Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Soon-to-be 70-year-old actress Charlotte Rampling has been around for six decades, and in the touching drama 45 Years (opening today), she finally has a role she can sink her teeth into. Of course, she's had a lot to chew on lately with that foot in her mouth, following some controversial statements she made in regards to the lack of diversity at this year's Academy Awards. The Academy of course, should be under fire for a second straight year of having no persons of color nominated for any of the major awards. But despite her recent comments, the Academy got one thing right in nominating Rampling for Best Actress. She definitely deserves accolades for her deeply powerful, subtle performance in 45 Years.
The film is a rare one these days: An organic drama about an elderly couple, dealing with things few movies do with people who are up in age. Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate Mercer (Rampling) are an English couple on the brink of their 45th wedding anniversary, with plans to celebrate the milestone with a gathering of close friends and family. Not too many couples celebrate their 45th anniversary, but we learn that Geoff had some medical trouble around the time of their 40th, and to wait until their 50th? Well you know, the clock is ticking. On a seemingly normal day in their lives, Geoff finds out from a news report that the body of his former lover - from some 50 years ago - was finally discovered. This woman fell tragically to her death, and while the memories of her had seemed buried, the finality of the news rekindles something within Geoff, affecting him deeply. Needless to say, Kate is affected as well.
From there, Kate and Geoff deal with this news, and try to figure out what it means to them. The result is a profound character study, a movie that takes its time, despite the somewhat short 95-minute running time. Many scenes play out in one long take, enough to sometimes make you wonder why this wasn't a stage production. The answer is that the heart, the emotion, the center of the film takes place on Charlotte Rampling's face...the intimate close-ups and nuances of which would be hard to find in a theater. For that, film was the perfect choice to tell the story of 45 Years.
True, on the surface, not much "happens" in this movie. But for a couple that has been married for that long, it feels accurate. Much happens beneath the surface though, as Kate digs a little deeper than she probably intended, and uncovers some truths that once let out of the box, cannot be returned there. Both performances - by Rampling and Courtenay - are remarkable, and despite the somber pace, they both keep the movie alive and breathing with their interaction.
The body that was discovered was frozen solid, like many of our memories, stuck in time. It may be cliche that a movie about an aging couple deals with themes of time running out, but here it is done remarkably well. With the whole film taking place only over a couple of days leading up to their anniversary gala, we still are made to feel the long history between man and woman, the complexities that go into any relationship, and the struggles inherent in spending one's lifetime with another. Not everything is perfect, and boy can your perspective change. Even after all of these years, both Kate and Geoff have miles of undiscovered territory left to unearth within one another.
By the time Geoff stands up to give a speech at his anniversary party, the words that he says, that you might come to expect at such an event, take on a much deeper meaning now that we see what this couple has gone through, and what they still have ahead of them. He talks about the importance of the choices you make, especially about the choices you make when you are young, not realizing that there are decisions being made still that have tremendous consequences and rewards attached to them. Happiness, the film seems to say, is a matter of perspective and perseverance. The final sequence - where the two share a dance to their wedding song, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" by The Platters - the things going on with Rampling are enough to win her an Oscar right there. Here is a song about love being blind, about love being lost, and the unclear, cloudy affect love has on one's soul. She has a choice right then and there - an incredibly important choice that will have lasting affects on her life - to forgive and accept. Her face captures it all. Listen to the words of the song in context of the film, and it is enough to tear you apart.
45 Years has a lot to say, yet the power of its message is delivered by Rampling, who delivers it without using many words at all.
Genre: Drama, Romance
Run Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James
Based on the short story by David Constantine
Written & Directed by Andrew Haigh (Weekend, Greek Pete)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
How do you suck the life, all meaning and purpose, out of a tragedy that is still fresh in the minds of the American public? Apparently the answer to that question is to hire Michael Bay to direct a film adaptation of it. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (opening today), is the "true story" of the raid on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, that claimed the life of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens back in 2012. It doesn't feel like three years have passed since that horrific event, mostly because it is still lingering in the news surrounding Hillary Clinton's role in the event. Bay manages to create a film that fits perfectly into his canon of mostly hollow, meaningless action movies that he has become known for over his long, commercially-successful career.
