REVIEW: “The Wandering Earth” (2019)

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The Chinese science-fiction mega-hit “The Wandering Earth” is quite the movie. It’s a massive visual spectacle that stands as China’s second highest grossing film of all time. Just as impressive, it sits among the top 25 highest grossing science-fiction films ever made. That’s quite an accomplishment for director Frant Gwo. Now Netflix has picked up the global streaming rights making it accessible to a broader audience around the world.

“The Wandering Earth” is based on the 2000 short story by Liu Cixin. It’s set in 2061 and follows the desperate attempt of mankind to avoid having the earth incinerated by an aged and overactive sun. Scientists declare the catastrophe unavoidable and estimate the Earth will be gone in 100 years, the entire solar system in 300. Needless to say the situation is pretty grave.

So what do the citizens of earth do? Every nation joins together to initiate The Wandering Earth project. The idea is to build a huge network of massive thrusters (called Earth Engines) along the planet’s surface to essentially push the earth away from the sun and eventually out of the solar system before its all destroyed. Large underground cities are built to house a portion of the world’s population. Many of the rest die from cataclysmic tides and freezing cold, a result of the earth ceasing to rotate and pulling away from the sun.

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All of that is basically the setup for the film’s story and as you can probably tell your first and unquestionably biggest challenge will be getting past the preposterous central conceit. Let’s be honest, it’s utterly ridiculous. But Gwo and his team of seven (yes seven) writers do something kind of amazing. They make this batty and fairly basic disaster movie idea into something exciting and thoroughly entertaining.

The story is told from two different locations. The first is aboard a navigational space station where an international collection of scientists and astronauts monitor the earth’s progress as it pushes across space. Liu Peiqiang (played by Jing Wu) has been on the station for 17 years and nearing the end of his stint. His hopes are to head back to earth and pick up his relationship with his son Liu Qi who was 4-years-old when his father left on his mission.

On earth an irreverent Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao) and his adopted sister Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai) sneak their way to the surface by using their grandfather’s security clearance. Their mischievous antics lead to them being arrested and thrown into jail. Then things really take a bad turn.

As the earth approaches Jupiter scientists plan using the gravitational pull of the bigger planet to propel ours past it and beyond. But when Jupiter experiences a gravitational spike, it throws off calculations and begins pulling the planets together. Earthquakes break out across the earth’s surface resulting in numerous malfunctioning earth engines. Humanity on both the space station and earth scramble to reignite the engines to avoid a catastrophic collision.

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The film features several things that are easy to pick apart – tons of information dumps, cheesy rah-rah moments, a garden variety of typical disaster movie characters. Yet somehow, despite routinely treading on familiar ground, “A Wandering Earth” never feels like a rip-off or becomes a punchline. It clearly and unashamedly borrows ideas from “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Gravity”, and even Michael Bay’s “Armageddon”. But it’s pacing is so snappy you never have time to dwell on it, only to enjoy the ride.

And then there are the digital effects. I don’t know if there is ever a scene where I wasn’t in some way wow’d by what I was seeing. It’s literally one scene after another of digitally rendered locations and set pieces all of which look absolutely stunning. This may be the biggest reason the movie works. It sucks you into its world through the sheer strength of its visuals.

“A Wandering Earth” is both ludicrous and routine yet I had an absolute blast with it. It’s truly a wacky concoction that’s hard to even describe. It’s impossible not to mention the familiar tropes and second-hand characters. But this is science-fiction escapism at its very best and can easily get behind the fun and craziness this movie provides.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “What They Had” (2018)

whattheyposterChicago native Elizabeth Chomko’s bittersweet debut “What They Had” takes a look at a delicate subject but does so in a way that is sure to speak to the hearts of many who watch it. Chomko pulls from her personal experience of having a grandmother diagnosed with dementia and being part of the family struggling to deal with it. Her film captures the heartbreak while also showing a warmth and sense of humor that gives it a stamp of reality.

Chomko wrote and directed the film which instantly gets off on the right foot by putting together a superb cast. The film opens with Ruth (Blythe Danner) putting on her coat, leaving her apartment, and then vanishing into the cold Chicago night. Turns out Ruth has entered a new stage of her dementia that could end up being more than her husband Bert (Robert Forster) can handle.

