Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) ☆☆☆☆(4/4): A timeless live-action/animated fantasy

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Still holding its place well in the history of movie special effects even after 30 years, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” remains as a timeless entertainment. Although mixing animation into live-action scenes has been relatively less awesome these days thanks to the rapid technical advance of special effects and the movie does not astonish us as much as it did when it came out in 1988, but it distinguishes itself with not only its monumental technical achievement but also its sheer fun and excitement, and that is the main reason why it has been towering over most of similar attempts coming before or after it.

I remember well when I encountered it for the first time around 1994. After learning of its existence via an evening TV program, I rented its VHS copy at a local video rental shop, and the movie instantly grabbed my attention as promising more fantastic things to come. I was enthralled by the hilarious zaniness of the opening animation sequence, I was mesmerized by that sultry moment at the Ink and Paint Club, I was horrified by the horrible demise of that poor little red shoe, I was exhilarated by that frantic car chase sequence, I was overwhelmed by the cheerful anarchy of Toontown, and I was certainly thrilled by that climax sequence packed with unexpected moments of laughs and surprises.

And I enjoyed noticing many familiar animation characters appearing here and there throughout the film. As it was produced by Walt Disney Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, the movie could surely present a number of notable Disney animation characters, and it also could use numerous non-Disney animation characters thanks to executive producer Steven Spielberg’s pre-production negotiations with other studios including Warner Brothers and Fleischer Studios. While it was certainly nice to see Mickey Mouse and Bug Bunny or Donald Duck and Daffy Duck sharing the screen together, I was especially amused when Droopy appeared as a rather unkind elevator operator, and Betty Boop was poignant when she lamented about her less popular status.

In the movie, all these and other animation characters, usually called ‘toons’, live within Toontown, a ghetto-like area located in Hollywood, 1947. Many of them work as performers in Hollywood studios, and Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) is one of star cartoon performers in the town, but, as shown from the opening animation sequence, things have not been going well for him. He and his longtime partner Baby Herman (voiced by Lou Hirsch) almost get everything right during the shooting of their last animation film, but he has a trouble in giving a right cartoon effect in the end, and that is how a private detective named Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) comes into the situation. Roger’s studio boss requests Valiant to dig some dirt on Roger’s dear wife Jessica Rabbit (voiced by Kathleen Turner) for motivating Roger more, and Valiant agrees to do that mainly because of his difficult economic situation at present.

MSDWHFR EC009When Valiant goes to a night club where Jessica routinely does an evening performance for her human audiences, he is surprised by what a sexy and beautiful cartoon lady she actually is. Seductively exuding the sexual confidence reminiscent of Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake, Jessica mesmerizes all of her audiences including Valiant as singing “Why Don’t You Do Right?” on the stage, and it does not take much for him to see that something is going on between her and a wealthy businessman who is the owner of Toontown.

What follows not long after that is an unexpected case of murder, and Valiant soon finds himself getting more involved in the case along with Roger, who desperately seeks help from Valiant as becoming the prime suspect of the case. While they bounce from one comic circumstance to another, it is gradually revealed to them that there is a diabolical conspiracy on Toontown, and they must stop this conspiracy before it is too late for Toontown and its denizens.

Quite witty and humorous in its unlikely juxtaposition of classic film noir and animation, the movie supremely works as a loving homage to both of its two seemingly incompatible genres. While many of its hilariously frantic moments would surely impress Tex Avery, the movie is also reminiscent of those classic noir films made during the 1940-50s, and it is really fascinating to watch how deftly the movie balances itself as wildly mixing different genre elements together. As a matter of fact, its tongue-in-cheek handling of film noir elements are so smart and dexterous that, in my humble opinion, it deserves its own place among notable neo-noir films such as, say, “Chinatown” (1974).

As I recently revisited the movie, I came to appreciate more of its superlative technical details which remain fresh as before. While combining live-action and animation had already been attempted many times since the 1920s, the movie was ground-breaking for its far more fluid and dynamic mix of live-action and animation, which is crucial in creating its vivid fantasy world where human and animation characters naturally coexist. Instead of merely sharing the screen together, the human and animation figures in the film freely interact with each other on screen with no apparent sign of limitations, and the cinematography by Dean Cundey is anything but static in its complicated camera work which was meticulously planned and elaborated before the shooting. As the camera effortlessly moves here and there, the animation characters in the film are presented with palpable three-dimensional physical presence while constantly changing dimension and perspective on the screen, and they are also complemented well by Bob Hoskins and other human performers in the film, who did a very good job of acting as if they were really performing with animation characters in front the camera.