Look no further than Bay's four Transformer movies, his two Bad Boys films, or films like The Rock, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, if you are skimming for what 13 Hours "feels" like. Bay's universe includes massive explosions, sexy vehicles and not one camera tripod to be found apparently (the "shaky cam" approach is used throughout 13 Hours, to dizzying affect). It includes faux-sentimental speeches, flawless heroes and a penchant for the over-dramatic score. You don't go to a Michael Bay movie for a dose of reality, or a history lesson. You go for the carnage.
And when the topic is a robot invasion or fictional cops, at least Michael Bay's brand can be stomached. But by tackling not only a real occurrence, but a very recent, fresh one, Bay manages not only a misfire, but one that borders on insulting and offensive to those who were involved.
The biggest problem is that the Benghazi attack and the circumstances surrounding it, are not put in any sort of context for the audience. You might as well have turned on a video game, picked up the controller and started shooting at whatever the game informs you is the enemy. Context could have helped this film immensely, but instead it decides to use tired Hollywood tropes to set- up characters that it hopes you invest deeply in. But don't worry, the swelling music in the background will cue you as to when you should care.
The film focuses on an independent security team (portrayed by John Krasinski of "The Office," James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman and Dominic Fumusa) and the chaotic situation they found themselves in when the Embassy was suddenly overthrown by vicious militants. Bay's version of the enemy gives them the same skillful aim of an army of blind StormTroopers, but I digress. Under-manned and with no immediate help coming, these brave soldiers had to secure themselves and protect those around them for as long as they could, despite the ongoing onslaught.
Of course, the terrible attack ended with the death of our Ambassador, an occurrence that has since been politicized. The film at least has the decency to not show Ambassador Stevens's death on-screen, but it does suggest that the powers-that-be, had they allowed our Secret Soldiers to act sooner, would have been able to prevent that outcome. There is a version of this story that could have been meaningful, where the attack and the losses could have meant something. But this opportunity was side-stepped in favor of a series of explosions, many of which are in slow-motion or way larger than they should have been (each and every car in the film explodes as if it had been rigged with TNT).
What is really unbelievable in this "true story" is that the Americans that were close to the Ambassador were apparently being overseen by a tyrannical villain named Bob (David Costabile, the chemist Gale Boetticher from Breaking Bad). He is the sort of bad manager only found in the movies, where he has it out for the good guys for no known reason, and impedes our heroes from doing their jobs.
But the worst offense in the film is its attempt to strike a comedic, light-hearted tone throughout. This is not a funny story. Yet all of the soldiers have enough one-liners ready to fire as they do bullets. How and why should the story of this catastrophe be made light of? The script is almost as reprehensible as having cast John Krasinski in the key dramatic role. At no time was he able to ascend being seen as Jim from The Office. I kept waiting for him to look at the camera and make a face.
13 Hours feels even longer, and is just a travesty on many levels. Sure, the movie is patriotic, almost to propaganda-like levels, but Michael Bay should be ashamed of himself. And that's saying quite a lot.
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Thriller
Run Time: 2 hours, 36 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck Co-Written & Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Birdman, Biutiful, Babel, 21 Grams)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Anyone familiar with the work of writer/director Charlie Kaufman would expect nothing less than Anomalisa (opening today). It's a quirky, mesmerizing exploration of a man trapped under the weight of his mundane life. This is clearly an adult-only film (no kids whatsoever, trust me), making its unique stop-motion animation style even more unnerving to watch. Stealing from its poster, Anomalisa is one of the most "human" films of the year, despite the fact that it stars only puppets. It requires a second-viewing to take the film in wholly, because just seeing it once may be a disservice to the complex issues it tackles. And while it didn't crack my Top 10 List of 2015, it was damn close.
The story, printed out as a synopsis, does not do the film justice but here it goes anyway. Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a popular author and somewhat of a guru in the customer service industry. As the film begins, he is arriving in Cincinnati to deliver a seminar on his new book. He lands at the airport, awkwardly interacts with his taxi driver and checks in at his hotel, "The Fregoli" (more on that later). He settles into his room, orders room service and decides to look up an old flame that lives in the area.
Almost immediately, you will realize that something is...off. Every single person that Michael interacts with has the same exact face, and the same exact voice (provided by Tom Noonan, who brilliantly breathes life into a myriad of characters). It is clear that Michael is not happy and that he is dealing with some complex emotional issues. Even a call home to his wife and child (both again heard with the same voice as everyone else) tip us off to Michael's psychological troubles.
