The Mustang

Mustang poster

Horses are magnificent creatures. Like humans, they can be out of control. Wild.

In The Mustang, men who are behind bars in a Nevada state prison are given the opportunity to help tame wild mustangs. Like the men, the mustangs have been herded into pens.

Roman Coleman (Mattias Schoenaerts) is an angry, violent inmate. He’s had time in solitary. He tells the prison therapist (Connie Britton), “I’m not good with people.”

When given the chance to work in the prison’s horse program, his first days are spent shoveling manure. Later, with guidance from the program’s crusty leader Myles (Bruce Dern), he learns techniques to calm the horses.

And, of course, Roman’s process parallels that of the magnificent creatures.

But The Mustang layers more elements atop this simple story of reform and redemption. Along with interactions with the horses and his fellow inmates, Roman has several visits from his daughter Martha (Gideon Aldon). He even makes a sort of friend when fellow inmate Henry (Jason Mitchell) helps him handle the horses.

He expresses regret to Martha for his violence that damaged her mother. He listens as Martha talks of caring for her mother after the incident. He sits in a group therapy session with the therapist and hears that other prisoners had similar violent outbursts that led them to prison. He begins to communicate and show a bit of humanity.

The Mustang is the first feature length film by French director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. She opens the movie with beauty shots of mustangs running wild on the open range in Nevada.

The Mustang offers more than just another tale of a bad guy revealing his good side and being capable of empathy. It shows the grisly existence of prison. It also shows how a person may relate better to an animal than to another human being.

 

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Dumbo

Dumbo poster

Where’s the magic? Where’s the delight? Where’s the fun? It’s not here.

Tim Burton’s live action remake of Disney’s 1941 animated film Dumbo is lacking in the qualities that have made Disney films special. Burton’s Dumbo is just okay, not special.

Yes, the CGI version of the baby elephant with big ears looks real. When he flies, the depiction looks good. The technical aspects of Dumbo are solid.

Yes, the cast is star-studded. Max Medici (Danny Devito) is the owner of a struggling circus that plays small towns a century ago. Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is the circus performer returning from WWI minus a left arm. V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) is the Barnum-like showman who brings Medici’s circus to New York. Colette (Eva Green) is Vandevere’s girlfriend and star acrobat.

Yes, there are cute kids. Nico Parker is a charmer as Millie Farrier, Holt’s daughter. Son Joe Farrier is played by Finley Hobbins. (Mrs. Farrier is deceased—yet another Disney dead mom!)

Yes, there is a message about turning a perceived handicap into an advantage: Dumbo’s deformity gives him the ability to fly.

Yes, there is spectacle. The Medici circus, with its variegated cast of performers (animal and human), works hard to entertain in its tent and on the midway. When Dumbo’s extraordinary talent is revealed, the circus goes big time to Dreamland, a giant amusement area like Coney Island.

Yes, all the pieces are there. And yet, something’s missing. As one who grew up with Disney films and TV shows, I recall being emotionally invested in so many of their stories and characters. It didn’t happen for me with this newest version of Dumbo.

Interestingly, in the film’s production notes there is a quote from director Tim Burton in which he admits that as a kid he did not like the circus. To his credit, Burton’s Dumbo is not as gratuitously weird as his films sometimes are.

With live action versions of Aladdin (May 24) and The Lion King (July 19) in the pipeline, one can only wonder if they will recapture the Disney magic that the animated versions from the early 90s had.

 

 

 

 

Us

us-movie-poster

Weird things can happen on vacation. Many of us have stories we could tell.

None as weird though as the tale of the Wilsons, a typical American family on a typical getaway to a cabin in the woods. Their vacation is interrupted by an odd quartet of dead ringers for each of them, in red jumpsuits. These menacing dopplegangers unleash a night of terror and violence.

Writer/director Jordan Peele has crafted another winning film. Us is a suspense thriller with plot elements that will have you thinking and rethinking about the story well after you leave the theater.

Us has laughs as well. Nothing as gutbustingly funny as the best Key and Peele bits on Comedy Central, but enough to take a bit of the edge off at timely intervals.

The mom, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), has a backstory which is told in the film’s opening segment. Her memory of a scary time in a funhouse from childhood causes her to have qualms about going to Santa Cruz beach with the family. But her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) cajoles her and the kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) into a day at the shore.

