Movie Review: The Brothers Bloom (2008)


TitleThe Brothers Bloom
Release Date: May 15, 2009
Director: Rian Johnson
Production Company:
Summary/Review:

I wasn’t aware of the work of  Rian Johnson before I saw The Last Jedi (which I will always love despite the concerted effort of whiny manbabies try to discredit it) and Knives Out. I was eager to see Johnson’s earlier work and The Brothers Bloom is his second feature film as director. Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody play the titular brothers Stephen and Bloom whose childhood in foster homes leads them to a life as conmen.

While Stephen has always enjoyed writing the elaborate stories behind their complex con jobs, Adrien has regretted not being able to form real relationships.  Stephen plays one last con with the mark being Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), a quirky heiress who lives alone in a New Jersey mansion.  The brothers and their silent partner Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi, she literally doesn’t talk, that’s the joke) carry out a multinational plot and soon it becomes hard for even Bloom to realize what is real and what is part of the con.

I thought that the movie would end up having Penelope playing a con on the brothers Bloom, or perhaps that Stephen was using the con to set up Bloom with Penelope romantically.  Neither of these twists happen although Bloom and Penelope become a couple anyway.  For some reason I can’t understand the movie appears to be set in the present day but the brothers wear 1930s style clothing and travel on a transatlantic steamship. The whole feel of the movie is kind of a cross of Wes Anderson’s precious style with early New Hollywood films of the late 60s/early 70s.  There are some good moments but overall the movie doesn’t really grab me.  I would of liked it better if Penelope and Bang Bang went off on their own adventure and left the boy drama behind.

Rating: **1/2

TV Review: Loki (2021)


Title: Loki
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Michael Waldron
Director: Kate Herron
Episodes: 6
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

WARNING: This review contains light spoilers, so if you’re sensitive to spoilers and not watched all 6 episodes of Loki, please don’t read

This Disney+ series picks up from a scene in Avengers: Endgame when the Norse trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) uses the Tesseract to escape the Avengers, and over six episodes ends up in a completely different place that appears to be setting up the next phase of Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Loki is captured by the Time Variance Authority (TVA), a bureaucratic organization that operates out its massive mid-century modern headquarters to maintain the Sacred Timeline by “pruning” branches from the timeline.

Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) condemns Loki to be erased from existence but Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson) convinces her to allow Loki help investigate another Loki variant who has killed several time agents.  They find the Loki variant and discover it is a woman who uses the alias Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino). Loki and Sylvie end up teaming up and begin uncovering the dark truths behind the TVA. The final episode avoids the typical Marvel battle for a quieter conversation with the TVA’s creator He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors).  As someone who hasn’t read 60 years of Marvel Comics, I found it a bit frustrating to not be aware of the identity behind He Who Remains until after I read reviews of the episode, but he appears to be setting up to be the MCU’s next Thanos-level threat.

Loki is another excellent limited series that takes storytelling to new and interesting places.  The acting is on point with Hiddleston getting a chance to show his ranges as Loki and Di Martino is a great addition.  I also really enjoy the style of the TVA and the self-referential humor.

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

Movie Review: The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)


Title: The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Release Date: June 7, 2019
Director: Joe Talbot
Production Company: Plan B Entertainment | Longshot Features
Summary/Review:

Jimmie Fails (Jimmie Fails) is young Black man living in San Francisco.  Alienated from both of his parents, he lives in a cramped apartment with his friend Montgomery “Mont” Allen (Jonathan Majors) and Mont’s grandfather Allen (Danny Glover).  In his spare time, Jimmie goes to his childhood home, a Victorian-style house in the Fillmore District, and carries out repairs on the exterior, much to the annoyance of the older white couple who now live there.  When the older couple vacate the house due to an estate conflict in their family, Jimmie and Mont move in as squatters.

The movie satirizes gentrification and displacement – the Fillmore was a predominantly Black neighborhood from the end of World War II until the 1990s.  But it is also a very personal story of Jimmie coming to terms with facing reality and not cling to happy memories of his childhood. I appreciate that the two lead characters are introverted, artistic types who don’t typically get to be the main characters in a movie.  The result is a quiet and introspective film. I didn’t particularly like the dénouement where Mont confronts Jimmie during a play, but the rest of the film is golden.

Joe Talbot, like many directors before him, incorporates the beauty of San Francisco in many shots, especially ones of Jimmie skateboarding the city’s famous hills.  The soundtrack also includes San Francisco music by Jefferson Airplane and a beautiful cover of “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair).”  Jello Biafra (of Dead Kennedys fame) and Thora Birch make brief but memorable appearances.  Talbot cites Birch’s 2001 movie Ghost World as an influence on his film.

