Posts Tagged ‘dramatic movie’

Short takes: ‘The Avengers,’ ‘True Grit’ and ‘The Lighthouse’

August 6, 2020
Combination image: ‘The Avengers,’ ‘True Grit’ and ‘The Lighthouse.’

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 6, 2020

Author’s note: The third and last work discussed in this post, The Lighthouse, has a well-deserved R rating because of sexual situations and violence. As such, that part of the post may not be suitable for young and/or sensitive readers. MEM

Joss Whedon’s 2012 Marvel Comics movie, The Avengers, is a delightful superhero romp.

The movie opens with the exiled Asgardian prince Loki (Tom Hiddleston) raiding a federal laboratory and absconding with a mystical power source known as the tesseract. He takes with him physicist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), who’s been experimenting with the ancient device (previously seen powering the bad guys in Captain America: The First Avenger and making a cameo in the end credits scene of Thor), and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), on whom he’s cast a spell that compels their obedience.

With an eye toward recovering the tesseract quickly and quietly, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) assembles a team of capable heroes and brilliant scientists and engineers. The group soon to be known as the Avengers includes Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.); physicist Bruce Banner, who when angered becomes the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, stepping into Edward Norton’s shoes); Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans); Asgardian demigod Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Loki’s stronger but not quite as quick-witted brother; and the incredibly agile Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, reprising her role from Iron Man 2).

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Who goes there? The impressive independent movies ‘The Vast of Night’ and ‘Cosmos’ answer this question in very different ways

July 20, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 20, 2020

On Sunday, I watched a rare movie double-feature, although my viewings were separated by a few hours. The two pictures I watched have a few things in common. They were both independent productions made on shoestring budgets, they were both officially released last year, they both take place over the course of a single night, and they both involve possible contact with alien intelligence.

The better known of these movies is The Vast of Night, which toured the film-festival circuit last year before being released to drive-in theaters in mid-May and premiering exclusively on the Amazon Prime video streaming service later that month. The narrative, which is presented as an episode of an ersatz version of The Twilight Zone, is set entirely in and around the fictitious village of Cayuga, New Mexico, home to 492 souls.

The film focuses on local overnight disc jockey Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) and his young pal, 16-year-old Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), who holds down an evening shift as the town’s telephone operator. Odd things start taking place almost from the moment Fay sits down at her post on a dark autumnal night toward the end of the 1950s. Phone calls are cut off, a frantic woman reports a strange object in the sky over her property, and weird noises blot out part of Everett’s top-of-the-hour newscast on WOTW*.

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Marriage, money and inequality haunt the four March sisters of Greta Gerwig’s strangely delightful ‘Little Women’

December 30, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 30, 2019

Little Women, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel, is a charming chronicle of a Massachusetts family, particularly the challenges faced by the four young daughters.

Alcott’s book, published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, was based on her own life. In reality, her family was beset by poverty and hardship, and the writing of the novel for which she became famous was strictly undertaken for cash. “I plod away although I don’t enjoy this sort of things,” The Sun reports her as having (ungrammatically) confessed in her diary.

Gerwig, here making her third directorial outing, and her second as writer-director after Lady Bird, casts proceedings in a decidedly more glamorous light. The costumes are glorious; the March family’s home is handsome and spacious, if a bit blandly decorated; and writer stand-in Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) is fiercely proud of her story, which she sells to a mercenary publisher named Dashwood (Tracy Letts) in the movie’s final act. (She also begins writing it on her own initiative, unlike in real life.)

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A world-weary, hard-drinking former American diplomat tries to save his friend — and himself — amid a tangle of intrigue in ‘Beirut’

April 30, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 30, 2018

Director Brad Anderson’s new feature, Beirut, is a taut drama set in the war-torn capital of Lebanon.

The movie opens at a lavish reception for a visiting U.S. congressman hosted by American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) and his Lebanese wife, Nadia (Leïla Bekhti), at their lovely villa overlooking Beirut. The party is subject to a pair of interruptions, one minor and one life-shattering.