Their son Nicky (Michael Shannon) calls his sister Bitty (Hillary Swank) to let her know their mother is missing. They find Ruth but the incident convinces Nicky that their mother belongs in a nursing home. He convinces his sister to help persuade their father who is vehemently against it.

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The bulk of Chomko’s film centers around this family and their attempts to reckon with the reality of Ruth’s condition. Bert, a no-nonsense devout Catholic, wants no part of “the best memory care place in Chicago” (as Nicky sells it). This adds to the already present tension between father and son. Bitty takes a more middle-ground approach which draws the ire of both Nicky and Bert.

An intertwined family drama with such a sensitive subject at its core is tricky ground. It’s even trickier when you approach it with a sense of humor. Chomko has spoken about the joy of laughter and how her family’s willingness to laugh helped them cope. Her movie gives us a really good image of how that works. “What They Had” makes you laugh in a way that can feel wrong at times but makes sense when considered in its narrative context. And Chomko deserves a ton of credit for having such a sensitive touch.

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The one place the film suffers is in its well-intended effort to dig deeper into the characters. Several subplots intersect with the central story but none are really given the time and attention they need. The biggest is centered around the strained relationship between Bitty and her college-weary daughter Emma (played by a very good young actress Taissa Farmiga). The two actresses share several good scenes but you never get a good handle on their relationship. There are a few others that leave you wanting to know more.

It’s hard to not be moved by “What They Had” and its tender but true handling of its difficult subject. Perhaps most impressive is Chomko’s ability to capture the heart-rending helplessness of both Ruth and her family. You feel it in every character and every performance (again the cast is so good). But you sense it most in Chomko’s writing and you never doubt its deeply personal origins.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Wife”

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“The Wife” begins as a strategically restrained family drama, but it doesn’t take long to notice its boiling undercurrent of frustration, resentment and discontent. The further we get into the story of Joseph and Joan Castleman the more we feel the tug of inevitability. It’s like a powder keg with a lit fuse. We know it’s going to blow up. The question is when?

Swedish-born Bjorn Runge directs this Jane Anderson adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel. Their film opens in 1992 Connecticut where accomplished author Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) and his supportive yet melancholy wife Joan (Glenn Close) receive an early morning call informing them that he has worn the Nobel Prize in Literature. Joseph is understandably ecstatic over what would be any writer’s dream while Joan’s enthusiasm is a bit more tempered.

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The couple travels to Stockholm, Sweden for several days of ceremonies leading up to the Nobel prize presentation. They bring along their son David (Max Irons), an aspiring writer who yearns for the approval of his father. The look we get into their relationship exposes the first of several cracks in the family’s facade. Joseph’s high honor ends up opening old wounds and creating a few new ones along the way.

The story takes its time unveiling itself, slowly feeding us small morsels of revelation. Some info comes through a handful of flashbacks that documents how younger Joseph (Harry Lloyd) and Joan (Close’s real life daughter Annie Starke) met while showing the genesis of their problems both as writers and as a couple. These moments are interesting enough but far weaker than when Close and Pryce are on screen and they tend to disrupt the film’s rhythm.

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And that brings me to the film’s biggest strengths – its two central performances. Close has the trickiest role of the two and she often speaks volumes without uttering a word. Her empty smiles and burdened stares reveal someone worn down by tragically quenched ambition and partially self-inflicted disempowerment. Pryce is no stranger to playing a narcissistic writer (see 2014’s “Listen Up Philip”). His character requires a much different performance than we get from Close yet he is a perfect complement to her. The two 71-year-olds have a remarkable chemistry. And it’s worth mentioning that Christian Slater is surprisingly effective as a lurking biographer chomping at the bit to get rights to Joseph’s story.

The more Close’s once dutiful wife questions her own decisions and concessions the more tension builds between this husband and wife. From there “The Wife” simmers to the point of boiling over and the outpouring of emotions we get in the third act is all but unavoidable. At a dinner honoring the Nobel recipients Joan is asked what she does for a living. Her response and the manner in which she gives it offers the perfect encapsulation of her character – “I am a kingmaker”.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Widows”

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On paper there was nothing about the story of “Widows” that interested me. A heist movie about a heist that goes fatally bad. Then the widows of the men killed in the heist plan a heist of their own. Obviously that is a very basic (and admittedly unfair) reading of it but story-wise I didn’t see much to get excited about.

