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Film Reviews

Film Review: The Workshop (L’atelier)

BY ANDRES SOLAR

In The Workshop, lauded French filmmaker Laurent Cantet (2008’s Palme d’Or winner The Class) delivers a remarkable artwork that delicately explores the developing mind of a high school boy and the machinations of teenagedom that hammer daily at his soul. From his writing workshop teacher, his family, and especially from his peers and the internet, Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) receives metaphorical blows of varying power, intent on sculpting him into something of their liking.

From the outset, it’s clear that the workshop of Miss Olivia Dejazet (played beautifully by Marina Foïs) presents a microcosm of French society in the 21st Century. The more traditionally European characters Antoine, Benjamin (Florian Beaujean), and Dejazet herself act as the primary instigators. Whether consciously or not, they quickly take the reins, leaving the others in often defensive postures. The two Muslim children, a boy and a girl, along with a French boy of African origin, find themselves increasingly fending off Antoine, the most aggressive of the bunch. Though not a complete zealot—indeed Cantet seems to argue that a person in their teens can hardly be a complete anything—Antoine does stumble into provocative racial affronts.

But The Workshop doesn’t so much “tackle” complex issues (We love our war and football terminology in the United States, don’t we?) as much as it simply sets them out for the viewer’s perusal. The movie is set in summer, and Cantet’s languid pace serves the setting while also giving the moviegoer time to really think about the proceedings, the characters, and most especially the characters’ motivations. The euphemistic “national identity problem,” for instance, forces itself on children and adults alike, and each must find a satisfactory position, even if only to get through the day without a fistfight.

Thoroughly multi-layered, the Antoine character fascinates, and the young actor Lucci’s insightful performance deserves all the praise it has received and more. The middle-aged novelist and workshop teacher Dejazet exudes a subdued neurosis that her students nevertheless pick up on. In an after-class scene where the kids walk together to the bus stop, they express contempt of their instructor which ranks no less than vicious. And yet, at workshop the next day, most are respectful, even admiring of their guide. Here, the power of peer dynamics plays out.

Again, Antoine is the exception. In and out of class, he enjoys verbally tangling with his ostensibly sensible teacher. The teen, who works out and talks about joining the army, is nearly always a personification of tension. The friction between Miss Dejazet and her student is ever present. Their tussling also attains a measure of sexual chemistry, though it’s not clear whether the instructor is complicit or simply trying to steer the troubled boy in the right direction, as she professes.

As symbols for the general mindset of older teens, Cantet subtly, effectively uses swimming and cliff diving—Antoine’s preferred recreations. The deep blue waters of La Ciotat in southern France represent all of life itself, which a young person sees stretched out before them. The diving is relief from the yearning to be through with schooling and to, at long last, dive into living as an adult.

Cinematographer Pierre Milon’s (Foxfire [2012]) camera is mostly handheld and loose, and if it looks a beat behind the action at times, well, so too are we adults when trying to keep up with our children. Like the students in the writing workshop, Cantet and Milon consider past and present in their storytelling, and the handheld camera emphasizes immediacy and the present tense. The film’s freshness and even its timeliness are bolstered by Milon’s casual yet savvy style.

All these layers, masterfully assembled by the writer-director, produce a portrait of a teenage boy struggling against myriad forces tearing at him. In any case, he feels pushed and pulled, and he repeatedly voices his disdain for it. “I don’t need any help,” he insists. Here, in a French film of all places, is the detailed and sensitive look we so dearly need in the United States in order to understand the phenomenon of the masculinity-threatened, boy mass murderer. The “school shooters.” (We became comfortable long ago with the euphemism for them.)

The ultra-violent, “first-person shooter” video games. The loudmouth extremist on YouTube aiming his bullhorn at children vulnerable if for no other reason than the jarring effects of raging hormones. The absent parents. The teasing peers. The guns. The caring teacher. This is a day in the life of Antoine, and we would do well to look and listen closely to him. He could be the Parkland, Florida killer. He could grow up to be the Las Vegas mass murderer.

It’s a credit to Cantet’s narrative integrity that this thrilling, pressure cooker of a film doesn’t need much bombast to make its points. In carefully constructing this story and thoughtfully placing boundaries, he shares a fuller, richer examination of the personal issues behind the explosive headlines of our day. In so doing, Laurent Cantet shoots for the moon in his own measured way.

4 of 5 stars

In French with English subtitles.

