REVIEW: “Wonderstruck”

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It would be wrong to write off Todd Haynes’ delightful “Wonderstruck” as just a kid’s movie. Aside from being terribly reductive, that perspective shortchanges what is a beautifully crafted story and a striking two-headed visual composition that packs one heck of an emotional punch.

“Wonderstruck” is based on the 2011 Brian Selznick novel of the same name. Selznick had previously written “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, a book adapted to screen by Martin Scorsese (“Hugo”). He also wrote the screenplay for “Wonderstruck” (his first) which is a cleverly layered puzzle featuring two intersecting stories set 50 years apart, the first in 1927 and the other in 1977.

The film starts in 1977 rural Minnesota. A young boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley) lives with his aunt, uncle, and cousins after the tragic loss of his mother (played via flashbacks by Michelle Williams in a small but delicately moving performance). To make matters worse, he loses his hearing in a freak lightning accident. Ben’s longing to know about his absent father existed before his mother’s death. He finds a mysterious book kept hidden by his mom with hints of his father’s life. He sneaks away and embarks on a quest to find his father in New York City – an entirely new world to a small town lad.

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A parallel story is set in 1927. A young deaf girl named Rose (played with an infectious sweetness by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) lives in New Jersey with her strict and abrasive father. Much like Ben she is longing for a parent – in her case it’s her mother (Julianne Moore), a Broadway prima donna more interested in the limelight than her family. But with innocent, childlike naïveté she runs away to New York City in hopes of tracking down the mother who has been away for so long.

Todd Haynes deftly hops back and forth between these two braided adventures, one never losing its flow to the either. To make it even more impressive, an incredible amount of detail is poured into the individual stories making each feel of its time. Cinematographer Edward Lachman is a true star of the film. He shoots both stories with drastically different styles. Rose’s is shot in gorgeous black-and-white while Ben’s features a color palette pulled directly from the 1970s.

Other things breathe life into the vastly different periods. The costume design is top-notch and it’s given a lot of attention. There is also the way Haynes and company visualize the differences from one era to another economically but also in diversity. And then you have Carter Burwell’s score which is plentiful but never intrusive. It’s especially critical in Rose’s story which is entirely framed as a silent picture. Just as effective to the 70s vibe are the cool musical injections of David Bowie, Rose Royce and Sweet.

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As mentioned Rose’s portion of the story is presented as a silent picture. It’s seen in how the scenes are shot and in the steady, mood-setting orchestration. But it also fits the narrative of a young girl who has been deaf her entire life. It offers a sense of perspective and it’s done with grace and thoughtfulness. And over and over the camera captures Simmonds delicate smile and her constant gaze of wonderment. Counter that with Ben’s world rich with big city sound. Only recently deaf, the sounds are still real to him even though he can no longer hear them. His struggle with that is one of the more poignant aspects of his story.

Eventually the two tales connect in a way that could have leaned heavily on overwrought sentiment, but that’s not the case at all. Instead it’s an emotionally justified solution to an exquisitely conceived cinematic puzzle. It’s an ending that feels right for a film that is this earnest. And let me say again this isn’t just a kid’s movie. It’s a very human movie that not only touches your heart but reminds us of why cinema is such an extraordinary form of storytelling.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “ Winchester”

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The Spierig Brothers are perhaps best known for their Ethan Hawke films “Daybreakers” and “Predestination”. They also directed last year’s “Jigsaw”, a rekindling of the tired “Saw” franchise. Now they give us yet another horror entry with “Winchester”, an intriguing concept that amounts to nothing more than another bland processed genre film.

Inspiration for the story came from the popular legends surrounding Sarah Winchester, a wealthy heiress who inherited a fortune following her husband’s death in 1881. She was also left 50% ownership in her husband’s business – the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. It’s believed that at the time she was the wealthiest woman in the world.

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Legends say Sarah believed her family to be cursed by every spirit killed by a Winchester rifle. She purchased a large farmhouse and immediately began spending her inheritance adding rooms to appease the spirits. The labyrinthine house remained in a perpetual state of construction, 24 hours a day, seven days a week until her death in 1922.