But it’s amazing how a compelling director and a stellar cast can dramatically change your outlook. Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) handles the directing duties but also co-writes alongside Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”). With that kind of talent working the pens you expect the story to have more going on than a mere surface reading would reveal. That’s definitely the cased for “Widows” although it does have a few kinks.

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The film opens with seasoned thief Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew being killed after a botched robbery turns violent. The always fabulous Viola Davis stars as Veronica, Harry’s widow. Turns out Harry swiped $2 million from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a Chicago mob boss running for alderman in a Southside precinct. He needs his money back to fund his campaign against his equally crooked but politically established opponent Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell).

Manning and his cold-blooded strong-arm Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) begin pressing Veronica giving her three days to get their money or clearly something bad will happen. Her only out is to pull off a heist of her own and to do so she rounds up two of the widows from Harry’s crew, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez). They later recruit Belle whose played by a terrific but terrible underused Cynthia Erivo.

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Most of the film takes place as they get ready for the heist, but it doesn’t focus specifically on that. Instead McQueen uses this time the flesh out these women (some better than others). Their actual heist prep gets the back-burner treatment and ends up being thrown together a little too neatly. McQueen does a good job of making this more than a simple heist film but in doing so he shortchanges the very elements of the heist.

Time is also spent on a subplot that explores dirty municipal politics and the plays for power by Manning and Mulligan. They battle for influential endorsements and each manipulates the lower income voter base for their own reasons. Manning wants to extend his criminal control, Mulligan is pushed by his loathsome father (Robert Duvall in a nostalgic but lightweight role) to preserve their family’s long run of political standing.

Davis is the perfect person to anchor the film and its swirl of moving parts. She provides a strong emotional center and some of the film’s best scenes are of Veronica alone dealing with her pent-up anger and unrelenting grief. The other women also hand in good performances especially the often underappreciated Debicki.

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McQueen gets good work from the supporting gents as well. Henry is particularly good as a figure who’s both persuasive and intimidating. Farrell is very convincing as a wealthy political slimeball. Kaluuya is handed the more crowd-pleasing role. There is practically no complexity to his character whatsoever. He’ll pop up throughout the film, each time just for a moment, and then he’s gone. I do wish he had more depth, but he’s very effective as a chilling and ruthless killer.

“Widows” may frame itself as a heist movie but it can hardly be put in that box. McQueen has a much broader aim and his film touches on a lot of different things. It’s loaded with subtle (and some not so subtle) statements on politics, race, economic standing, crime, and even a wedged in critique of police brutality. Some are more effective than others. The film is strongest when telling the women’s story – about their fight through systems stacked against them to carry out their mission. Unfortunately some of that story gets lost amid McQueen’s ambition.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Welcome to Marwen”

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Inspired by Jeff Malmberg’s fantastic 2010 documentary “Marwencol”, director and co-writer Robert Zemeckis sets out to dramatize the incredible true story of Mark Hogancamp. It’s unquestionably a worthwhile story which Malmberg’s film told well. Zemeckis takes a hearty swing at it but ends up with a pretty big whiff.

In 2000 Hogancamp was attacked by five men outside of a Kingston, NY bar. He was beaten within an inch of his life  and would spend nine days in a coma. Hogancamp suffered brain damage and severe memory loss. With no means of paying for therapy he lived out a second life within a meticulously crafted miniature town he built modeled after a World War II Belgian village. Within his town of Marwen resides dolls representing those who have influenced his life both for good and bad.

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Zemeckis drops us right into Hogancamp’s therapeutic fantasy. Steve Carell stars as both Hogancamp and as Hoagie, Mark’s war hero avatar in Marwen. The two-sided story bounces back-and-forth between his battle to overcome his real world anxieties and the CGI animated Marwen where the dolls come to life and tell stories that mirror his struggles. Problem is neither side is truly fleshed out or given the attention it desperately needs.

The events that led to his state are only covered through flashbacks, newspaper clippings, or gleaned from casual conversations. Instead Zemeckis concentrates on a mundane series of days leading up to the sentencing hearing for Hogancamp’s attackers. Along the way we bump into an assortment of people from his life, several of whom makeup his ‘women of Marwen’. All of them feel brushed over with hardly an ounce of depth. Leslie Mann is the one exception playing a new neighbor. But even she is paper-thin and you know exactly where her story is going.