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The overall result is all the more remarkable considering that the movie was made before the era of computer-generated imagery (CGI). Supervised by animation director Richard Williams, who won a special Oscar for his contribution to the film (the movie also won three Oscars for best special effects, sound effects editing, and editing, by the way), the animation part of the movie was really drawn by hand from the very beginning, and then it went through a number of painstaking processes for its flawless incorporation into live-action scenes. Thanks to subtle visual touches including multi-layered chiaroscuro effect, the animation characters in the film look and feel quite real to us, and that makes us more immersed in the world they inhabit along with human characters.

Furthermore, the story of the movie, which was loosely adapted from Gary K. Wolf’s novel “Who Censored Roger Rabbit?” by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, is a lot more than a perfunctory base for special effects. While briskly hurling tons of jokes and gags as demanded, the movie also brings some depth to its main characters, and we come to care about them more than expected. Although he is often insufferable, we come to like Roger as accepting his irrepressible comic nature, and Jessica turns out to be far from a mere femme fatale as revealing a sincere heart behind her glamorous appearance (“I’m not bad – I’m just drawn that way”). In case of Valiant, there is a sublime wordless scene which succinctly conveys to us everything about this gruff guy and his jollier past, and we come to cheer for him when he boldly attempts to revive his certain particular set of skills during the climax sequence.

“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” was directed by Robert Zemeckis, who made a number of entertaining movies such as “Back to the Future” (1985), “Forrest Gump” (1994), “Contact” (1997), “Cast Away” (2000), “The Polar Express” (2004), and “Flight” (2012). Although he is sometimes underrated mainly due to his status as a mainstream commercial director working in Hollywood, it is undeniable that he is a first-rate filmmaker who has constantly tried new and different things throughout his career, and I have been impressed by his versatility among various genres. While he will be always remembered for “Back to the Future” and “Forrest Gump”, he can go all the way for vicious black comedy as he did in “Death Becomes Her” (1992), and he also showed us that he can handle more serious subjects through the thoughtful SF drama of “Contact” and the sobering alcoholism drama of “Flight”. In case of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, it was clearly a labor of love for Zemeckis as well as his crew and cast, and their herculean efforts not only were rewarded with a big critical/commercial success but also led to the following renaissance of Disney animation.

In our current era overflown with digital animation and CGI, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” may look a bit old on the surface, but it still can enchant and enthrall us as much as other great animation films, and I think it will continue to hold its singular place as before. Paraphrasing that memorable line from “All About Eve” (1950), I tell you that there never was, and there never will be, another like it – and I also assure you that you will have plenty of fun with it.

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Revenge (2017) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A survival horror drama for the #MeToo era

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Intense and brutal with a number of striking moments of violence, French film “Revenge” is a survival horror drama for the #MeToo era. During its first act, the movie disturbingly presents that toxic objectification of female body through male viewpoint, and then it goes through a full horror mode as its unfortunate heroine struggles with her physical and psychological traumas, and then it powerfully culminates to what can be regarded as a sanguinary rendition of female empowerment.

In the beginning, everything seems fine as our young American heroine, named Jennifer (Matilda Lutz), arrives with a rich French guy named Richard (Kevin Janssens) at his luxurious modern house located in the middle of some remote desert area. Although it is evident right from an early scene that Richard is a married man, Jennifer does not mind that at all, and all she cares about for now is having a good time alone with him during two days.

However, their private time does not last that long when Richard’s two friends come to the house earlier than expected. Because they were supposed to come after Jennifer leaves the house on the next day, Richard is not so pleased about this unexpected change, but he welcomes them into his house anyway, and we soon see them having an evening drinking party along with Richard and Jennifer. The mood is initially jovial, but the movie begins to unsettle us as emphasizing how lustfully Richard’s friends look at Jennifer. With the frequent close-up shots of her body parts, the movie directly points out what these unpleasant guys see from Jennifer, and this feels all the more unnerving as we observe her being rather oblivious to the objectifying male gazes on her mainly due to her drunken state. Most of us heard about those shocking stories about women who were raped while being inebriated, and that is why we come to fear for Jennifer more when she becomes flirtatious with one of Richard’s friends, who clearly desires for something from her.

