REVIEW: “Paris is Us” (2019)

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There are several things about the Elisabeth Vogler’s “Paris is Us” you simply can’t help but admire. Look no further than its production. Vogler shot her film over the course of three years and on a shoestring budget. Post-production was covered through a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $100,000. And to top it all off the film was picked up by streaming behemoth Netflix. That’s an encouraging story for any aspiring filmmaker.

Vogler not only directed and co-wrote “Paris is Us” but she also handled the cinematography which proves to be what the movie leans on the most. There are moments where it dazzles, bringing thoughts of a trippier “Tree of Life”. But it can also frustrate in how it sometimes muddies our ability to interpret any kind of deeper meaning. I’m also a bit conflicted on how Vogler shoots real-life city tragedies to use in the movie. More on that later.

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The film works off of a paper-thin narrative (which is funny considering there are four writing credits). Noemie Schmidt plays a lively twenty-something named Ana who lives her life fully in the moment. Her lack of ambition frustrates her boyfriend Greg (Grégoire Isvarine) who has a detailed roadmap for his life plans. It includes leaving Paris and taking a job promotion in Barcelona. He wants Ana to go with him but she is content waiting tables in Paris.

Storywise that’s pretty much the gist of it. Greg takes off on a plane for Barcelona. At the last second Ana backs out of taking a plane to join him. There is a plane crash. Is it the plane carrying Greg making this a film on grief and loss? Is it the one Ana almost boarded turning this into a study of mortality? Is it either? I lean one way but be honest I’m still not sure. I like to think the answer is there and I have yet to tap into it. But I’m not sure if the movie has enough depth to earn that reading.

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One thing is for sure, Vogler definitely wants to tinker with reality or at least our perception of it. Her film constantly has the audience questioning what is real and what isn’t. This is seen mainly through the imagery which can be beautiful and hypnotic while at other times dizzying and disorienting. And then there are the sequences shot during real-life Paris tragedies. I admit to feeling a little uneasy with how Vogler shoots her movie in the middle of these emotionally-charged moments while also seeing it as pretty bold and daring. All of it is accompanied by a heavy dose of voice-over from Ana. Some of it is essential to understanding the character and it harmonizes well with Schmidt’s melancholy. But some of it is far more lightweight than it’s trying to be.

“Paris is Us” ends up being a tricky movie to review. In terms of storytelling there’s not a lot there and even at a slender 83 minutes it seems to be stretching itself as far as it possibly can. But I admit to being intrigued by the entire film. Perhaps it’s the compulsion to believe (right or wrong) that there is a lot more going on under the surface. I also like how it had me questioning almost everything I was seeing (even their relationship – real, a recollection, or an all-out dream). But this kind of movie isn’t easy to pull off, and I think “Paris is Us” shows off both the strengths and difficulties.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “Paddleton”

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I always have time for a Mark Duplass movie. And while not all of his films land as firmly as they could, the ones that do always manage to pull me in. I’ve always appreciated his aversion to big Hollywood formula. His movies operate on a small budget, tend to be short but economical, and usually have a warm and intimate center. That definitely holds true for his latest (and the first film in his new exclusive deal with Netflix) “Paddleton”.

The movie begins with Michael (Mark Duplass) getting test results from his doctor which reveal a large mass in his stomach. His fears are proven true after seeing an oncologist – he has terminal cancer. Unable to bear the thought of hospitals, radiation and side effects, he chooses a controversial alternative to chemotherapy – a prescription that essentially helps a cancer patient end their life before the disease does.

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Michael seeks the help of his neighbor and best friend Andy (Ray Romano) to help him go through with it. The buddies are like two peas in a pod – kinda homely and a tad eccentric. They have longstanding traditions of watching Kung fu movies, cooking pizzas, and putting together puzzles. Oh, and then there’s Paddleton, a racquetball-like game they made up and play together at an abandoned drive-in theater.

The closest pharmacy willing to fill the prescription is in a small tourist town some six hours away. So Michael and Andy head out on a road trip made up of quirky conversations, an ostrich farm, a dryly hilarious pharmacist named David (Kadeem Hardison) and meditations on their favorite movie “Death Punch”. But more importantly it opens up these two characters and the endearing and routinely funny friendship at the core of the film.

Romano is just the right fit to play Andy, an insecure worrywart by nature with a disdain for smalltalk (and for David), yet he’s undeniably tender-hearted and quietly devastated by his friend’s plight. Duplass is just as good playing a variation of the comedy straight man. His Michael is a tad more level-headed but not without his own peculiarities.

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Duplass and Romano have a sharp, witty chemistry and what makes it stand out most is their improvisation. Duplass’ script offers plenty of room for the two stars to play off each other and director Alex Lehmann is smart enough to let them. It’s not surprising since Duplass and Lehmann did the same thing in 2016’s “Blue Jay”, an underseen drama/comedy featuring its own healthy dose of improv.