Rating: ***1/2

 

Classic Movie Review: L’Eclisse (1962)


Title: L’Eclisse
Release Date: 12 April 1962
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Production Company: Cineriz
Summary/Review:

Before I jump into the main review, I just want to note that old movies should have a warning label when a completely random scene in blackface is going to occur.  I wasn’t ready when the film’s protagonist Vittoria (Monica Vitti) visits a neighbor Marta (Mirella Ricciardi), a white woman born and raised in Kenya , suddenly has her entire body covered in dark makeup and performs a “tribal” dance.  To be fair, unlike some movies, the audience is not supposed to be on Vittoria’s side in this moment, and there’s a pointed judgement of Marta when she reveals she believes the Black Kenyans seeking civil rights are “monkeys.”

This is just one scene though in a longer film that follows Vittoria on her perambulations through Rome over an ingeminate amount of time, although it feels like it’s a few weeks at most.  The movie begins with her ending a long-term relationship with Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) because she does not wish to marry.  Over the course of the film she gets to know her mother’s young stockbroker Piero (Alain Delon) and reluctantly forms a romantic partnering with him that feels doomed from the start.  Most of the film is shot on location emphasizing the post-war modernist design of Rome and its outskirts.

I feel this movie has many parallels with Cleo, From 5 to 7.  Both films feature a stylish and conventionally attractive young woman, who struggle with internal turmoil and inability to connect with others against the background of a European capital.  They even both touch upon African colonialism and independence movements.  However I feel that Cleo, From 5 to 7 is the stronger film because it makes you feel an emotional bond with the protagonist while L’Eclisse just makes you feel hollow.

There are several scenes I liked in this film.  The opening scene of the breakup is strong as both characters have things they want to say but not the words to say them. One scene in the Rome Stock Exchange lampoons the greed of capitalists forced to take a moment of silence for a recently deceased colleague as they grumble about lost earning potential.  And the final sequence of the film where there are multiple shots of Vittoria and Piero’s meeting spot with neither character ever appearing is a fascinating way to end a film.

Ultimately though, I have to agree with film critic Jon Lisi who wrote that L’Eclisse  “is beautifully made, historically important, and boring as hell.” After Blowup and L’Avventura this is the third Antonioni film I’ve watched and I’m glad there are no more on my list of Classic Films. I can see why his work is considered important but I don’t enjoy watching them.

Rating:**1/2

Classic Movie Review: M*A*S*H (1970)


Title: M*A*S*H
Release Date: January 25, 1970
Director: Robert Altman
Production Company: Aspen Productions | Ingo Preminger Productions
Summary/Review:

My mom was a fan of the tv series M*A*S*H so watching M*A*S*H was a big part of my childhood.  We could watch two old reruns every weeknight, while the new episodes on Monday night were the first show I was allowed to stay up past 9pm to watch. After the last episode of M*A*S*H was broadcast, one of our local stations showed the original movie.  As a 9-year-old, I wasn’t impressed with the movie. I liked Alan Alda and Mike Farrell a lot better than these guys I’d never heard of in the movie. I also found the movie to be very mean-spirited and was bored that so much of it took place at really stupid football game.

Revisiting the movie now as an adult, with an appreciation for Robert Altman as a director and the acting of Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, and knowing the context of the Vietnam War the movie was responding to, I figured I might like it better.  I did not.  The movie is angry and mean-spirited and really none of the jokes land for me.  And the whole football plot lasts for about 30 minutes, so it is 1/4th of the movie’s runtime.

In the context of the counterculture/antiwar movement, I guess the anti-authoritarian antics of Hawkeye Pierce (Sutherland), Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt), and Trapper John McIntyre (Gould) may have been appealing. But they’re not resisting the system so much as doing whatever they want and letting other people clean up their messes (and rushing through surgery in order to play golf is the antithesis of counterculture). M*A*S*H  is described as an anti-war film but I don’t see it actually opposing war.  Instead it falls more into the tradition going back to at least to World War II of veterans creating popular entertainment that lampoons the ineptitude of the military, but not questioning the nation’s militaristic goals (this tradition includes Hiester Richard Hornberger Jr., the politically conservative veteran who authored the book MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors under the name Richard Hooker).

But the worst part of the movie is its mistreatment of women. In one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, the Swamp men make a bet regarding whether Major Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) is a natural blonde.  They set up chairs around the shower tent and watch as the canvas is lifted to expose her naked body. Kellerman’s performance captures rage, terror, and humiliation and I can’t imagine how anyone can watch it and not be on her side.  One could argue that Altman was simply reflecting an accurate depiction of how women were (and continue to be) abused in the military. But everything in the context of the film says that Houlihan is a regular Army stuffed shirt and a “bitch” who deserves her punishment and we should be laughing at her.