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On the next day, Richard goes outside for taking care of a legal matter associated with the hunt he and his friends are going to do, so Jennifer finds herself being together with Richard’s friends in the house. When one of them approaches too close to her, she tries to handle this very uncomfortable circumstance as tactfully as possible, but he cruelly persists in his position, and that eventually leads to a very traumatic incident for her. While never overlooking the horror of what happens to her, the movie handles this scene with considerable restraint, and I was especially struck hard by a brief loathsome shot involved with a certain snack, which reminds me of how survivors of sexual violence vividly remember some graphic details of their traumatic experience. As watching that shot, I wrote down in my mind: “She will never forget that image for the rest of her life.”

When Richard returns, he naturally becomes furious about what happened during his absence, but he turns out to be no better than his deplorable friends. He offers to Jennifer a considerable amount of money in exchange of her silence, but she refuses to accept anything while simply wanting to get away from him and his friends as soon as possible. As things accordingly become quite tense between her and Richard, she eventually tries to escape, and we subsequently get another shocking moment when Richard comes to decide to do something quite drastic for covering up everything.

Fortunately, Jennifer manages to survive and then evade Richard and his friends, and the second act of the movie focuses on her painful and desperate struggle. Still traumatized by her horrible experience, she must do anything for her recovery and survival, and, as constantly pushed by her extreme condition, she often surprises herself as well as us while showing considerable courage and resourcefulness. As some of you have already expected, the movie has several grisly moments of physical mutilation, and you will surely wince as watching how she takes care of a very serious wound once for all at one point.

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As the movie enters its eventual third act, the movie becomes more intense and violent while occasionally reminding us of those unpleasant exploitation movies such as “I Spit on Your Grave” (1978), but it still firmly holds our attention under the competent direction of its director/writer/co-editor Coralie Fargeat. Although this is her first feature film, Fargeat demonstrates here the considerable command of mood and narrative, and I was particularly impressed by how she and her cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert imbue their film with vivid, striking visual touches via effective lighting and color scheme. In case of the inevitable climactic scene of the film, they go all the way with their stylistic approach, and that certainly enhances further the dramatic effect of this very violent scene.

The four main performers in the movie are convincing in their archetype roles. Quite believable in her strong physical performance, Italian actress Matilda Lutz ably carries the film as her character is gradually transformed from a devastated survivor to a single-minded feminist avenger, and Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe, and Guillaume Bouchède are suitably despicable in their respective supporting roles.

In conclusion, “Revenge” is a tough stuff as reflected its very title, but it is also impressive for its skillful handling of dark, unpleasant subjects which have become more important due to the ongoing #MeToo movement, and I appreciate how it brings a female perspective to its genre territory. It is not exactly ‘entertaining’, but it is surely one hell of a genre piece to remember.

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Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): Her genius behind her beauty

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To be frank with you, I did not know much about Hedy Lamarr and her overlooked contribution before coming to learn about her significant invention a few years ago. While she was one of the most prominent Hollywood actresses during the 1930-40s, she later came to fall into obscurity after the 1960s, and I must confess that the first time I hear about her was when I watched “Blazing Saddles” (1974), which blatantly used her name for one of its many running gags. (“It’s not *Hedy*, it’s *Hedley*. Hedley Lamarr.”)

Illuminating her dramatic life as well as her forgotten genius, documentary film “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” tells us a lot of interesting things about Lamarr, who was not only beautiful as an actress but also quite brilliant as an inventor. While enjoying her considerable success in Hollywood, she invented a technology which turned out to be far more important than expected, but she was unfairly ignored just because of her gender and beauty, and it is often sad to watch how she was never allowed to go further during her life.

At first, the documentary examines Lamarr’s early life in Austria. Born as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, 1914, Lamarr showed considerable interest in science and engineering even when she was young, and her father, who was an affluent Jewish banker, was supportive of his daughter’s growing interest. At one point, Lamarr’s son showed an old music toy which young Lamarr once disassembled and then assembled completely, and you may be amazed to see that this old toy still works even at present.

