Thursday, May 4, 2017

Captain Fantastic

Viggo Mortensen, George Mackay,
Samantha Isler, Frank Langella

"He prepared Them for Everything
except the Outside world"


You will be wrong if you assume from its title that this is a superhero action filled movie. Instead, you will be mesmerized by this indie film with an unconventional plot with well developed characters that shall tug at your heartstrings. Well if you are so inclined because I admit not everyone can identify nor agree with the way these characters live their lives.

Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) lives in a deeply forested area (somewhere in the Pacific Northwest) where he has set up residence with his wife Leslie and their 6 children whose ages range from 6 to 18 years of age. Each morning, he awakens them with the sound of a bagpipe, then they have combat training where they are taught survival skills like hunting, weapons training, mountain climbing. 

During the evenings they all gather around a camp fire to read books about quantum physics and novels from radical thinkers like Dostoevsky, Karl Marx and Nabokov. The children are well versed both in survival skills as well as intellectually albeit their views are derived mostly from extremely left wing ideologies. Something which their parents have instilled in them since birth, no doubt. 

Early on, it is revealed that Leslie has been confined in some institution for bi-polar/depression by her parents who don't approve of her decision to live off the grid. Tragically, she kills herself so Ben must bring the grief stricken children out of the wilderness for her funeral. Something Ben is determined to stop as Leslie expressed in her will, she be cremated and her ashes flushed down the toilet. Yes, quite eccentric but that is how they roll. Heh!

The film turns into a long road trip to New Mexico where we see how difficult it is for the kids to adapt to the outside world where gadgets, pop culture and everything they have openly been taught to reject is now glaring at them up close and personal. 

Culture shock manifests itself and each of them react differently to their discovery of the 'real' world. It is an eye opener too for Ben as this experience raises troubling questions about his parenting style and how this alternative lifestyle might affect the future of the closely-knitted clan.

Viggo Mortensen, a very gifted actor who thinks out of the box and doesn't conform to the Hollywood type (which is a good thing, mind you!) is perfect as the authoritarian hippie whose radical views are extreme yet also has a soft heart when it comes to his family. The young actors portraying the children are very credible too. 

The cinematography is vibrant from the lush greenery of the wilderness to the colorful hippie-like attires of the characters. Running at almost 2 hours, it could benefit from some clever editing but its out-of-the-ordinary narrative was refreshing. Highly recommended!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Florence Foster Jenkins

Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant,
Simon Helberg

"The inspiring True story
of the World worst Singer"


Meryl Streep's career has spanned decades and there is no doubt she loves her craft. She is also at a point where her age can limit her choices to a select few roles. But she is also fearlessly brave as an artist who knows her limitations yet still pushes past the boundaries while other actresses (in her same age group) might deem it a risky move for their movie careers.

For instance, Meryl Streep's singing voice is not what made her win acting awards yet she starred in musicals like the movie adaptation of "Mama Mia" and some film whose title escapes me right now, where she played the aging lead vocalist of some rock band.

In this regard, she shares this indomitable spirit with a really colorful character named Florence Foster Jenkins. A New York socialite/heiress in the mid 1940s who is known as the worst singer/soprano in the world yet persisted and was able to stage a concert to a full house (mind you!) at the Carnegie Hall. 

Florence was enthusiastically encouraged and supported by her partner St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) who lavishes her with high praises yet also shields her from any bad reviews by critics of her really horrible performances.

Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) was hired to accompany her on the piano. A young struggling musician who could not believe his luck when he was personally picked by Florence. Little did he know what he was getting himself into ... his look of disbelief when he first hears her sing during their initial practice session is totally priceless!

This is a poignant story of a woman who was either delusional or simply didn't care whether her voice was irritating and her singing was totally terrible. She simply wanted to sing and sing she did with everything she got, usually clad in luxurious jewelry, a bejeweled headpiece (at her final concert she even donned huge angel wings) and extravagantly lavish gowns which she designed herself. 