First, a colleague tells Skiles that intelligence officials want to question the couple’s 13-year-old ward, Karim, who turns out to be the younger brother of a Palestinian bomb-maker who helped plan the raid of the Israeli quarters at the Munich Olympic Games. Rami (Ben Affan) is eager to renew familial bonds, and naturally, he has no reservations about using force. When Rami’s confederates invade the Skiles household to reunite the siblings, Nadia is fatally shot and killed.

The story picks up a decade later, in 1982. Skiles is now an alcoholic New England labor negotiator whose two-man firm is rapidly losing men. He never thought he’d return to Lebanon, but when a former client hands him a passport and a first-class ticket for a flight to Beirut that departs in a few hours, the dissolute former diplomat answers the call.

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The title character in the unusual ‘Molly’s Game’ plays her cards close to her vest

January 11, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 11, 2018

Molly’s Game, is a character study of a thwarted competitive skier who stumbles into the world of running high-stakes poker games.

The feature, which Sorkin directed and adapted for the screen from a memoir by Molly Bloom, opens as its title character is about to start her final qualifying run for the 1998 Winter Olympics. After her hopes of reaching Nagano are derailed by a freak accident, the recent University of Colorado graduate decides to postpone law school for a year and spend some time in Los Angeles. This decision, as narrated by Bloom, is the first spontaneous choice she’s made in her life.

While working as a nightclub waitress, Bloom (Jessica Chastain, the CIA analyst from Zero Dark Thirty and the young mother in Tree of Life) meets Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), a shady businessman with an affinity for comely young assistants. Keith is a jerk, but he’s a jerk who happens to host a weekly poker game attended by some of Southern California’s richest and most powerful men — and he needs Bloom’s help running it.

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Rivals in magic duel to the death, and possibly beyond, in ‘The Prestige’

September 18, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 18, 2015

Author’s note: I had this post almost ready to go on Sept. 9 when my computer went kablooey. Well, I’ve got a new machine now and I’m back online, so here, at long last, is the post you’ve been waiting for — my review of a Christopher Nolan film released nine years ago. Enjoy, all! MEM

The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie based on the 1995 Christopher Priest novel of the same title, begins by plunging the viewer into the heart of a tangled web of misdirection and deception.

Just before magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) performs his signature feat, dubbed the New Transported Man, spectators in an immense ritzy London theater sometime near the beginning of the 20th century are invited to the stage to examine what purports to be a teleportation device. But one of the men who’s chosen to do so is not what he seems. As Angier runs through his spiel, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) brushes past a stagehand and descends below the stage, where he finds a blind man — completely oblivious to Borden’s presence — sitting patiently.

The scenes are narrated by a long monologue that turns out to be delivered by Cutter (Michael Caine), Angier’s ingénieur — a facilitator of illusions. “Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts,” Cutter tells us.

The first part is called the pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course, it probably isn’t.

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Gunman for hire: George Clooney plays a man trapped by his vocation in ‘The American’

July 13, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 13, 2015

On a recent visit to a second-hand book-, CD- and DVD-store, I browsed the $2 DVD bin and noticed a movie called The American. It was from 2010 and it starred George Clooney, apparently playing a(n American) hit man on the run in Italy. I snapped it up.

The movie itself is somber and stripped down, as one might infer from the no-frills title and the two-tone movie poster, which was printed using only orange and black ink. (Or at least, the poster’s design suggests that it was made that way.)

Clooney plays an extremely reticent mercenary; he seems to be comprised of equal parts assassin, gunsmith and mystery. The character is known variously as Jack or Edward; I’ll refer to him by the first name, which the movie suggests is more genuine than the latter one.

As the film starts, Jack is enjoying a romantic interlude in a remote, snowy Swedish cabin. (“Enjoying” is a relative term — he seems reluctant even to smile at his companion.) About two minutes into the picture, someone shoots at Jack and his lover (Irina Björklund); two minutes further in, three people have been shot to death. It’s unclear why anyone wants to kill Jack, although presumably it has to do with his line of work. But one of the killings seems entirely unmotivated, and is therefore incredibly shocking, even though The American is relatively modest in its depiction of violence.

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A motley shipwrecked crew struggles to survive in Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’

March 2, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 2, 2015

In the first shot of Lifeboat, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 war drama, we see the smokestack of a freighter framed by an infinite expanse of ocean. The opening credits — actually, all of the credits — appear over this image as melodramatic minor chords from a score composed by Hugo Friedhofer play ominously.