At the beach, they hang with family friends the Tylers (Elizabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker and Cali and Noelle Sheldon). The dads have a cordial visit, but Adelaide’s nervousness inhibits any meaningful mom talk with Mrs. Tyler. When Jason briefly disappears, Adelaide freaks out until he is found. Then when the Wilsons get home that the real horror begins.

Nyong’o is the key player among the talented cast. As Adelaide’s doppleganger, she is the only one among that crew who can speak coherently, although in an unpleasant, distorted voice.

The Us soundtrack features the haunting opening song “Anthem” from composer Michael Abels as well as several tunes by pop artists ranging from Janelle Monae to the Beach Boys.

Yes, the film’s title is the name of our country: U.S. And when asked “who are you” Adelaide’s doppelganger replies, “We’re Americans!” So you may impose whatever political message you wish. Or you can just choose to be entertained by a well-made film!

Interestingly, among those receiving special on-screen thanks at the end of the movie is Steven Spielberg. In a way, Us recalls stories Spielberg told in films like E.T. (director) and Poltergeist (story/script) of normal families facing extraordinary occurrences.

A recommendation: see this film sooner rather than later when spoilers are more likely to be freely shared online and in conversations with friends and family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Captain Marvel

brie-larson-captain-marvel

Can Marvel make a successful comic book fantasy movie with a female lead? The answer is yes. Captain Marvel is a solid effort by all concerned. (Including the dozen or so digital effects companies I counted in the closing credits.)

Captain Marvel may not be the best Marvel Cinematic Universe movie ever. And Captain Marvel may not be the greatest MCU superhero ever. But the new film starring Brie Larson accomplishes much in just over two hours.

It introduces and establishes a new movie franchise player and sets up future Captain Marvel stories. It delivers a cool backstory for Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). The movie is set in the 1990s and dishes a bunch of fun nostalgia for that decade. And it features a cool cat (an actual feline) named Goose.

Action/fantasy films sometimes have pacing issues and often have effects overkills but co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck keep things moving ahead at a consistent clip, with occasional respites. And the many confrontations among characters tend to resolve within reasonable periods.

The story? Well, there’s a lot going on here. Of course, it’s always about good versus evil. But it is not always clear who is a good guy (or woman) and who is a bad egg. Captain Marvel works to solve a mystery about her own background (including her life as Air Force pilot Carol Danvers) and about a scientific discovery that Wendy Larson (Annette Bening) is developing. Carol/Captain Marvel’s time among the Kree aliens on the planet Hala is a key plot point.

Brie Larson handles all the physical tasks of playing a superhero well. She has a good head of hair, which is only reined in near the end of the movie. (Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman at least had a band across the front of her hairline when she was in action.)

The cast also includes Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn and (as Carol’s Air Force friend Maria) Lashana Lynch.

Captain Marvel should garner strong ticket sales and whet appetites for Avengers: Endgame whose release is just seven weeks away. As Black Panther showed last year, a superhero movie can be released in late winter and still attract a huge audience.

Of course, you should stay until the very end of the credits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part

Lego 2

As surprisingly great as the first The LEGO Movie was, the latest LEGO movie, by comparison, is a bit of a disappointment. It’s not bad. It just lacks the magic that the first film delivered with its story, its songs, its characters and its surprises.

The story in The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part is less coherent than in its 2014 predecessor. The songs, while amusing, don’t come close to those in the earlier film. The characters Emmet (Chris Pratt), Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) and Batman (Will Arnett) are back as the focus of the meandering tale.

Other voices you may know include Tiffany Haddish, Nick Offerman, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Cobie Smulders, Jason Mamoa (Aquaman!), Ralph Fiennes and Bruce Willis, among many more.

The interaction between the imaginary LEGO world and the real world is not quite as emotional as the live action bit in the first movie. (That segment with Will Ferrell was truly touching.) Maya Rudolph is the real-life mother as the narrative shifts back and forth between the two settings in this newest film.

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part is colorful and the animation is impressive. It will make you chuckle and it will make you happy. Just don’t expect to be blown away like many of us were by the first The LEGO Movie.

 

 

 

 

What Men Want

WHAT MEN WANT

What Men Want takes the 2000 movie What Women Want and casts it with black lead actors, moves it from Chicago to Atlanta and rides with an R rating. (The Mel Gibson-Helen Hunt romcom was PG-13.) The R is mainly for language but there’s also a bit of sex. However the sex is comedic, not erotic.

Taraji P. Henson as sports agent Ali Davis has tons of charisma. And talent. Her smile lights up the screen. Richard Roundtree of Shaft fame plays her dad. Tracy Morgan shows no signs of damage from the wreck a few years back that nearly killed him. Morgan plays the father of a college basketball star who the agency is trying to sign.