As she grew up, Lamarr became more conscious of her beauty and how it could draw attentions from others, so she decided to be an actress. Although she was not exactly good in her very early films, her distinctive presence was evident even during that time, and then she became an international star thanks to the sensational success of “Ecstasy” (1933). In that movie, she showed her whole naked body during one particular scene, and that certainly caused lots of stir when it was released, but Lamarr soon came to bounce from her notoriety through a successful stage performance which reconfirmed her star quality.

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Around that time, she married her first husband Fritz Mandl, a wealthy industrialist who had been associated with Hitler and Mussolini. While she enjoyed the luxuries of her married life with Mandl at first, she soon became tired of being a trophy wife while also being worried about the growing influence of fascism in Europe, and we hear an amusing anecdote on how she cleverly escaped from her increasingly possessive husband during one day in 1937.

Not long after the end of her first marriage, Lamarr moved to England and tried to restart her acting career. Although she did not speak English much, she was determined to get any good chance, and that was how she came to draw the attention of Louis B. Meyer, who was the head of MGM at that time. Meyer initially thought she was just one of many Jewish performers fleeing from Europe due to the rise of Hitler, but then he changed his mind when she fully demonstrated her star quality in front of him and others, and she soon gained another moment of fame thanks to the big commercial success of “Algiers” (1938).

While subsequently becoming one of the busiest actresses in Hollywood, Lamarr never gave up her interest in science and engineering. Her friend/lover Howard Hughes, who was one of the richest industrialists in US, was willing to provide a space for her ‘hobby’, and he was quite impressed when she later made a smart suggestion on the design of his new airplane in development stage. Thanks to him, she could meet a number of scientists and engineers, and she certainly had fun and excitement while meeting those experts.

Meanwhile, US came to fight in the World War II, and Lamarr came to promote war bonds just like many pretty Hollywood actresses did during that time. Although she was pretty good at that job, she wanted to do more than that for her new country which generously accepted her, and she came to have an ingenious idea on the technological improvement of navy torpedo. While it was possible to control torpedo via radio communication, the communication at a fixed radio frequency could be interrupted by enemy at any point, and she thought that this problem could be solved by ‘hopping’ among many different radio frequencies. With the considerable assistance from an avant-garde composer named George Antheil, she diligently elaborated on her idea, and then they submitted the final result of their collaboration to the US Patent Office.

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However, her invention was simply disregarded by the US Navy and then taken away from her later, and her life and career went downhill not long after the end of the war. Although she became popular again thanks to Cecil B. DeMille’s “Samson and Delilah” (1949), that turned out to be a momentary rise in her later career, and she also struggled with drug addiction as well as a series of failed marriages. At one point, she could have become quite rich as the US military began to utilize her invention, but she unfortunately missed the chance of extending her patent right, and she eventually became a recluse mostly depending on welfare money.

During the 1990s, Lamarr was belatedly recognized for her achievement as receiving the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award, and that was a small but nice consolation for Lamarr, who died shortly after the very beginning of the 21st century. Around the end of the documentary, we are told about how many modern technologies of our time including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are actually based on her invention, and you will agree that she really deserves to be recognized far more for that.

Directed and written by Alexandra Dean, “Bombshell: The Heddy Lamarr Stroy” is a modest but engaging documentary which will enlighten you a lot on its subject. After watching it, I came to admire Lamarr and her achievement more, and I also came to reflect on how much more she could have achieved under a better circumstance. She was clearly a woman ahead of her time, and I am certainly appreciating her contribution as posting this review on my blog via Wi-Fi right now.

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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): On his talent and inspiration

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Documentary film “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda” was a rather curious experience for me. Although I am not a big fan of Ryuichi Sakamoto and I actually winced during some of his several musical experiment scenes in the documentary, I came to admire his artistic talent and philosophy more as observing a number of calm, reflective moments in the film, and I was alternatively soothed and entertained by this very considerate documentary.