After about a minute, with all (all!) the credits having been shown, the camera pulls back slightly. We see that the smokestack is not just framed by the waves — it is sticking out of them, all that protrudes above the surface of a ship that has been torpedoed. Within seconds, the groaning smokestack submerges, and the frame turns almost entirely white as the turbulent water fizzes and churns.

Hitchcock’s camera pans across a carefully curated selection of flotsam. There’s a wooden supply crate, which is labeled as having been shipped from New York. A copy of The New Yorker bobs gently, face up, displaying a seemingly timeless image of Eustace Tilley, the magazine’s top-hatted, monocled mascot. A bag floats quietly, along with some kind of diploma or certificate (one that perhaps bears a six-pointed Star of David), as does an evidently lifeless sailor who wears an flotation vest bearing the insignia of Nazi Germany.

Eventually, the camera lands on Constance Porter sitting alone in a lifeboat. Tallulah Bankhead’s well-to-do journalist could hardly seem more out of place: Draped in a fur coat, Connie calmly smokes a cigarette and grimaces at some imperceptible flaw in her fingernails or her shoe polish or her stocking.

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The intriguing biopic ‘Theory of Everything’ is marred by an unearned upbeat ending

December 28, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 28, 2014

The Theory of Everything, English director James Marsh’s new feature, is a domestic drama that documents the romantic and marital relationship between Jane and Stephen Hawking.

Marsh and his screenwriter, Anthony McCarten, working off of Jane Hawking’s memoir, begin their tale in 1963 at Cambridge University in England, where he is a brand-new doctoral candidate in physics and she is studying medieval European poetry (apparently as an undergraduate). There’s an instant attraction between the pair, played by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, when they spot each other at a party.

The fair-haired scientist is barely bold enough to act upon it and start chatting up the pretty brunette. (Barely — at evening’s end, Jane walks off but then dashes back and hands Stephen a napkin with her phone number scribbled on it.) After some stalling, the atheistic Stephen intercepts Jane, a devout Anglican, outside church one Sunday morning and invites her to his family’s home for lunch. Jane tolerates his quirky, brilliant and opinionated father and siblings (Stephen’s mom seems to be perfectly agreeable) before consenting to go to a spring ball with him after he announces to his kin that she’s already agreed to be his date.

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The unlikeliest of buddy movies: ‘Life of Pi’ puts a teenager and a tiger together at sea

December 22, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 22, 2014

Ang Lee’s 2012 feature film, Life of Pi, is a brilliantly realized adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2002 book, which features a bizarre premise. For the bulk of the picture, the eponymous Pi — rhymes with pie the dessert; is actually pi the mathematical constant — is stranded on a life raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger.

It’s to the credit of Lee, screenwriter David Magee and the entire crew that this fantastic scenario plays out convincingly. Plaudits are especially due Suraj Sharma, the first-time screen actor who portrays Pi throughout most of the movie and who, for perhaps two-thirds of the running time, is the only person on screen.

Pi’s companion bears the name Richard Parker thanks to a clerical error at the time of purchase in which the animal’s name was transposed with that of the hunter who captured him. He used to be on display at a zoo run by Pi Patel’s family in Pondicherry, India. When local authorities announce their desire to repossess the zoo’s land, the Patels decide to move to Canada; they arrange passage aboard a freighter so they can accompany their animals, most of which will be sold in North America.

Tiger and teenager come to be trapped together in a lifeboat after an immense storm sinks the freighter. This is shown in a spectacular and frightening sequence that, in terms of cinematic impact, may outdo even the meteorological monster shown in The Perfect Storm.

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Fiction and non-: Sorting history from invention in the movie ‘Argo’

December 17, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 17, 2014

Recently, I wrote about the excellent 2012 thriller Argo, which won the Academy Award for best picture. I was curious about the fidelity of the movie to the real-life events it depicts: The covert extraction of six United States Foreign Service employees who escaped the American embassy in Tehran when angry Iranians captured it on Nov. 4, 1979. Director Ben Affleck plays the hero of the piece, CIA agent Tony Mendez, a specialist in so-called exfiltration operations.