The Sexual Revolution that was occuring at the time this film was released brought many positive changes.  But within patriarchal thinking, sexual liberation was interpreted that women should always be sexually available to men. This attitude is prevalent in this movie which served as a progenitor to the raunchy comedies of the 70s and 80s. From Animal House to Caddyshack to Revenge of the Nerds, we see again and again that “sticking it to the Man” is accomplished by humiliating and sexually abusing women.

My feeling is that in 1970, M*A*S*H was one of the first Hollywood films to caustically lampoon the military, mock religious devotion, drop an f-bomb, and talk openly about sex. It must’ve seemed refreshing for audiences at the time to see something they’ve never seen before.  Over 50 years later, we’ve had films that addressed all of these issues in ways that are far less problematic and often in ways that actually make me laugh. M*A*S*H  will be remembered for launching the careers of Altman, Sutherland, and Gould, as well as spawning one of the most beloved tv comedy series of all-time.  But the film itself doesn’t deserve its spot on the AFI 100 or any great movies list.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Arrival (2016)


In the final installment of my miniseries of Space Exploration Movies of the 2010s, the aliens come and discover us!

Title: Arrival 
Release Date: November 11, 2016
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Production Company: FilmNation Entertainment | Lava Bear Films | 21 Laps Entertainment
Summary/Review:

A dozen strange spacecraft arrive in various parts of the Earth.  One of them is in the United States in a remote part of Montana.  The US Army recruits Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a renowned professor of linguistics, to help them learn the aliens’ language so they can communicate.  With the help of physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Dr. Banks races to create some rudimentary form of communication the giant squid-like creatures before the more military-minded in the US and abroad take defensive action.

I like how this movie has a slow build.  We see the arrival of the alien ships from Banks’ perspective as it goes from a news story that interrupts her work day to something she’s personally involved in. The design of the ship and how the alien “heptapods” interact with the human scientists has brings a nice level of strangeness.  I’m sure actual linguists can poke lots of holes in how linguistics is used in the movie, but it works as a plot device for novices like me.

The basic premise of the film is one that goes back at least to The Day the Earth Stood Still, in that aliens are trying to help humanity from our own self-destruction.  Having recently watched Gravity and Interstellar, I also see a lot of common plot points, expressing our present-day concerns.  One weird overlap between Arrival and Gravity is that the lead woman character is grieving the death of a daughter (although that plays into a plot twist in Arrival).  The movie rests on a terrific performance by Amy Adams and the interesting direction and design of the spacecraft and aliens.  The rest of the cast doesn’t get to do much and various subplots are kind of “meh,” which keeps this from being a great film, but it’s still a pretty good one.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Interstellar (2014)


Here is part two of my miniseries of Space Exploration Movies of the 2010s!

Title: Interstellar
Release Date: November 5, 2014
Director: Christopher Nolan
Production Company: Paramount Pictures | Warner Bros. Pictures
Legendary Pictures | Syncopy | Lynda Obst Productions
Summary/Review:

In the near future, the Earth has reached a crisis point and after a population crash, the surviving humans focus on raising food while facing blight and Dust Bowl-like conditions.  Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot forced into farming who raises his children to be intellectually curious about science, especially his daughter Murph (played as a child by Mackenzie Foy).  Cooper and Murph discover a secret NASA base and Professor John Brand (Michael Caine) recruits Cooper to pilot a space mission along with his daughter Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway).

Their goal is to explore a wormhole that sentient beings have opened near Saturn that may lead to habitable planets that humanity could escape to.  Because of relativity, Cooper and the crew of the Endurance, which includes a couple of weird looking robots named TARS and CASE (operated by Bill Irwin, of Mr. Noodle fame), age at a slower rate that the people on Earth.  So while Cooper and Dr. Brand are making contact with previous explorers who identified promising planets, an adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) works on a gravity propulsion system that would allow a mass exodus of humanity.

This movie feels a lot like science fiction films of the 1970s and 80s than the flashy sci-fi movies of the 2010s. It’s also reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey because it tells a story mostly within the parameters of hard science, although like 2001, the denouement is fantastical.  McConaughey delivers all of his dialogue in a gravely near-whisper, which gets grating at times, but it’s a different role for him than say Dazed and Confused or How to Lose a Guy in 10 DaysInterstellar felt overlong as a movie, although I could see it being fleshed out into a successful limited TV series. Overall, Interstellar is an interesting, thought-provoking, and entertaining film of adventure and human drama.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Gravity (2013)


Here’s my first review this week for a mini-series of Space Exploration Movies of the 2010s.

Title: Gravity
Release Date: October 4, 2013
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Production Company: Heyday Films | Esperanto Filmoj
Summary/Review:

The explosion of a satellite in earth orbit leads to a chain reaction of destruction from a cloud of high speed space debris. The debris destroys the Space Shuttle Explorer leaving only two survivors who were performing extravehicular activity at the time of the strike.  Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a mission specialist on her first mission to space while Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is a garrulous NASA veteran on his final mission.  Together they need to make their way to the International Space Station and then to China’s Tiangon space station to find a spacecraft that can return them safely to Earth. The film attempts to be scientifically grounded (although I’m sure that nitpickers can find many errors) and prevent a plausible if extremely unlikely series of events in their attempt to reach safety.

