly struck gold with the popular and the acclaimed “Training Day”. But I have to admit I was a bit surprised at their latest creative endeavor. I’m not sure why though. After all this is the age of remakes, reboots, reimaginings, re-everything else.

Their newest collaboration is “The Magnificent Seven”, a modern action crowdpleaser anchored by a fun ensemble cast. The original 1960 Western classic was based on Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Seven Samurai”. This updated film tends to pull further away from its roots but never so far as to lose its identity. It embraces the basics of the story while adding in a few details of its own. And as expected it attempts to do everything bigger most notably the furious wild western action.

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If you haven’t seen the 1960 Western, Yul Brynner led a hired band of misfits to protect a small Mexican village from a gang of violent bandits. In Fuqua’s version the Mexican village is exchanged for a small mining town named Rose Creek and Peter Sarsgaard’s Bogue  is the vile industrialist terrorizing them. Washington takes Brynner’s spot. He plays Sam Chisolm who is approached by a young woman from Rose Creek (Haley Bennett) seeking help.

Sam agrees but first he’ll need a team of gunfighters to train the townsfolk and lead the defense against Bogue and his gang. His merry band of wild west outcasts includes a boozing gambler (Chris Pratt), an ex-confederate sharpshooter (Ethan Hawke), a deadly assassin (Byung-hun Lee), a wanted Mexican bandit (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a big burly tracker (Vincent D’Onofrio), and a disillusioned Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier).

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Fuqua, screenwriters Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk do a good job of building a fun camaraderie between their characters. It’s one of the film’s key ingredients since it genuinely wants to be a buddy-cowboy picture. There is plenty of playful banter, ribbing, and jests but never too much. That’s because it’s also aiming for something more – an old school western.

Watching the movie I couldn’t help but feel a little bit nostalgic. Fuqua tips his Stetson to a number of classic western angles both narratively and visually. His use of the camera is fantastic (great cinematography from another “Training Day” alumni Mauro Fiore) and the score features some of the last work of the late great James Horner. And you’ll clearly notice Fuqua channeling from an assortment of western directors from John Ford to Sergio Leone.

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Expect some fierce and energetic action especially in the inevitable final showdown (which is especially fun). Following a familiar blueprint each character is given their moment to show off their gun-twirling, knife throwing, or dynamite-chunking. What you won’t see is any deeper sense of emotional struggle between these characters. We get glimpses of it especially from one specific character but never enough to divert it from its clear desire to be a straightforward action film.

That leaves “The Magnificent Seven” open to reasonable criticism. It’s not a deep contemplative character study or emotionally heavy drama. It certainly misses some opportunities to incorporate those elements which may have made it a better film. But I’m fine with it since that isn’t what this film is aiming to be. It’s an action romp and Denzel and company pull it off nicely. They are clearly having a blast doing it and I must say I did too.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Mustang”

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“Mustang” begins innocently enough. The school day ends for five orphaned sisters. The youngest girl and the film’s main protagonist Lale (played by Gunes Sensoy) is giving a teary-eyed goodbye to her favorite teacher who is leaving their small Turkish village for Istanbul. On the way home the five girls take a detour and have playful outing in the sea with some local boys.

But co-writer and first time director Deniz Gamze Ergüven wastes no time peeling back the many complex layers to her story. The townsfolk believe the girls to be unruly and promiscuous and are quick to judge their swim with the boys. By the time they get home their grandmother and guardian (Nihal Koldaş) has heard the neighbors’ salacious rumors and physically punishes the girls despite their pleas of innocence.

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That opening event sets the table for the film’s main idea – five young sisters coming of age in a hyper-conservative, religiously stringent home. With each conflict their home becomes more of a prison both literally and figuratively. Ergüven’s honest portrayal doesn’t skirt around the physical and emotional hardships each girl experiences. We still get those playful and warm moments between them, but we are quickly reminded of how painfully serious and heart-wrenching their situation is.

One thing “Mustang” does so well is give all five sisters their own identity. This works thanks to great attention to personal detail in the writing and fantastic performances all around. Lale is the youngest and serves as our eyes and ears. Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu) is a fireball and closest to Lale’s age. Ece (Elit İşcan) is the sister who often languishes in her middle child status. Next is Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan) the rebellious one who sneaks out of the house with no regard of consequence. And last is Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu) the quiet and reserved one who as the oldest girl faces the brunt of punishment.