The very broad outlines of the movie are true: The CIA did create a phony movie company that purported to want to film a science-fiction feature named Argo in Iran; Mendez and the six fugitive Americans, who took shelter with Canadian diplomatic personnel, posed as Canadian moviemakers on a location scout and flew out of the country using that cover. A makeup artist named John Chambers (played here by John Goodman) was a key part of the fake production company. In real life, as in the film, this dummy corporation took out ads in trade publications and generated press coverage.

It turns out, however, that screenwriter Chris Terrio took liberties with many of the details of this caper. (Terrio’s script, which was based on Mendez’s memoir and a Wired magazine article by Joshuah Bearman, won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.)

For instance, the British didn’t turn away the fugitive Americans, as one of the film’s characters says. In the first six days after the embassy was captured, five Americans moved in a group to half a dozen different locations. One of these was the British embassy, which they left with the agreement of the U.S. and U.K. governments because Iranians had attacked British diplomatic properties. (The British embassy was actually captured for a brief period.)

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In the excellent thriller ‘Argo,’ ordinary people face extraordinary pressures in revolutionary Iran

November 30, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 30, 2014

Argo, the 2012 movie directed by and starring Ben Affleck, is an excellent thriller based on the real-life rescue of six American diplomats from revolutionary Iran in 1980.

The movie quickly sets the stage for its story by having a narrator describe key political events in the history of 20th-century Iran. Essentially: In 1953, soon after Iran’s secular, democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mossadegh, nationalized Western-owned oil interests, the United States helped stage a coup and installed a friendly dictator. The new shah was Reza Pahlavi, whose modernization initiatives were undermined by his hoarding national wealth and his ordering or allowing the secret police to brutally oppress political enemies. In 1979, militant Islamic revolutionaries took control of Iran; the grievously ill shah traveled to America so he could simultaneously save himself from hanging and get treatment for his cancer.

This narration — delivered by Sheila Vand, who has a small but crucial role as a housekeeper named Sahar — brings us to Nov. 4, 1979. A crowd of angry Iranians have massed outside the gates of the U.S. embassy, and Americans trapped on the grounds slowly realize that local officials have no intention of dispersing the mob. Protesters breach first the compound walls and then the actual buildings, detaining more than 60 diplomats and other employees.

But six employees in what appears to be the visa branch evade captivity by slipping out a side exit. Unbeknownst to the Iranians, the sextet find refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador. Because of the revolutionaries’ hostility toward the secular West, and especially all things American, they’re essentially trapped inside the residence.

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Life, fictionalized: Richard Linklater creates an interesting prototype in ‘Boyhood’

August 23, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 23, 2014

In 1991, Houston-born writer-director Richard Linklater released a shaggy dog of a movie with the title Slacker. Playing more like a documentary that switched subjects every five minutes or so than a traditionally structured movie, the film featured characters with names such as Should Have Stayed at Bus Station (played by the director himself), Grocery Grabber of Death’s Bounty, Espresso Czar/Masonic Malcontent, Happy-Go-Lucky Guy, Two for One Special, Traumatized Yacht Owner, Guy Who Tosses Typewriter and Handstamping Arm Licker. Over the course of about 97 minutes, Linklater’s camera restlessly moved from one character or group to another over the course of a day in the life of Austin, Texas.

Linklater’s newest movie, Boyhood, features a more typical narrative, and yet it’s hardly a typical feature. In fact, it’s rather like a reverse-engineered Slacker: Rather than focusing on various people who cross over — or at least near — each other’s paths during one day in one city, Boyhood follows a youngster, his family and their doings in different parts of Texas over the course of 12 years.

And when I write “12 years,” I mean that literally: Filming began more than a decade ago and continued every year or so as Linklater reconvened his core cast of four actors. (A few secondary characters appear in multiple segments.)

Boyhood’s story, to the extent it has one, involves families dissolving, forming, dissolving and reforming in varying permutations over the years. The divorced mother and father, played by Patricia Arquette and regular Linklater trouper Ethan Hawke, change from dissolute slackers (he more than she) to respectable professionals, making plenty of mistakes along the way. (She, perhaps, more than he.) Young Mason Evans Jr. (Austin native Ellar Coltrane) starts out as a young video-game-obsessed slacker who eventually develops a passion for music, art, photography and girls. In his spare time, the teenager Mason cultivates a personality that is both laconic and iconoclastic.