The Spierig’s (who also co-wrote the screenplay) begin their story in 1906. Sarah is played by Oscar-winning gem Helen Mirren (I would love to know how she was roped into this). Believing her to be unfit to run the company, her Winchester co-owners demand Sarah be mentally evaluated. They hire a drug-addicted louse of a doctor Eric Prince (Jason Clarke) to assess Sarah’s frame of mind and render the verdict they’re hoping for.

The not-so-good doctor arrives at the seven story, nearly 100 room Winchester estate and over the next several days the skeptical Eric has back-and-forths with the creepy Sarah over the existence of spirits. Aside from that early wrangling we learn they are both grief-stricken souls. Eric aches for his deceased wife while Sarah’s sorrow gives voice to the the film’s bungled gun control message. They are joined in the house by Sarah’s relatives Marion (Sarah Snook) and her son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), but they’re mainly just along for the ride and serve as nothing more than plot devices.

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It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to figure out that the house is indeed haunted yet there is nothing particularly haunting about the house. We get dimly lighted hallways and plenty of dark corners but it’s far from spooky. In the place of terror and dread we get jump scares, an endless parade of tired, uninspired jump scares. In one way I found them helpful. After dozing amid the yawn-worthy exposition and lackluster tension-building, they did jolt me awake a couple of times.

“Winchester” ends up a bizarrely unremarkable slog that takes an interesting idea and does absolutely nothing with it. If you’ve seen even a couple of these types of movies nothing here will catch you off-guard. It’s a houseful of bland characters, toothless ‘horror’ and silly attempts at social commentary. The actors give it their all and no one is phoning it in, but it would help if they had something to work with. “Winchester” is a real snoozer.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Wonder Wheel”

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Calling the results of Woody Allen’s annualized blueprint to filmmaking ‘wildly hit-or-miss’ is a colossal understatement. Each year the 82 year-old Allen pops out another quirky postmodern exercise in human reflection. When they stick their landing they can be nothing short of delightful. But when they don’t they can be tedious, uninspired and generally unpleasant to watch.

Unfortunately Allen’s latest film “Wonder Wheel” falls in the latter category. It’s set in 1950s Coney Island and puts us in with a mostly flawed and disagreeable lot of characters. The story’s centerpiece is Ginny (Kate Winslet), a clam shack waitress married to carousel operator Humpty (Jim Belushi) and with a pyromaniac son from a previous marriage. Their household is misery personified. The fragilely sober Humpty is occasionally sensitive but mostly loud and abusive. Ginny (one time an aspiring actress) hates her job, wants out of her marriage, and doesn’t mind sharing her unhappiness.

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To make things even more unsavory, Ginny begins having an affair with a younger man named Mickey (Justin Timberlake). He’s a Coney Island lifeguard and wannabe dramatist who also happens to be the movie’s narrator. It’s hard to figure out how the the film wants us to feel about Mickey. You could say Allen treats him as his protagonist and in some ways he’s the one character who comes out of this mess unscathed. Could it reasonably be taken as an indictment on Allen’s perspective? Me, I thought Mickey was a slime.

The one small twinkle of light is in Juno Temple’s character Carolina. She is Humpty’s estranged daughter from his first marriage who shows up after being gone for five years. Turns out her family disowned her after she ran off with a known gangster. Now she is ‘marked’ by the mob after talking to the feds and she seeks help from her father. It’s an absurd angle but Carolina is a nice break from the constant toxicity we get elsewhere. She’s actually sensible, pleasant and ambitious.

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You can’t help but notice Allen once again drawing from Tennessee Williams, but at times I saw it as cheaply ripping from Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. It’s in Allen’s dialogue and in how he squeezes some of his characters. Take Belushi who has some impressive moments, but his dial is almost always cranked up to 10. Same for Winslet who gives it her all, but is rarely given any softer moments. As her character steadily unravels she’s hardly given room to breathe. It’s a suffocating task for a really good actress.

I have no problems with movies that focus on deeply flawed people or that put us in the company of an unlikable cast of characters. In fact I enjoy those explorations. “Wonder Wheel” has its moments where you begin to see what makes its characters tick. The problem is it doesn’t have an ounce of temperance. And despite its teases of intrigue and some good images from new Allen collaborator Vittorio Storaro, the movie never keeps its footing and becomes little more than an aimless endurance test. But there’s always next year, right? Or is there?