So many variables factor into the lives these girls are forced to live. The village’s strict religious tradition strips the girls of nearly every youthful experience they long for. It may be a trip to a soccer match or simply falling in love. Their vile uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) is even worse – verbally berating them, subjecting them to medical virginity tests, barring their windows, and in some instances far worse.

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“Mustang” can be intensely uncomfortable and its bleakness often clouds any hint of optimism. But Ergüven never abandons hope. In many ways “Mustang” is a celebration of the youthful spirit and spotlights the longing for personal freedom and independence. That is what kept me glued to the story and emotionally bound to these young girls. That is what would sadden me in one scene and then have me laughing out loud a few scenes later.

Few movies have held my heart in its hands like “Mustang”. As the film moved forward I found my affections for the five girls growing. As a result I experienced joy, sympathy, shock, outrage, despair, and hope, all within Ergüven’s dramatic scope. “Mustang” is earnest, authentic, and brave enough to challenge specific social norms without a heavy hand. But it always comes back to five young girls desperate to experience life. That focus is what made “Mustang” such an extraordinary film.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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5STAR K&M

REVIEW: “The Mortal Storm”

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The global political climate was dramatically changing in 1940 especially in Europe. The Nazi machine was already wrecking havoc and the United States was a little over one year away from entering World War 2. It was during this time that “The Mortal Storm” was released. When reading up on the film I learned that this was one of few openly anti-Nazi movies to be released prior to America’s entry into the war. The film and subsequently all other MGM movies were soon banned in Germany.

“The Mortal Storm” was directed by Frank Borzage, a filmmaker I was relatively unfamiliar with but who had a lot of success during the silent era and with early talkies. Here he tackles very potent and relevant topics of the time – Naziism, the rise of Adolph Hitler and the effects these things had on families and friendships. It’s a sincere and effective adaptation of Phyllis Bottome’s 1938 novel and it’s full of passion but also tragedy.

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The film is set in 1933 and takes place in a small Bavarian town. The opening ten minutes cleverly sets up the gut punch we get later on. We’re introduced to a prominent science professor named Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan). It’s his birthday and we get a series of playful scenes revolving around that. At his home later that evening we sit in on his birthday dinner with his family and old family friend Martin (James Stewart). We see his daughter Freya (Margaret Sullivan) become engaged to the cordial and mannered Fritz (Robert Young). Everything is painted as happy and intimate.

But one radio broadcast changes that forever. During their meal it is reported that Hitler’s power has grown and the Nazi party has become the one German political party. In an instant the happy moments at the table turn tense and contentious. Fritz and Prof. Roth’s step-sons show their previously unseen support of the Nazi ideals. Martin and Prof. Roth show concern and hesitation over embracing Hitler and his direction for Germany. From there things only get worse and the once joyous and united household is torn apart by intolerance and strife.

The story takes several interesting turns including a romance angle that at first seems wantonly obvious. But the romance doesn’t smother the film’s bigger points and instead is used to serve them. It’s also interesting to see how the film tries to soften the edge of its message while still pounding it home with clarity. For example the term “Jew” is never used in the film, but Dr. Roth and others are called a “non-Aryan”. The implication is clearly there. Also the film rarely uses “German” or “Germany” in its dialogue and the setting is rarely discussed. But these things do nothing to dull the blade the film uses to cut into Naziism and a different sides of its influence.

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One of the few difficulties I had was seeing the cast as German citizens. Think about it, Jimmy Stewart, not even attempting an accent, with that distinct voice of his being a German farmer. This really stood out to me. But that doesn’t mean the performances are bad. Quite the contrary, they are fantastic. Margaret Sullavan shines as the lovely and conflicted Freya and the seasoned Frank Morgan is the beating heart of the story. Also look for a young Robert Stack playing one of Prof. Roth’s sons. It was his second film performance.

This was the last of Stewart and Sullavan’s four movies together. Shortly after the film Stewart would enlist in the military and fight during World War 2. Sullavan made only five more movies before sadly being engulfed by personal issues. Still “The Mortal Storm” is a fine reminder of their beautiful chemistry. But it’s also a gutsy film with a much stronger message than people were accustomed to hearing. And even today the film stands strong as a testament to the persuasive power of the movies.

VERDICT – 4 STARS