After the prologue part showing Sakamoto’s anti-nuclear activities in Japan after the Fukushima accident in 2011, the documentary moves forward to 2014 and then shows Sakamoto going through a major crisis in his life. After diagnosed to have a throat cancer, he suspended his ongoing work on a new album as beginning his therapy, and we see him spending another quiet day in his cozy apartment located in New York City. Although he seems to be on his way to recovery, his illness and the following therapy affected him a lot, and he is still not so sure about whether he can work as well as before.

However, he soon comes to see that he has lost none of his talent and inspiration. When he was asked to compose the music for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” (2015), he was reluctant, but he eventually agreed to work on the movie, and that brings new energy to him. As working again, he comes to be interested in completing his new album, and we observe the creative process in his small workplace. At one point, he tells us about his longtime admiration of the works of Andrei Tarkovsky including “Solaris” (1972), and he makes some good points on not only the mesmerizing utilization of J.S. Bach’s chorale prelude for organ, Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639 but also Tarkovsky’s deft handling of various natural sounds in that great SF film.

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During one scene, the documentary shows us how he gets his inspiration. While wandering in a forest, he searches for any interesting sound worthwhile to be recorded, and there is a small nice moment when he happens to come across an abandoned spot and then pays some attention to the sounds made from several objects at that spot. We also see him trying to capture the sound of raindrops in a rather amusing way, and we later get an awe-inspiring scene involved with the sounds he collected during his trip to an Arctic area in 2008. His collected sounds may be plain and simple at first, but they are quite effective when they are mixed into one of his notable works, and I was quite impressed when the result is juxtaposed with the icy landscapes on the screen.

The documentary also looks around Sakamoto’s exceptional music career as required. During his early years, he became prominent thanks to the worldwide success of his electronic music band Yellow Music Orchestra, and then he came to try film music with Nagisa Oshima’s “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” (1983), in which he also played one of the main characters. In his opinion, film music does not have much freedom from the beginning because he must stick to a viewpoint different from his, but he also recognizes how it can be demanding but stimulating as leading him to new possibilities. In case of his Oscar-winning work in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” (1987), he was initially instructed to compose the source music for one scene while also playing a supporting player, but then he was asked to compose the score for the film in a very short time, and he managed to compose no less than 42 pieces of music before the recording session began in London.

In contrast, he came across an unexpected moment of inspiration while working on Bertolucci’s subsequent work “The Sheltering Sky” (1990). As reading the last pages of Paul Bowles’ novel of the same name which the movie is based on, he sensed what the movie exactly needed around its ending, and the result was another notable work in his film music career, which is not that extensive but still thrives as shown from his recent success in “The Revenant”.

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Around the early 1990s, Sakamoto became interested in environmental problems, and, as shown from several archival footage clips shown in the documentary, he was quite active in his support of the victims of the Fukushima accident. Besides joining a big protest against the reoperation of an old nuclear plant, he also went inside the contaminated area for himself, and he later gave a modest but meaningful concert for more public awareness.

During that time, he came across an abandoned piano which managed to remain intact while surviving the tsunami which caused the Fukushima accident, and that piano brings out another creative moment from him. It does not sound that good to our ears, but its ‘naturally tempered’ sound feels interesting to him, and that leads to another curious aural moment in the documentary.

Although I am not still drawn much to Sakamoto’s musical style which feels a bit too grating to me at times (I cringed especially during one scene where he makes a shrill metallic sound with a cymbal and a bow), I enjoyed what is thoughtfully shown in “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda”, and director Stephen Nomura Schible did a commendable job of presenting his subject with respect and admiration. As far as I can see from the documentary, Sakamoto is a guy who is not only a wonderful artist but also a decent and sensitive human being, and I hope he will keep contributing more to our world as moving onto whatever will come next in his remarkable artistic career.

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Ocean’s 8 (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): A fun with ladies going for a big heist

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“Ocean’s 8”, which is a female spin-off of Steven Soderbergh’s the Ocean’s trilogy, delights and entertains us with its own charm and class. Yes, this is your typical heist movie just like its male predecessors, but it engages us via its sassy personality generated from its eight wonderful actresses, and we come to enjoy how cheerfully it glides along with them.