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Walking Out”

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“How was your year”? It’s the first question Cal has for David his teenaged son who just flew in for a winter hunting trip. It’s the first of many signs revealing a disconnect between father and son who rarely see each other following Cal’s divorce from David’s mother. David lives with her in Texas. Cal lives in a secluded cabin in the mountains of Montana.

Twin brothers Alex and Andrew Smith directed and wrote the screenplay for “Walking Out”, an adapatation of a David Quammen short story. You could say it is a poignant family drama masquerading as a survival thriller. This story of a hunting trip gone bad certainly has all the elements tense survival tale. But even during those moments it’s the unfolding family dynamic that gives it all such meaning.

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Cal is played by Matt Bomer, an unexpectedly nice fit. There’s a lot we aren’t told about Cal. Why does he live like a hermit? What does he do for a living? Why did he and David’s mom divorce? What little bit we know is picked out of conversations with David and occasional flashbacks to when Cal hunted with his dad (played by Bill Pullman).

David is wonderfully played by Josh Wiggins. It’s such a genuine performance and a genuine character. David would much rather play on his cell phone than trod through the snowy wilderness. He’s a kid any viewer could recognize – awkward and a bit aloof. He is certainly out of his element in Montana. But at the same time he wants to be please his father and be close to him.

The chemistry between Bomer and Wiggins is a big reason this film works. For nearly half of the film the two make their way to the remote hunting grounds high up in the mountains. During this time we see both the compassion and contention that defines their relationship. But when the inevitable happens and something goes terribly wrong we see a necessary evolution of their relationship.

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“Walking Out” offers an interesting exploration of the father/son dynamic. For example it plays with the idea of sons becoming their father. We see it in how during the hunt Cal assumes the role of his father (who we see during the flashback sequences). And after the incident we see David doing something similar and becoming more like his father. This is one of several themes the Smith brothers play around with. There’s nothing deeply profound, but interesting nonetheless.

The film’s title make the impending peril obvious, but the buildup of the two main characters and their strained relationship gives form to the danger once it hits. The mountainous wilderness is shot in a way that makes it both menacing and breathtaking. The further they get from civilization the more beautiful and treacherous the land becomes. It becomes a powerful supporting character and a perfect setting for this modest yet satisfying picture.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Wind River”

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Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is developing an impressive reputation. His first film script was for 2015’s stellar “Sicario” and he followed it up with last year’s “Hell or High Water”.  A deep-south crime thriller, “Hell or High Water” (despite a plot hole or two) would earn him an Academy Award nomination and highlight Sheridan’s gift for telling character-driven stories with a sharp regional authenticity.

His latest film “Wind River” is yet another showcase for Sheridan’s fascinating style of storytelling. It also sees him hop into the director’s chair, something he’s only done once before with a low-budget horror film appropriately titled “Vile”.

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“Wind River” begins with a startling scene featuring a terrified young woman running through a snowy wooded area during the frigid cold of night. Her frozen body is eventually discovered by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a Fish and Wildlife Service tracker for the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Lambert reports the death to Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) who promptly calls the FBI. The relatively uninterested Feds send earnest but ill-equipped rookie agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to oversee the investigation.

From there the story becomes an absorbing mix of slow-boiling murder mystery and thoughtful commentary. A lot is gleaned from the rough and rugged setting. As with Sheridan’s previous two films, setting is one of the most captivating components. “Wind River” is filmed mostly on location which adds a harsh natural edge to the mystery. But the territory’s ruggedness is equally presented in another form – drugs, poverty, isolation and violence all speak to the reservation life Sheridan clearly wants to examine.

Renner and Olsen shed their second-tier Marvel superhero personas and get to play interesting real-life characters firmly grounded by Sheridan’s dialogue. Sheridan loves fleshing out his characters through well-conceived conversation. Renner is superb giving a quiet and measured performance fitting of a character with plenty of baggage to unpack. Olsen’s role resembled that of Emily Blunt in “Sicario” but just a hair less convincing. She’s tough but inexperienced and forced to learn on the fly from the situation she is thrust into. They are a good team working through local obstacles as well as federal red tape and indifference.

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Sheridan’s direction matches his screenwriting – steady and assured. His knack for pacing keeps the story bumping along all while building tension and fleshing out his characters. It is sure to be too slow for some and there are certain things Sheridan shows but has no interest in exploring. Personally speaking I appreciated his focus.