Ali’s romantic interest is bartender Will (Aldis Hodge). In a well-worn Hallmark Channel trope, he is a single dad, a widower with a cute kid.

Ali has a group of girlfriends (Phoebe Robinson, Wendy McClendon-Covey and Tamala Jones) who hire a psychic (Erykah Badu) for a party. The seer offers Ali a cup of tea, which Ali thinks is the cause of her new ability to read men’s minds. Ali’s friends are key figures in a wedding ceremony where Ali can’t keep her thoughts to herself. (Badu returns for a coda during the film’s closing credits.)

What Men Want plays for laughs but it is also a story of a black woman trying to achieve success in a man’s (mainly white guys) world. A script that with a few more laughs might’ve made What Me Want a slam-dunk smash. It’s a fun film but one that maybe should’ve been just a bit funnier.

As the setting is a sports agency, a handful of sports personalities have cameos: Shaq, Grant Hill, Mark Cuban, Adam Silver and Devonta Freeman. Also in the cast are Max Greenfield and Jason Jones as Ali’s agency co-workers.

 

They Shall Not Grow Old

theyshallnot

World War I is not exactly a forgotten war. But it has been eclipsed by WWII, Korea, Vietnam and recent Mideast action in popular U.S. memory. Even the long ago Civil War is more familiar to most Americans than WWI, thanks to Gone With The Wind, Ken Burns and recent statue controversies

They Shall Not Grow Old may elevate WWI’s profile just a bit. The film focuses on British troops from their enlistment through their return home from battle with the German enemy.

The technical achievements used to make archival film footage from a century ago appear realistic are impressive. But it is the faces and the voices of the young men who endure the horror of war that make this documentary a must-see.

Director Peter Jackson of Lord Of The Rings fame and his team have added color, speed correction and ambient sound to take the viewer into the trenches and onto the battlefield. The actual hand-to-hand combat is presented via illustrations, but the damages of battle—dead and injured soldiers—are impossible to miss.

Over a hundred men who fought in the war narrate the film. Their recollections, recorded in mid-century, are edited into brief soundbites to tell the story. Some of the British accents are harder to decipher than others. A captioned version of the film would be welcome.

They Shall Not Grow Old reveals the stereotype of bad teeth among Brits to have been a particularly acute problem back then. The few men shown wearing kilts and knee socks to the frontline seems odd. The pleasantries between British troops and some of the Germans they have captured are surprising.

“Man’s Inhumanity To Man” is timeless and unending. To see it up close and personal with real people, not actors, arouses multiple emotions. Among them, empathy for the young men in this film, as well as every other soldier who has seen combat action in every war.

Because of its graphic depictions, They Shall Not Grow Old is rated R.

 

 

 

 

Vice

Vice

Bale. Christian Bale. He’s the reason to see Vice.

The chameleon/actor portrays former U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney. And, although Bale doesn’t really resemble the ex-veep, his transformation is pretty amazing. Not just Bale’s weight gain but also his accurate mimicry of Cheney’s speech patterns and Cheney’s penchant for talking out of the side of his mouth.

Cheney’s story as told in Vice is not a flattering one. Though not quite “gonzo journalism” a la Hunter S. Thompson, this “sort of” biopic has a lot of what David Letterman used to call “writer’s embellishment.” Yes, there is a framework of true facts here but parts of this narrative are bent to poke holes in Cheney’s legacy and deliver laughs. And, yes, Vice is funny!

Writer/director Adam McKay presents Cheney as a guy with little direction until his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) sets him straight. He’s a bit of a bumbling conniver when he gets to Washington and soon goes to work to establish his own sphere of influence.

(Cheney’s career included tenures as a White House Chief of Staff, a U.S. Representative, Secretary of Defense and Vice-President, so he must have demonstrated at least a modicum of competence.)

As with The Big Short, his previous comedy rooted in fact, McKay tries to simplify a complicated story that has many nooks and crannies. Should America blame Cheney for everything that has gone wrong with our nation’s involvement in Middle Eastern politics this century? McKay would have you believe that Cheney should shoulder much of the blame.

Admirably, Cheney is shown to be sympathetic and loving when his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out to her parents as gay. (Lynne is not so understanding.)

Other key players in the film include Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). They are sources of some of the funnier moments.