At first, the movie establishes its obligatory link to the Ocean’s trilogy. Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), who is a niece of George Clooney’s character in the Ocean’s trilogy, is about to be paroled after spending several years in a prison near New York City, and she promises to authorities supervising her parole that she will not let herself drawn back to crime, but, of course, she is ready to embark on a heist plan right from when she is released from the prison. As told to us later in the story, she carefully elaborated this plan day by day while she was in the prison, and all she needs now is several women who will work with her for this plan.

After doing some shoplifting around a number of boutiques in Manhattan for cheering up herself a bit, Debbie goes to her no-nonsense friend/partner Lou (Cate Blanchett), and then they come to gather five other women for the plan. They are Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), a ditzy fashion designer who has been in a very difficult financial situation due her problem with IRS; Amita (Mindy Kaling), a plucky jewelry expert who has been eager to walk away from her domineering mother’s business; Nine Ball (Rihanna), a confident hacker who surely impresses Lou and Debbie right from their first meeting; Constance (Awkwafina), a spirited pickpocket who is very good as shown from her first scene; and Tammy (Sarah Paulson), a profiteer who has tried to live as your average suburban mom but still cannot resist her criminal impulse when she is told a bit about the plan.

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What they are going to steal is a priceless diamond necklace which is currently owned by Cartier. Because its estimated value is around 150 million dollar, this precious necklace is stored with maximum security in the underground safety vault right below the Cartier store, but Debbie has a nice idea for how to steal it. They are going to make a popular actress named Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) wear the necklace during the upcoming annual fundraising gala held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and then they are going to find the right time and the right spot for stealing it without getting caught.

Once Debbie presents the outline of her plan to her criminal colleagues, we watch how they prepare for the plan step by step, and the movie provides small amusing moments as they deal with a few unexpected setbacks on their way. I chuckled as watching how Debbie and Lou make sure that Kluger hires Weil and accordingly becomes their unwitting accomplice, and I also was amused by a humorous moment involved with an extra security measure on the necklace.

When our ladies are finally ready for executing their plan at the Met Gala, the movie wields style and glamor as demanded, and director Gary Ross, who wrote the screenplay with Olivia Milch, did a competent job of showing us how tightly their plan is executed second by second. While there is enough suspense to hold our attention, the mood never feels too serious, and the movie is further buoyed by the undeniable chemistry among its main cast members.

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Watching them having a lot of fun together on the screen, I came to reflect on how some of them have entertained us for many years. While Sandra Bullock, who has always been endearing since I saw her in “Speed” (1994), effortlessly exudes her star quality, Cate Blanchett, who has constantly amazed us as playing various roles ranging from Queen Elizabeth I to Bob Dylan (!), demonstrates well her comic talent which definitely deserves to be seen more, and Helena Bonham Carter, who has been one of the most versatile British actresses since her strong performance in “A Room with a View” (1985), is delightfully offbeat as brandishing her character’s eccentricity. As the last crucial part of the plan, Anne Hathaway, who has been somehow underrated by some people despite her fine performances in “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) and “Rachel Getting Married” (2008) and her recent Oscar win for “Les Misérables” (2012), simply steals the show from the beginning, and she clearly enjoys every second of her scenes in the film.

In case of Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, and Awkwafina, they look relatively less prominent in comparison, but they all have each own moment to shine. While Paulson, who has recently been more prominent thanks to her terrific performance in TV series “American Horror Story” and previously worked along with Blanchett in “Carol” (2015), is dependable as before, Kaling, who was one of many colorful characters in American TV sitcom series “The Office”, is perfectly cast in her role, and Rihanna and Awkwafina are also engaging as showing some potential for their acting career.

Although it lags a bit during its third act, “Ocean’s 8” maintains well its lightweight mood even during that part, and the overall result is as entertaining as “Ocean’s 11” (2001) and its two following sequels. Although it did not surprise me much, I enjoyed watching its talented actresses acting together on the screen, and I also appreciated little feminist touches in the film. It is not exactly fresh, but it is fun enough to be recommendable, and it is certainly nice to see that girls do their job as well as boys.

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Girls Trip (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): When four African American ladies go wild

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Quite willing to be broad and excessive, “Girls Trip” amused and tickled me. While it sometimes goes too far for laughs in my inconsequential opinion, the movie is mostly funny and hilarious as cheerfully rolling with its four African American heroines who surely go wild for their fun and excitement of lifetime, and I appreciate its many inspired comic moments which still bring me some smile and chuckle.