I did find it weird that Kowalski and Stone talk to one another like they’re just getting to know one another when they would’ve been training together for months.  I also was a bit annoyed that Kowalski got to be confident and competent all the time while Stone panics and makes mistakes, although this does pay off later in the film.  In the 21st century, movies have been getting longer and longer, which isn’t always a bad thing, but I appreciate that Gravity is taut 91 minutes long.  It’s really all action from beginning to end, and Bullock puts in a great performance for someone who is basically carrying the movie on her own for the better part of it’s runtime.

I’m growing to appreciate the work of Alfonso Cuarón, who directed the best Harry Potter movie and one of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen, and seems to excel at making wildly different styles of film.  I’ll have to watch some more of his films.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: In The Heights (2021)


Title: In The Heights
Release Date: June 10, 2021
Director: Jon M. Chu
Production Company: 5000 Broadway Productions | Barrio Grrrl! Productions | Likely Story | SGS Pictures | Endeavor Content
Summary/Review:

In the Heights adapts a Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton and Moana fame) with a screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes (based on her book for the musical).  The film tells the story of several people and their dreams in the Latin American enclave of Washington Heights in New York City, mainly of Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban backgrounds. Like most musicals, the narrative is slight but the song and dance numbers are spectacular.  The movie also features a surprising number of special effects that add to the wow factor. Put together this movie packs an emotional punch.

The main characters include:

Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), who doubles as the movie’s narrator, a young adult who runs a bodega and dreams to returning to the Dominican Republic where he had his happiest days as a child.

Vanessa Morales (Melissa Barrera), who works as a hair stlyist but dreams of moving downtown and pursuing a career in fashion designer. She is also Usnavi’s crush who gradually realizes that that feelings are mutual.

Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), who returns after her first year at Stanford University and feels conflicted about bearing the expectations of the community for her success while missing the community while at school and concerned that her father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits) is sacrificing too much to pay tuition.

Benny (Corey Hawkins), an ambitious young man who works as a dispatcher for Kevin’s car and limousine business. He is also a love interest for Nina.

Sonny de la Vega (Gregory Diaz IV), is Usnavi’s cousin who works in the bodega.  Usnavi wants Sonny to come with him to the Dominican Republic, but Sonny only ever remembers living in New York and wants to follow Nina’s example and go to college.

Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), an elderly Cuban woman who is Usnavi’s foster mother and a highly-regarded member of the community (and an amazing singer!).

The story is primarily set over the three hottest days of the summer (channeling the more cheerful parts of Do the Right Thing) leading up to a blackout.  The characters deal with the everyday struggles of love and money, while touching on bigger issues like gentrification (that’s forcing the beauty salon to move to the Bronx) and the rights of undocumented immigrants (particularly DACA). It’s an excellent movie, and definitely worth seeing on the big screen.  In fact it was my first cinematic experience since before the pandemic!

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Reviews: L’Avventura (1960)


Title: L’Avventura
Release Date: 29 June 1960
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Production Company:
Cino Del Duca
Summary/Review:

Anna (Lea Massari) is a long-distance relationship with Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and meets up with him for a yachting trip in the Mediterranean with her friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) accompanying her.  The yachting party stops at a small, rocky island in the Aeolian chain.  Anna and Sandro have an argument and later Anna disappears.  The rest of the film is Claudia and Sandro searching for Anna even as everyone else in the party seems indifferent.

Anna is not missing for even 12 hours before Sandro begins aggressively making sexual advances on Claudia.  Because this is a movie made in the 60s in Italy, Claudia doesn’t kick Sandro in the groin as he deserves but instead gradually begins to reciprocate the attraction. And so their journey through Italy following hints of where Anna may have gone is also a romantic fling.

The film has a strong technical aspect filmed on location in stunning natural and human-built landscapes as the backgrounds and unique cinematographic approaches to filming in them.  I was glad that Claudia ended up being the main character after first thinking it would be Anna because Vitti is a much better actor.  Or to be more charitable, Claudia appears to the be the only female character in the film who is written as a complete human and Vitti seizes the opportunity to make the most of it.  Several times in the film Claudia and other women are surrounded by man who ogle them.  It seems to me that a theme of this movie is that men treat women as objects who are disposable and easily replaced.

Critics who favor L’Avventura tend to play up its influence on the visual language of cinema. Others say that it is pretentious and dull.  I tend to lean in the latter direction, but I also sense that this is one of those movies that can only be fully appreciated on the big screen.

Rating: **1/2