Mixed emotions prevail as you don't know whether to feel sad for her, rejoice for her, or cringe (covering your ears) once she starts vocalizing with gusto. I believe her partner St. Clair was truly instrumental in making sure she was 'successful'. This makes you question whether he did it out of pity (she was already ailing with a long term disease), out of love (he only wanted her to be happy) or for monetary reasons (her concerts were mostly sold out events). 

This charming film truly doesn't explain that and neither does it intend to mock Ms. Jenkins It celebrates her life, her performances, her passion and her invincible spirit. It flourishes immensely due to the larger than life portrayal by *the* Meryl Streep. I believe that Florence Foster Jenkins deserves to be immortalized on film and recognized for her significant efforts in promoting music and the arts ... never mind she was out of tune in doing so.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Maggie's Plan

Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke,
Julianne Moore

"Chapter Three: A Change of Heart" 


Maggie (Greta Gerwig) desperately wants to have a baby but since she is currently unattached, she develops a plan. She 'commissions' Guy, a former schoolmate to donate his sperm so she can self inseminate herself and raise the child on her own. But life has other plans when she meets John (Ethan Hawke), a married professor/lecturer of anthropology, they have an affair and she gets pregnant. 

Three married years later, John has basically turned into a good for nothing, wanna be novelist while Maggie does all the 'heavy lifting' so to speak. She is pretty convinced she is better off raising her adorable daughter Lily by herself so she hatches another plan. This one involves reuniting her husband John with his ex-wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) who is also from the academe so they can get back together. 

I know it sounds pretty complicated but believe me it isn't hard to follow. This sort of romantic comedy with a twisted love triangle angle unfolds with some laughs, a fair load of sarcasm, flawed yet endearing characters within a nicely conceived dialogue driven narrative.

Greta Gerwig, the "IT" girl of the mumblecore film movement is in her elements here as Maggie. Only a millennial would and could come up with such a plan to sustain her self interests for her own sweet convenience to thrive in life. This is sadly a recurring and for me an alarming trend among some if not most of today's youth. A generation raised in this age of social media, where selfish behavior (selfies) and a wrong sense of entitlement seems to be the common pattern.

She is ably supported by Ethan Hawke, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader and special mention goes to Julianne Moore whose portrayal of Georgette, the icy Danish ex-wife and an expert of ficto-anthropology was spot on. She was amusing and a delight to watch, complete with her exaggerated Danish accent.

By the way, for the uninitiated, Wikipedia describes the term mumblecore as: a sub genre of independent film characterized by naturalistic acting and dialogue (often improvised), low-budget film production, an emphasis on dialogue over plot, and a focus on the personal relationships of people in their 20s and 30s.

"Maggie's Plan" is an apt representation that mirrors the typical life of the millennials generation. I am still on the fence when it comes to this sort of attitude and behavioral patterns because there are certainly pros and cons but sometimes I do fear that the cons outweigh the positives and in my opinion this unfortunately doesn't bode well for the future of the human race.

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Accountant

Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, 
J.K Simmons

"Calculate your Choices"


Ben Affleck stars as Christian Wolff, a freelance accountant with a complex past but it is his present affiliations with certain shady companies whose books he was hired to audit which will make his life much more complicated than ever.

During his childhood, Christian had autism in a period when the disease was still in its early stages of diagnosis so his parents didn't really know to deal with him. The adult Christian is a loner but seems to have done good for himself and manages to keep his illness pretty much under control (thanks to his strict training by his military dad) although there are certain circumstances which trigger his 'outbursts'.

The film is an action thriller with a smart narrative which tends to lose its way once certain side plots overlap. Yet at the same time, it is these side plots which add an emotional element both to its central character as well as to the movie ... so I guess it is not a bad thing as far as "The Accountant" is concerned.  The story unfolds in present day with certain flashback scenes intertwined to give the audience more backgrounder on how Christian evolved throughout the years. 

The supporting cast led by J.K Simmons (as a relentless Treasury Department agent) and Anna Kendrick (in a short yet significant role) among other equally talented actors deliver credible performances.  