During the opening scene, we are told about when its four heroines, Ryan (Regina Hall), Sasha (Queen Latifah), Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith), and Dina (Tiffany Haddish), were young and wild during their college years. During that time, they were inseparable as “The Flossy Posses”, but then they went each own way after their graduation, and their supposedly strong friendship has weakened year by year even though they still meet and correspond with each other from time to time.

When they graduated together, everything looked bright and hopeful for all of them, but life turns out to be not that good for some of them. While Ryan becomes a successful lifestyle guru and bestselling author, Sasha has worked as an Internet gossip reporter since she left her position in Time Magazine, and Lisa has been a divorced mom of two children although she was once the wildest members of the bunch. In case of Dina, she recently loses her current job thanks to her irrepressible impulsiveness, and there is a small funny scene where she remains quite vivacious as your typical happy-go-lucky lady while rather oblivious to what her boss has just said to her.

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When she is invited as the keynote speaker to the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, Ryan sees a good chance for solidifying her friendship with her three friends, so she invites them all, and they do not hesitate at all to grab this fantastic opportunity. During next three days, there will be a lot of fun and excitement for them, and they are already in a pretty good mood when they on a plane to New Orleans.

However, not so surprisingly, there comes a trouble not long after they arrive in New Orleans. Through her gossip source, Sasha comes to learn that Ryan’s husband Stewart (Mike Colter), who has been her model husband and business partner in public, has had an affair with some other woman. This is definitely going to affect Ryan and Stewart’s lucrative business deal if it is exposed in public, but, though this is not the first time he disappoints her, Ryan chooses to stick to him because, well, she is afraid of her public image and position getting ruined.

Anyway, Ryan’s friends stand by her as respecting her choice, and the movie gives us plenty of raunchy but humorous moments as they go here and there around New Orleans. There is an uproarious scene featuring an epic moment of public urination, and then there is an absurd moment when Ryan indirectly expresses her anger toward her husband in front of many people via chopping and smashing, what do you know, sausage, and then there is a loony sequence caused by a bottle of very special absinthe which Dina bought from a street vendor.

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Although its story eventually becomes predictable as our ladies come into conflict with each other over their personal matters including Ryan’s marriage problem and Sasha’s longtime grudge toward Ryan, the movie maintains its comic momentum even during this part, and its four lead actresses ably support their movie through their undeniable chemistry on the screen. Right from their first scene, they instantly establish their characters’ long relationship, and they also did a good job of balancing their performances between humor and drama. As they bounce from one funny scene to another with their brilliant comic timing, they bring honesty and sincerity to their respective characters, and that is the main reason why the obligatory big dramatic scene later in the movie works.

Equipped with each own presence and personality, Reginal Hall, Queen Latifah, and Jada Pinkett Smith are as funny and engaging as we can expect from these three wonderful actresses, but I must say that the best performance in the film comes from Tiffany Haddish, who, considering what she demonstrates here in the movie, will probably advance further during next several years. Her character could be quite jarring and annoying, but Haddish presents her character as a force of nature to be reckoned with, and she is particularly hilarious when she demonstrates a rather bizarre sexual act with two different tropical fruits. Although I cringed a bit while watching that scene, I must admit that I also could not help but amused thanks to Haddish’s enthusiastic acting, and I was amused again when that scene later led to another funny scene.

While it is a little too long and some of its supporting characters are more or less than thin caricatures or perfunctory plot devices, “Girls Trip” is still funny enough to hold our attention during its 2-hour running time, and director Malcolm D. Lee, who is a cousin of Spike Lee and made several notable comedy films such as “The Best Man” (1999), “Soul Men” (2008), “The Best Man Holiday” (2013), brings some authentic local atmosphere to his film through using various notable locations in New Orleans. This is surely another example showing that girls can go as wild as boys, and I assure you that you will enjoy it a lot if you are willing to go along with its spirited raunchiness.

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Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): Inexorable descent into sheer brutality

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While delivering a fair share of remorseless violence to shock you, “Brawl in Cell Block 99” patiently takes its time before delivering that, and I sort of appreciate its slow but inexorable descent into sheer brutality. While some of those brutally violent moments in the film will surely make you cringe for good reasons, the movie is tense and gripping thanks to its taut, efficient storytelling and the surprisingly intense performance from its lead actor, and you will come to wonder how far it can go with its hard-boiled hero.