I called The Big Short a failure in my review of the film in 2015. Click HERE to read it. Like Vice it was wickedly funny but as an explainer for what happened to cause the financial crisis, it fell short. Vice, on the other hand, is focused and proceeds in a linear manner with few course changes. It tells its tale well, however with a liberal bent (which McKay acknowledges in a hilarious coda).

See it. Enjoy it. Don’t take it as gospel.

 

 

Welcome To Marwen

Marwen

Welcome To Marwen is weird. The film’s first trailers hinted at an Oscar push for Steve Carell who portrays a man damaged in many ways by a savage gang beating. The trailers also showed a tiny village the character has created where he depicts scenarios using dolls, including one that looks like him.

The story of the challenges Mark Hogancamp (Carell) faces after the attack dials up audience pity as he flashes back to the encounter with local rednecks. His mental state is fragile but Carell never goes “full retard,” to use the non-PC term coined by character Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) in the 2008 film Tropic Thunder.

The weirdness comes in those scenarios with the dolls and their depictions in the film as animated narrative episodes in which his attackers become Nazi soldiers. In many of the episodes, several of the women in his life become a gang of voluptuous babes who come to his defense.

On one hand, the dolls provide subject matter for Hogancamp’s artistic photos, which he manages to get booked for a show at an art gallery. On the other hand, they fuel his nightmarish replays of the attack as well as other fantasies. One imagined scenario involves new neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann) who spurns his romantic intentions.

It’s an ambitious attempt to bring to the screen the mental goings on of this troubled man whose recovery appears doubtful. But it is too much. The doll scenarios occupy huge chunks of screen time and many are redundant. The fantasy world becomes tiresome.

The women, seen as dolls as well as real people, include Gwendoline Christie, Meritt Wever, upcoming R & B singer Janelle Monae, Eiza Gonzalez and Leslie Zemeckis, wife of the film’s director Robert Zemeckis. (Diane Kruger appears only as a doll.)

But… does Carell stand a chance at getting awards love? His performance is good in a flawed film. Carryover from his work in the film Vice and the general good will he seems to convey in real life may go along with Welcome To Marwen to get his name in the mix. Playing a damaged individual is often the path to an acting nomination. As long as one does not go “full retard.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns

You need this movie. Mary Poppins Returns will make you smile. It will make you happy.

Unless you’re a hard-edged grouch. Or a person who thinks nothing could ever capture the magic of the original Mary Poppins. Hey, the new version brings some new and different magic.

They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Well, not often. Director Rob Marshall successfully brought Chicago and Into The Woods to the screen in this century, but the big movie musical is a rare bird these days. He was a natural choice to bring Mary back.

Mary Poppins Returns has trippy visuals, catchy songs and a pair of lead actors who are perfect. Emily Blunt in the title role blends the prim and proper Poppins temperament with a touch of whimsy. Lin-Manuel Miranda as lamplighter Jack delivers a thousand-watt smile and big time charisma.

Set in early 20th century London, the Banks kids from the original Mary Poppins are grown now. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is a widower with three kids. (“Dead mom,” you know, has become a Disney trademark.) The children are cute but not sickeningly so. Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer), Michael’s sister, is unmarried and provides a vague romantic possibility for Jack.

The family is about to lose their house during an economic “slump” because Michael took out a loan and failed to pay it back. Banker Wilkins (Colin Firth) is foreclosing on as many homes as he can. Something has to be done to save the home! Of course, the nanny who mysteriously reappears plays a big role in getting the mission accomplished.

The film’s highlights are the fantasy segments and the songs. Blunt’s “Can You Imagine That” is an earworm. Miranda’s performance (with a company of dancers) of “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” is a showstopper. It’s the song that will likely lead into intermission when the inevitable stage version appears. (Although the sight of all the lamplighters marching down the street carrying lit torches triggered a Charlottesville flashback for a brief second.)

The film has just enough of Dick Van Dyke to satisfy fans of the 1964 original Poppins film. Julie Andrews chose not to do a cameo. Her spot was taken by Angela Lansbury. Nonagenarians rock!

Meryl Streep’s turn as Mary’s cousin Topsy and the song she shares with the cast are less than great but her wacky upside down curiosity shop has strong possibilities as a future attraction at Disney parks. Topsy’s over-the-top Russian accent elicits a comment from Jack which may be an inside joke about Meryl’s proclivity to employ accents in her many roles.

Mary Poppins Returns is an upbeat film for the whole family. (Rated PG.) If you can stand a little bit of goodness and light and joy and fun in your life, don’t miss it.