But it is truly a Ben Affleck movie as he is in almost every single frame and he does well in this meaty role of a complex character who barely speaks yet his action speaks louder than words. They say that Ben Affleck is a far better director than an actor and I agree but I like to add that he just lacks range and is not necessarily a bad actor, per se.  There I said it. On that note, I believe he does fairly well in "The Accountant". 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Fences

Denzel Washington, Viola Davis,
Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson,
Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby


In "Fences" Viola Davis and Denzel Washington play Rose and Troy Maxson, a blue collar married couple in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Roles they are really familiar with as they enacted them in 2010 in their Broadway revival of August Wilson's 1983 play. She even won a Tony award for her stage rendition.

Well developed and complex characters which give credence to the travails of a working class African American family during an era and in a society where the patriarch always had the last word, no matter if he was right or wrong. Troy Maxson likes to harp on how he was a good baseball player but the color of his skin and his age prevented him from achieving glory. Troy had a very difficult life since childhood and at 53 still labors as a garbage collector trying to make ends meet to provide for his wife, his mentally challenged older brother and two grown sons. 

During that turbulent era, men tend to have a very pessimistic view about the world, their lives and well just about anything and everything. And he is best exemplified through the complex and flawed character of Troy Maxson. Washington is in his elements from his swaggering walk to his eloquently delivered monologues and his depiction made us understand, pity as well as dislike the persona of a man with so much pent up rage, frustration and despair brewing within his egotistical mind.

He is ably matched by Viola Davis as his long suffering yet adoring wife Rose. Her devotion to both Troy and their son Cory is admirable in one sense and also painfully pitiful. She has had a difficult life too and dare I say mostly as a life partner to such an insufferable husband. Yet she still strives and is the glue which keeps that family from self destruction as if their lives is not miserable enough at that stage. Her powerful "What about me? What about my life" soliloquy somewhere towards the end of the film hits you like a ton of brick and pulls really hard at our already broken heartstrings. 

All these praises for the excellent acting of Davis and Washington (as well as the credible performances of the supporting cast) does not make this film, perfect. Denzel's 3rd directed film still has quite a stage play vibe, limiting most of its scenes to the house and backyard area where Troy likes to spew his rants. The last 25 or so minutes of the film felt rushed, cramming in some side plots which were only mentioned in passing during the first half. Perhaps wanting to give more 'air time' to August Wilson's loquacious and dialogue driven script through Troy Maxson's 'outbursts'. 

I can safely say that Viola Davis and Denzel Washington are actors' actor(s) so to watch them act together and opposite each other in a highly moving film is mesmerizing and worth every single penny and minute of our precious time.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

La La Land

Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone,
John Legend

"Here's to the Fools who Dream"


There was a lot of hype over this Damien Chazelle directed musical. Justifiably so because rarely do we get to enjoy a musical amidst all those action filled films of Marvel super heroes out to save our planet from some form of extinction.

I could also see how Hollywood can easily relate to the narrative as most of them did go through numerous auditions while working as a bartender/barista in the hopes of becoming a celebrity in the flashiest of businesses - show business.

Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are both struggling artists with their own mapped out plans on how to reach for the stars. They cross paths, fall in love without losing sight of their dreams - that is the stuff that good romantic comedies are made of - never mind that they had to swing, swirl and vocalize their intentions through catchy songs and choreographed steps inside elaborately attractive set designs. 

The production design takes you on a nostalgic ride with its vibrant cinematography. You can't be faulted for thinking that the story unfolds in the 1960s where Emma Stone regales us wearing lovely pastel colored dresses. Then a smartphone tone rings and you are suddenly brought back to the current times with its pressing problems. Setbacks like money concerns which begs the question: "What would you prioritize ... love or career?" Is it too much to ask for both? In essence, I believe Mia and Sebastian both made the correct decision regardless of whether it was right or wrong.

Damien Chazelle impresses with his fertile and creative mind to present a much welcomed form of escapism from our hasty lives. The same director who amazed with "Whiplash" once again make us appreciate jazz as a music form that is slowly fading. The combined acting (signing and dancing) efforts of both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling was a delight to watch. They melted our hearts with their sparkling performances. 
 

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