The film’s early playfulness all but disappears in its final 20 minutes as “Paddleton” blindsided us with an emotionally earnest and deeply affecting ending. It left me looking at the film as a whole through an entirely different lens. I’ve seen it a second time now and the themes of loneliness, friendship, and mortality stand out even more profoundly now. I get why a lot of people won’t be as enamored with “Paddleton” as I am. But what can I say? I’m an unabashed fan of its simplicity, its humor, and its heart.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Polar” (2019)

 

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I was hoping the trashy and cringe-worthy opening to Jonas Åkerlund’s “Polar” was an exception – a simple case of a movie getting off on the wrong foot. Turns out it’s more prophecy than anomaly. It serves as a good indicator (and warning sign) of what to expect from this objectionable and utterly frustrating Netflix Original.

For much of its two-hour running time “Polar” feels like two separate movies in one. The first follows an absurd motley crew of killers as they travel across the country looking for hyper-stylized ways to murder people for Åkerlund’s camera. It’s quite vulgar and off-putting. The second focuses on a retiring assassin Duncan Vizla (Mads Mikkelsen) as he takes to a new life off the grid. He moves into a remote mountain cabin in Montana where he befriends a quiet young neighbor Camille (Vanessa Hudgens).

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These quieter moments with Duncan are promising and offer a good setup to the violence we know is on the way. Unfortunately whenever the above storylines cross paths Åkerlund ramps up the excess to ludicrous levels. He seems to operate under the mantra of ‘the bloodier and smuttier the better’ as long as you soak it all in blinding bright colors and use plenty a crafty camera angles.

Not that it matters, but the merry band of sadistic killers work for Duncan’s former boss, the embarrassingly bad antagonist Mr. Blut (Matt Lucas). He’s one of those pathetically weak and painfully dumb crime bosses who are nearly impossible to buy into. You can’t help but wonder why his many powerful male and female laptogs follow his orders like lemmings. But I digress.

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Mr. Blut wants Duncan dead so that he doesn’t have to pay the $8 million of contractually obligated retirement money. But even the dopiest crime boss should know you don’t double-cross your top assassin, especially when his nickname is “The Black Kaiser” and he’s played by Mads Mikkelsen. Katheryn Winnick plays Blut’s right-hand woman (I think) and the only person with sense enough to know that turning on Duncan is probably a bad idea.

Sadly the blaring, obnoxious part with its ramped up violence and its unabashed scuzziness smothers out the more observational and introspective part. We’re left with a movie that seems to relish the mindless bloodshed, gratuitous sex, and glaring objectification. It’s sold out on looking cool and blinding us with its ‘style’ but doesn’t consider its story or its characters. It’s a shame because Åkerlund delivers some jaw-dropping images and he casts a great lead. But Mikkelsen is too good of an actor for this. He could easily shine in this kind of role, but this relentless mess is a complete waste of his talents.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

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Blind Spot Series – “Picnic at Hanging Rock”

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I’ve always been a fan of Australian filmmaker Peter Weir. A quick scan of his filmography reveals a unique variety of movies. Just consider 1985’s “Witness”, 1989’s “Dead Poets Society”, and 1998’s “The Truman Show”. Since then Weir has made just two other films – one of my personal favorites 2003’s “Master and Commander” and 2010’s excellent “The Way Back”.

Weir was his busiest during the 1970s when he put out seven movies. Among those was his 1975 mystery-thriller “Picnic at Hanging Rock”. It’s based on a 1967 novel written by Joan Lindsay who left a cloud of uncertainty hanging over her inspiration. Was it based on true events? Did any of this really happen? Weir taps into that same sense of mystery and never tips his hand one way or the other.

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The film revolves around the mysterious disappearance of four girls. Set in 1900 Australian, the story begins at a girl’s boarding school as a group of students prepare for a Valentine’s Day outing to a nearby landmark known as Hanging Rock. They are accompanied by their math teacher Ms. McCraw (Vivean Gray) and Mlle. de Poitiers (Helen Morse). Meanwhile the school’s stern disciplinarian headmistress Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) informs the quiet, introverted Sara (Margaret Nelson) that she isn’t allow to go.

While at Hanging Rock a group of girls go exploring. They are lead by the beautiful and adventurous Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert). Much like Hanging Rock itself, there is an ethereal aura that surrounds her – an almost heavenly suggestion that contrasts with the ominous foreboding geological formation. Mlle. de Poitiers taps into her mystery when she says “Now I know. I know that Miranda is a Botticelli angel”. It’s a cryptic reference to Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. She says this as the curious girls disappear from her sight. They do not return.

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From there the film shifts to the search for the missing girls and the ripple effect it has throughout the school and community. What happened to them? Do some people know more than they are telling? Through this transition we get to know a young Englishman named Michael (Dominic Guard) who grows obsessed with the disappearance. He was among the last to see the group which raises suspicions and adds to the growing concerns of the local authorities.