Things eventually reach their boiling point leading to a finale that obliterates the film’s patient rhythm. It’s a bit jarring but inevitable and satisfying. There are a few small questions left on the table and it’s hard to determine if they are intentional or oversights. Still Sheridan has written yet another solid screenplay in his crime story trilogy and has added a strong directing credit to his resume. He remains an exciting filmmaker with a refreshing cinematic eye and his next script “Soldado” is a sequel to “Sicario”. I’m all onboard.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “War for the Planet of the Apes”

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You would be tempted to call it the anti-blockbuster franchise if it wasn’t made up of three sure-fire blockbusters. Still it’s a label that seems to fit the newest “Planet of the Apes” prequel/reboot series. It has all the big budget bells and whistles yet there is clearly more going on underneath the blockbustery surface and it’s not hard to recognize its attempts at more provocative explorations.

Despite the rousing critical praise (for the most part) it has received, my relationship with the series is a weird one. Both of the previous films, 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, are really good movies that have their own nagging missteps. But despite their issues, each film had its hooks in me enough to leave me genuinely excited for its follow-up. So that brings me to the latest installment that continues the Caesar trilogy and the trend of awkward movie titles – “War for the Planet of the Apes”.

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For some (unfortunately), how condemning or forgiving they are may depend on which political magnifying glass they choose to look through (yes, I’ve actually seen this ). Much like the previous two films, “War” has statements it wants to make. And much like the previous films, those statements are often thought-provoking and occasionally a tad heavy-handed. But messaging has never been the problem. Instead it was a handful of story angles that would sometimes trip them up. Nothing major, but they are there. For the most part “War” rights those issues.

“Dawn” ends with Caesar, the leader of the ape clan, acknowledging that war with the humans is all but inevitable. “War” begins with an explosive sequence revealing Caesar’s prophecy to be true. Troops from a military group calling themselves Alpha-Omega launch a sneak attack on an ape base in the forest. Returning director Matt Reeves’ staging of this sequence is exquisite. It’s beautifully shot and incredible to watch. There is also a lot of information we can glean concerning what’s to come.

Tired of the heavy casualties, Caesar (magically played by a returning Andy Serkis) moves from revolutionary to Moses figure and agrees to lead the apes out of the forest and to an isolated spot across the desert. Before they can leave they are hit by Apha-Omega and Caesar has a face-to-face with their leader Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson). The attack is repelled, but for Caesar the results are intensely personal. He commands his clan to head for the desert while he seeks revenge, accompanied only by three of his most loyal (and insistent) friends.

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It’s here that “War” really hits its stride. The group’s effort to track down McCullough leads them north where they encounter several characters both human and simian. None are better than Steve Zahn who plays Bad Ape, a chimpanzee who lived in the Sierra Zoo prior to the Simian Flu outbreak. Zahn does a lot of interesting things both comically and dramatically. It’s a well-balanced character and performance that never pushes the ‘comic relief’ role too far.

Staying with performances, it has taken time for many people to warm up to Andy Serkis’ style of acting, but by now his unique skills as an actor should be beyond doubt. There is simply no one better at what he does. This is evident by his work in “War” which is the pinnacle of everthing he has done in the Caesar role. It’s Oscar caliber stuff. If only the Academy will take notice.

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The story pulls its influences from a wild assortment of films. Early resemblances to old school westerns like “The Outlaw Josey Wales” give way to shades of “The Great Escape” once the film shifts to what is essentially a prison movie. This is also where it loses a bit of its momentum and stretches out about fifteen minutes too long. Allusions to the Holocaust and concentration camps are effective yet it’s a fairly dramatic shift that takes too much time to develop and play out. And back to influences, it doesn’t take much of an eye to notice the similarities between Harrelsen’s McCullough and Brando’s Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now”.

“War” finally gets back on its feet and the pulse-pounding finale feels just right. The film ends with the story and franchise in strong place. Of course it won’t stay there. Another film is already said to be in the works. As for this installment, I feel it’s the best of this new series and despite its lag in the middle it avoids the narrative hiccups from the past film. More importantly it does justice to this central character who we’ve spent so much time with and genuinely care about.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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