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The animation sequences are cool visually but are often at odds with the other scenes. Zemeckis doesn’t seem to have a grasp of the overall tone he is going for. While these scenes do reflect (to varying degrees) the inner pain and turmoil Hogancamp struggles with, they are often too silly to carry any emotional weight. And too often they rob the other scenes by popping up time the movie could have invested into the real-world story.

Overall “Welcome to Marwen” is a frustrating (and frankly boring) mess. It’s a case of Zemeckis locking into a good concept but not having the clear-eyed vision to see it through. He gets so bogged down in his fictional additions to Mark Hogancamp’s account that he misses what made this strange, heart-tugging story so compelling. Carell certainly gives it his all, but even his good performance couldn’t keep me from constantly checking my watch.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Wildlife” (2018)

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Paul Dano the actor has always been a puzzle to me. While many love his body of work I’ve often felt he requires a very specific type of role. Without it he can seem overwhelmed by the material or lack the range to pull it off. But if the role is just right he can knock your socks off. After seeing his first work behind the camera I can honestly say I have no such reservations about Paul Dano the director.

His new movie “Wildlife” is a mesmerizing bit of filmmaking, so deeply sincere and profoundly human at every turn. What grabbed me early on was how devoted Dano is to his characters – getting them right and never allowing us a moment to doubt their authenticity. His entire focus is on them and the agonizing journeys each of them take. We the audience are simply along for the ride, in the hands of a first-time director telling his story like a seasoned pro.

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Set in 1960, Carey Mulligan (shamefully overlooked this awards season) and Jake Gyllenhaal play Jeanette and Jerry Brinson. They’re a working-class couple who recently moved to Great Falls, Montana with their bright 14 year-old son Joe (newcomer Ed Oxenbould). Jerry is employed as a greenskeeper at a local country club while Jeanette works to meet the era’s image of a stay-at-home mom. It’s a seemingly idyllic domestic portrait but it doesn’t take long for the cracks to show.

After losing his job Jerry sinks into a mire of depression. He’s battered by self-induced feelings of failure and his ‘man of the house’ pride. It leads him to make a rash decision that leaves Jeanette and Joe to run things until he returns. A bitter Jeanette quickly begins to unravel. Maybe she wishes she could take off like Jerry. Perhaps the weight of being the model housewife and mother has taken its toll. She begins to come apart and her son can only watch.

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All of this is told from the perspective of Joe, our moral center for the duration. Through quiet observations he is yanked out of what Dano has called the “Eden of childhood”. His idealized images of his parents are shattered and replaced with the realization that they are real, flawed people. It’s pretty crushing and the slow evolution of Joe’s expressions speaks volumes. Dano doesn’t direct Oxenbould to go big. In fact rarely does the young actor express anything outwardly. It’s through his eyes that we sense his internal struggle to understand what’s happening to his family.

The script was co-written by Dano and his partner Zoe Kazan and is based on a 1990 novel by Richard Ford which Dano instantly fell in love with. The two haggled a bit before landing on where they wanted the story to go. For them it was essential that young Joe be our lens while also evoking some level of empathy for Jean and Jerry . At times I struggled with sympathy for the parents but that’s part of what I love about this film. Dano and Kazan allow plenty of room for us to wrestle with how we feel about these characters and I can see them being read in a myriad of ways.

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The performances are a critical part of this. From the outset Dano reveals a deep trust in his actors allowing them plenty of room to flesh out their characters. So many shots are framed with this in mind. The camera will sit back, often from Joe’s point of view, and watch Gyllenhaal and most notably Mulligan take charge of the scene. As I’ve said before, there is something intoxicating about watching great actors act. Here Gyllenhaal is somber and restrained, exactly what the role needs. Mulligan steals the show with a performance full of layers and emotional conflict. It could be her best work to date.

“Wildlife” is an impressive first feature from Paul Dano the director. He shows off some good filmmaking impulses and there is a delicate rhythm to his storytelling that I wasn’t expecting. “Wildlife” has such a strong emotional core and even as a fiery metaphor burns on the horizon (I’ll let you discover it for yourselves) the film never loses its heart. It’s tragic and heartbreaking yet through a small sense of hope Dano gives us something to cling to. And as I think on his movie I appreciate that more and more.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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