The intentional ambiguity of the book certainly carries over to the film. When the novel first released it stirred quite the response. The movie rekindled it to a degree. The sheer mystery of the disappearance and the search for answers is fundamental, but Weir makes the emotional aftermath just as compelling. And whether it’s through his camera or Cliff Green’s script, the movie had me in its clutches. I fell into this beautiful nightmare and now I understand why the film is so revered.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Prodigy” (2018)

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Horror and suspense movies have certainly gotten plenty of mileage out of eerie children with powers. You could probably list several films off the top of your head that have leaned heavily into this now common horror movie device. The sci-fi psychological thriller “Prodigy” joins the long list of movies who use creepy kids to unsettle their audiences.

While the idea is familiar, “Prodigy” works because of a key decision by co-writers and co-directors Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal. They place an unexpectedly heavy emphasis on human interactions, namely between child psychologist Dr. Fonda (Richard Neil) and 9-year-old Ellie (Savannah Liles). The film’s miniscule budget may play a role, but ultimately it’s this tighter more character-driven focus that makes this a success.

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Dr. Fonda is summoned to a high-security facility by an old college friend Agent Olivia Price (Jolene Andersen). Once there he learns of Ellie, a supernaturally gifted young girl with a supreme intellect and a violent past. Ellie’s perceived sociopathic personality has led to her be deemed too big of a threat. She is scheduled to be executed and dissected for study. Despite the cynicism of her colleagues Olivia still has hope for the Ellie and Dr. Fonda is her last resort.

Haughey and Vidal boil up a good amount of tension as Fonda tries to break through Ellie’s cast iron exterior to find the humanity in the ‘monster’. Ellie expects the same contentious back-and-forth as with other doctors she has mentally chewed up and spat out. But Dr. Fonda throws her off with his open mind and unwillingness to judge her based on a case file. The cold and disconcerting Ellie is hesitant and confrontational. But if Fonda can break through he may just save her life.

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We get a handful of supporting characters who are all convinced pulling the plug is the right move. None believe the unkept and unconventional Dr. Fonda can make a dent in Ellie’s tough psyche. This is also where the movie’s biggest weaknesses shows through. Outside of Olivia none of the supporting characters have any depth whatsoever. Most are caricatures rather than authentic and interesting, not to mention a couple of the performances are pretty rough. It brings things down a notch.

“Prodigy” still manages to be a thoughtful and suspenseful thriller and does so despite its small scale and even smaller budget. I mean practically the entire film takes place in two rooms. But that shouldn’t scare you away. It manages its strengths well plus it features an outstanding performance from young Savannah Liles. Give it a look.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Proud Mary” (2018)

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From the opening credits you get a good sense of what “Proud Mary” would like to be. 70’s text effects with bursts of retro yellows and oranges all to the sounds of “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” by the Temptations. But the promise of a modern blaxploitation entry turns into a tease and “Proud Mary” goes off into much more conventional and predictable territory.

A hitwoman who goes by the name Mary (Taraji P. Henson) takes out a target only to discover he has a young son Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston). A year passes and a guilt-ridden Mary keeps tabs on Danny from a distance. He has become a runner for an abusive Boston mobster named Uncle (Xander Berkeley). When Mary finds Danny passed out in an alley her motherly instincts meet her professional killer skills. She secretly takes Danny in and offers up her own special brand of retribution on Uncle.

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Mary’s compassionate but impulsive actions inadvertently starts a gang war within the Boston underbelly. She hides her deeds from her mob kingpin mentor Benny (Danny Glover) and his headstrong son Tom (Billy Brown). But keeping things a secret proves to be a tall order especially with Tom (her persistent ex-lover) growing more suspicious. As you can probably guess Mary finds herself in quite the pickle.

“Proud Mary” is a bit of a whirlwind that manages to be both entertaining and disappointing. On the one hand you have Taraji Henson who has the look, attitude, and physicality for this role. She is able to have several good moments in spite of the script which doesn’t always serve her well. Also, you can see the framework for a much better movie, enough to keep things from getting boring.

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That leads to the other hand. While I was invested throughout the brisk 88-minute running time, the movie never seems to get out of first gear. Even the action lacks any real punch. Other odd decisions stand out. Several weird edits especially in the first half are hard to figure out. And there are some odd tonal jolts, none bigger than the film’s big action climax with Tina Turner’s rendition of the title song blaring. It doesn’t click.

And getting back to what I said earlier, the story is woefully too conventional and predictable. A new flavor of blaxploitation for modern audiences is something I could get behind. I can’t deny the allure of “Leon: The Professional” meets “Foxy Brown”. “Proud Mary” has the ingredients for it. Unfortunately it goes the more obvious route and suffers for it.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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