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Gigolo meets Hasidic widow. Oddity ensues in John Turturro’s new movie.

June 12, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 12, 2014

Against all odds, Fading Gigolo is an oddly a strangely charming feature starring, written and directed by John Turturro.

The film hinges on three relationships. One involves Turturro’s character, a lonesome jack-of-all-trades with the unlikely name Fioravante, and his longtime friend and mentor, Murray (Woody Allen). Murray is closing down the New York City rare bookstore that was started by his grandfather and has been in the family ever since, a transition that leaves “Mo” at loose ends. A joking exchange with his rich, glamorous and randy dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), who longs for a ménage à trois, prompts Murray to persuade his buddy Fioravante to become a prostitute.

The sophisticated but taciturn Fioravante is a reluctant gigolo; still, women love his quiet confidence, dark looks and trim body. Mo proves to be an enthusiastic pimp. Within moments, thanks to the power of montage, he’s recruited a variety of clients, and the boys are soon rolling in money.

One of the clients is Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), an Orthodox Jewish widow whom Murray meets while she combs through the lice-infested hair of his stepkids. Although her community’s strict customs forbid a man from riding in the back seat of an automobile with her, and bar women from displaying their real hair in public, Avigal travels to Fioravante’s apartment for a massage. The tightly wound single mother sheds tears when Fioravante’s bare hands gently touch her skin.

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Is unrestrained greed good? Nay, declares Martin Scorsese in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ his sprawling indictment of Wall Street and America

January 10, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 10, 2014

Let me tell you about a Martin Scorsese movie that I recently saw. The protagonist is an unscrupulous young white man who aspires to wealth and luxury. By associating himself with a gang of other similarly avaricious, unprincipled young men, the ambitious outsider achieves wild levels of success. The rewards include free-flowing money, drugs, sex and power. Those outside his circle sometimes pay a heavy price for the protagonist’s triumphs. After the group attracts the scrutiny of the authorities, they’re cleaved by internal divisions. Ultimately, the leading character is humbled, but he does not attain humility.

If this sounds familiar, there’s good reason for that. Squint at Scorsese’s late 2013 release, The Wolf of Wall Street, and one might easily mistake it for his 1990 mafia classic, Goodfellas. In a broader sense, it also matches the outsider-makes-good-before-getting-his-comeuppance template that Goodfellas shares with Scorsese’s 1995 drama, Casino, wherein a Philadelphia oddsmaker becomes a top Las Vegas power broker but is undone by greed, drugs, lust and politics. In all three films, the protagonist’s success is threatened by a profligate right-hand man.

Both Goodfellas and Casino are based on nonfiction books by Nicholas Pileggi. This time around, the source material is a memoir by arriviste financier Jordan Belfort; thugs, guns and violence are de-emphasized in favor of opulence and sex, but the parallels with Scorsese’s early works are unmistakable.

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A different kind of road-trip movie: Alcoholic Bruce Dern and son journey to a strange place in ‘Nebraska’

January 4, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 4, 2014

At the start of director Alexander Payne’s new film, Nebraska, a stubborn and elderly alcoholic is bent on traveling from his home in Montana to Lincoln. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is convinced that by doing so, he can claim a million-dollar prize he has won through the mail from a sweepstakes company.

Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb), knows that this is a scam. So does his elder son, newscaster Ross (Bob Odenkirk). So does his other son, David (Will Forte), a salesman who has been spinning his wheels at work and at home; we see him failing to close a sale on a home stereo system and failing to persuade his long-term girlfriend that he’s made a mistake by moving out of the apartment they used to share.

Woody and David have a lot in common. Like his younger child, the Grant paterfamilias is adrift and ambivalent about the circumstances and direction of his life. If Woody, with his uncombed white hair and slovenly dress, is more battered than David, that seems to be mainly because the elder man has had more years to accumulate dents and bruises.

So once Woody makes it clear that he intends to travel to Lincoln by hook or by crook, David decides to indulge his father. Over Kate’s loud protestations, the pair set out on an 850-mile road trip to the state capital of Nebraska.

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