After a tense encounter with his old flame at the hotel lounge, Michael suddenly hears something...different. A beautiful female voice, the first person we see him encounter that looks and sounds different from the rest. This girl is Lisa, or "Anomalisa" (like "anomale," voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). She is in town with a friend to attend Michael's seminar, and he is a big inspiration in her life even before meeting him in the flesh (or the felt, or whatever). Michael is awe-struck by her, enamored with her, and by the end of the night, feels ready to leave his wife and child to be with her. He has finally found a purpose, something that inspires him. At least, at first.
Kaufman isn't subtle about his references to "Fregoli" in the film (it's the name of the hotel Michael stays at, and the audio play in which this film was adapted from, he wrote under the pen name Francis Fregoli). This is in reference to a condition known as the "Fregoli Delusion," a psychological disorder where "a person holds a delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person." It's not directly stated that Michael suffers from this, but it's clear that this concept is used to illustrate Michael's thoughts on his own existence.
The film is not all head-trippy though. It is actually, completely relatable. The entire, casual opening of the film puts Michael in situations that are instantly connectable to an audience, from dealing with others at an airport, to the awkward small-talk and banter that takes place inside a cab (Try the chili! And go to the Zoo, it's Zoo-sized!). Or how about when the bellhop shows him to his room, and points out "and that's the bathroom." Or when Michael tries to order room service, only to see about four different buttons on the phone that could symbolize the kitchen.
Like Kaufman has the ability to do, he sucks us into an emotional vortex before we even know it. Relating to Michael's boring experiences is only the beginning, it's when he starts interacting with Lisa, and the feelings that pour out afterwards, do we realize that this journey reflects much more than superficial human encounters.
In the end, Anomalisa is really an existential character study, one that makes you ponder some things for yourself. Here is a film that would not have worked the same way if it was done as a live-action movie, or as a cartoon. It has created such a specific, particular look and feel. This is a film that means something, but slyly, Kaufman (and Johnson) leaves that interpretation up to the individual.
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Drama
Run Time: 1 hours, 30 minutes, Rated R
Starring (voices of): David Thewlis, Tom Noonan, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Written by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New York) Co-Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Local Detroit film-maker Mike Rott has crafted a very insightful documentary, spotlighting a real American hero. The film is called "Luft Gangster: Memoirs of a Second Class Hero," and is the story of the now 94-year-old Lt. Colonel Alexander Jefferson, a Detroit-native, who fought and flew for the highly-coveted Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. This documentary excels not only in creating a lasting tribute to a worthy subject, but in putting his plight in proper context as to the racial and social climate of the times. Of course, many of us have heard or are familiar with the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-African-American military pilots who were racially segregated during WWII. Many of us have also seen the recent Hollywood film, Red Tails, which gave us the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. Hilariously in Luft Gangster, when making a speech to a roomful of students gathered in his honor, Lt. Col. Jefferson tells them about Red Tails that "nothing in it is true" and that it is "pure Hollywood." This line immediately peaks our interest and gets us involved in the real history of the Airmen.
And while the film and Lt. Col. Jefferson's story are endearing, portions of the tale are infuriating. A memo around the time of WWII from a high-ranking official warned about "the Negroes" and their supposed flaws, going so far as to say, plainly, that the Negroes are inferior to the white man. Early on, Lt. Col. Jefferson tells a story about how he was brought to Atlanta briefly as a child, but made a derogatory comment to a white store owner. His father immediately got him out of the deep South and back to Detroit, for fear of racial retaliation. It's against this backdrop that the story of the Tuskegee Airmen really takes flight.
Once the social climate is made clear to us, the film spends a lot of time on the personal experiences of Lt. Col. Jefferson. On his 19th mission during the war, he is shot down and captured by German forces and saw first-hand the travesties within a concentration camp. He never lost his spirit and continued to press on, finally being liberated.
With all the much-deserved attention the Tuskegee Airmen have gotten over the years, we also tend to have forgotten that the horrible racial climate they left before the war didn't go anywhere once they got home. Even though they were known as the most efficient air force in the military, they were not treated as heroes upon returning back to America. Yes, Red Tails this movie ain't.
Lt. Col. Jefferson is the perfect subject to deliver such weighty material, because he is a humorous, engaging man, full of vim and vigor. He may have once been a "Luft Gangster" (German for "air"), but he has always remained a humble, educated and positive spirit. It's no surprise that he is well-loved by an entire community, not only for his war efforts, but because of his influence as a teacher to thousands of kids who learned from him and were inspired by him in the classroom.