The first act of the movie is a classic example of a former criminal drawn back to his old way of life. As working as a car mechanic, Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughan) has tried to make an honest living for himself and his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) while putting his past criminal career behind his back, but, unfortunately, things do not go well for him on one day. After being fired from his current job, he comes to learn of his wife’s recent infidelity, and that leads to an awkward but serious conversation between them. Although being angry and frustrated, he instead focuses on what he should do for their life now, and that is how he comes to decide to go back to a man he once worked for.

The movie moves forward to 18 months later, and we see how things have been a lot better for Bradley and Lauren. Thanks to his criminal diligence which is exemplified well by a brief scene showing his latest drug delivery job, their life has been more comfortable and luxurious than before, and now they are eagerly waiting for the birth of their daughter, who will come into their world a few months later.

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As some of you have already expected, Bradley soon finds himself getting into a very serious trouble. When he is doing a big drug delivery job along with two henchmen working for a business associate of his boss, the police suddenly come into the scene. Though he could just get away from the scene, Bradley instead chooses to do what he thinks should be done, and he is accordingly arrested and then eventually incarcerated in a prison.

While not regretting anything and not cooperating with the police at all, Bradley is ready to endure several years in the prison, but then there comes another trouble. He is visited by a creepy guy who is played by Udo Kier, and this guy phlegmatically informs him that Lauren is kidnapped as instructed by the aforementioned criminal associate, who is quite angry about that botched drug delivery job and his resulting financial loss. He demands that Bradley must kill a certain prisoner incarcerated somewhere in a maximum-security facility located inside the prison, and he is going to harm both Lauren and her unborn daughter if Bradley does not follow his demand.

During the second act of the movie, we watch how Bradley attempts to go closer to his target step by step. First of all, he must be sent to that maximum-security facility in question, so he promptly commits a savage act of violence, and he is consequently transported to that maximum-security facility. Right from their first encounter, Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson), who is the supervisor of the facility, shows Bradley that he and his prison officers know no mercy or compassion, and the movie shifts itself onto horror mode as frequently emphasizing the harsh and inhuman environment inside the facility. At one point, Bradley is thrown into one hell of stinking cell, and that will definitely make you shiver if you are as sensitive about toilet as I am.

As Bradley has himself pushed further into the dark bottom of cruelty and savagery inside the facility during the last act, the movie goes all the way for extreme violence. While there are a number of gritty physical action scenes to strike us hard with their ruthlessness, the movie steadily maintains its dry, clinical tone at least, and you may be relieved to see that some of its most violent moments are succinctly shown from the distance.

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Director/writer S. Craig Zahler, who also composed the score with Jeff Herriott, is no stranger to such brutal mayhem like that at all. His previous film “Bone Tomahawk” (2015) was a merciless modern mix of Western and horror, and I still remember well its several striking moments of graphic violence, which surely made me wince a lot during my viewing. He is a skillful filmmaker who knows how to depict violence with considerable intensity and impact, and he shows here more of his talent along with confidence and control. Although its narrative pacing may be a bit too slow at first, the movie never lags in its plot progress, and its eventual arrival point feels inevitable instead of predictable.

Above all, the movie is firmly anchored by Vince Vaughn, who is quite effective in his against-the-type role. Besides looking convincing during numerous violent scenes in the movie, Vaughn’s understated performance ably conveys steely will and fiery ferocity behind his character’s taciturn façade, and he also handles well his character’s softer side shown during his few scenes with Jennifer Carpenter, who does a bit more than playing your typical woman-in-danger. In case of other notable performers in the film, Don Johnson is clearly having a fun with playing his hateful character, and I was particularly delighted to see Fred Melamed, a veteran actor who was quite hilarious in the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man” (2009).

Like “Bone Tomahawk”, “Brawl in Cell Block 99” is not a pleasant experience at all, but it is a well-made genre piece to admire for its commendable technical aspects, and Vaughn’s strong performance makes it all the more worthwhile to watch. Yes, I like it when a movie brings out something new and unexpected from a performer familiar to us, and this is one of such good examples.

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