Luft Gangster: Memoirs of a Second Class Hero is even more profound knowing that Lt. Col. Jefferson is a Detroit-er through and through. His is a story of someone that came from nothing, who despite all odds, persevered. The film itself is a loving, reverent tribute to an honorable man, worthy of being honored.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
It is exciting that Leonardo DiCaprio is finally generating serious Best Actor buzz at the upcoming Academy Awards for his role in The Revenant (opening today). DiCaprio is undeniably one of our more prestigious film actors, having giving us several profound, memorable performances over the past several decades, despite never winning an Oscar (he was nominated three times for Best Actor - The Wolf of Wall Street, Blood Diamond and The Aviator - while being nominated once for Supporting Actor in What's Eating Gilbert Grape). He is as A-list as you can get, and with such a prolific filmography, he definitely is deserving of Hollywood's top acting prize. And if he does score himself some Oscar gold this February, kudos to him. It's just too bad that he would be getting it for what has got to be his most superficial, one-dimensional performance in his well-established career.
Yes, DiCaprio can do torture. In The Revenant, that's pretty much all he does. His character, based on the real-life Hugo Glass, is in constant pain and suffering - unbearable, brutal suffering - with his acting petal slammed to the proverbial metal from the jump. There are no nuances to director Alejandro G. Inarritu's cold, bloody revenge epic: This is emotion served on a digital scale, not analog, with nothing in-between all or nothing at all.
Inarritu is of course coming off of an Oscar win himself, both for co-writing and directing last year's Best Picture winner, Birdman. That film too, wowed us with what it was able to create cinematically. The cinematography was itself, one of the more compelling elements of the story. If Birdman had not been done as one, seemingly-continuous shot from start to finish, it's hard to believe that the film would have received any critical attention at all. The Revenant, in this regard, is exactly the same. It's a stunningly beautiful, cold, chilling movie. It takes place almost entirely in the vast, empty winterish, hellish landscape of the early 1800's open frontier. Many shots are awe-inspiring, larger-than-life. Some of the spiritual elements the film toys with are heightened by a physical environment so graceful and marvelous, even an atheist might consider the presence of something more powerful.
And for about the first 30 minutes or so of The Revenant, you will stare wide-eyed at the screen as you get fully sucked in to this harsh, accursed world of trappers and hunters fighting for survival in this boundless woodland. There is an attack that is so immersive, you might fear the person sitting next to you in the theater might have gotten struck by an arrow. Then there is the "bear scene," one of the most violent, unflinching attack sequences ever put to film.
But whether or not the bear rapes DiCaprio (which became an actual question following early screening...a theory debunked by the filmmakers) is the least of the film's problems. Despite its beautifully polished exterior, there is nothing to The Revenant. It is the most epic torture porn movie ever made. The Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail may be the only other film character to ever suffer such punishment, and live.
Glass is an experienced huntsman whose party is attacked by hostile natives. After somehow surviving a grizzly attack by a bear, Glass should be dead...but isn't. The leader of his party, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) does not want to leave him behind, despite the wishes of fellow hunter John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Without giving away the few plot developments that follow, Fitzgerald ends up committing some heinous, villainous acts that eventually put him toe-to-toe with the man who was once nearly left for dead.
With DiCaprio groaning, screaming and fainting his way through the film, the story is not helped by the other two thinly drawn characters that accompany him. Captain Henry is the wholesome do-gooder and Hardy's Fitzgerald is one twirly-mustache shy of a stereotypical cartoon villain. They are Dudley Do-Right and Snidely Whiplash. And just because they are based on real people does not mean that the screenwriters wrote them as such. When Dudley...I mean, Captain Henry...inexplicably offers to accompany Glass to find Fitzgerald late in the film, I had had about all I could take (why would Henry go it alone with a guy who is barely alive, when he has several others in his party who could have accompanied him? Because the ending wouldn't have been nearly as cinematic probably).
The Revenant is a very "surface" movie, a revenge flick with no deeper purpose or meaning when all is said and done. I hope DiCaprio does get an Oscar one day, he deserves it. Just not for this role.
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Thriller
Run Time: 2 hours, 36 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest
Goodluck Co-Written & Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Birdman, Biutiful, Babel, 21 Grams)
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