An Official Selection of  Festival de Cannes 2017’s Un Certain Regard, The Workshop opens in Miami exclusively at the Tower Theater on Friday, April 6th, 2018. For more information, visit: https://towertheatermiami.com/coming-soon/the-workshop-latelier

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Isle of Dogs

BY RUBI DEL RÍO-HERRERA

The story unfolds in Japan, sometime in the future. We meet a 12-year-old orphan boy named Atari Kobayashi who lives with his bodyguard dog named Spot and his uncle, the mayor of Megasaki City, a cat lover. We’re in the midst of  an ongoing war on dogs, and the leader of this pack is none other than Mayor Kobayashi.

A mysterious epidemic known as canine flu and snout fever has plagued all dogs in the city. The mayor makes an announcement declaring all canines a nuisance to society, and passes a law that immediately exiles all dogs to an island that’s used as a garbage dump—Trash Island. The story takes a painful bite when Mayor Kobayashi exiles the first dog to the island. It’s Spot!

The island is soon filled with dogs roaming in packs and fighting for garbage scraps. Chief, Rex, King, Boss, and Duke are all alpha dogs and their pack discovers Atari when he crashes his small plane on the island. Atari, who speaks Japanese, immediately bonds with the dogs, who are more than eager to help and please this small human. Chief, the leader of the pack is skeptical at first, being a street dog, but soon begins to realize his place and his need for human companionship.

Isle of Dogs is your typical Wes Anderson film, and if you are a fan then you know “typical” for this director means quirky, eccentric, and most of all original in his storytelling style. This is Anderson’s second stop-motion animated film with an all-star cast lending their voices to bring this affectionate dog story to life. It’s an adventure. A journey that leads each character to discover something special about themselves. Classic Wes Anderson storytelling.

One of the most unusual stylistic devices Anderson uses is silence between dialogue. The expressions without words speak volumes in the development of the story and the characters. The other unique element is that the dogs are the only ones that speak English, as well as Tracy Walker the foreign exchange student, and the leader of the “Pro Dog” group. Yet the story moves effortlessly without the viewer having to understand Japanese or English. The film is well-structured, and the expressions on each dog and human envelope the viewer, drawing you further and further in.

Isle of Dogs is a heartwarming story filled with friendship, loyalty, and unconditional love, and it ranks as one of Wes Anderson’s best films. Dog lover or not, it will appeal to you from an emotional standpoint, as you watch a group of alpha dogs follow a boy in search of his beloved.

4 of 5 stars

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Ready Player One

BY RUBI DEL RÍO-HERRERA

If you love 80s pop culture references, then buckle up for Ready Player One, an adventure through not only iconic video games, but through films and music that made Generation X. It’s a trip back to the mall arcade, even though a sock full of quarters isn’t required for this virtual realiTye adventure. So sit back, relax and enjoy Steven Spielberg’s interpretation of Ready Player One based on Ernest Cline’s sci-fi novel of the same name.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is our hero, and you get to experience the virtual realiTye trip through his eyes. You become Wade Watts, you are Player One in his journey. He is you. An average teenager in search of adventure, treasures, but most of all acceptance.

In the not so distance future, 2045 to be exact, Wade’s realiTye is far from perfect and being a teenager is hard enough; but living with your aunt and her boyfriend in the slums of Ohio takes realiTye to level zero in any game. How do you escape, when you can’t power up and you’re playing on your last life with the only quarter you have? Simple. You reach in and grab your virtual realiTye goggles and head to The Oasis.

The Oasis is a virtual realiTye world created by a fictional tech scientist, the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance). After his death, James’ last gift to humaniTye is the one last adventure game with the ultimate prize–complete control of The Oasis. Halliday created what is known as “Anorak’s Quest,” and the game requires players known as Gunters (egg hunters) to find three keys that will give you access to an Easter egg and win the game. You follow Watts through his own adventure, and get to experience it in first-person perspective. As you move through the film you get a real sense of what it’s like inside The Oasis.

Sheridan’s Wade Watts is perfect—nerdy, smart, and shy. Tye gives a performance that embodies all of these characteristics, making them believable and likable to the viewer. His interaction with Olivia Cooke (who plays his love interest Samantha), known as Atr3mis in the game, takes the story to the next level, as every hero has to have a princess to save. Except in this case, the princess helps our hero discover his true strengths, through courage, resilience, and wits. Their chemistry works, both as avatars in The Oasis and in the real world.

As a Gunter, Wade (known as Parzival in the game) searches for much more than just the items required in the quest. You see, Ready Player One is an Easter egg itself, and this movie pulls your childhood memories right out into the open as you watch the adventure unfold.  Parzival— together with his friends Art3mis, Aech, Sho, and Diato—takes on an adventure that will have you laughing, clapping, and rooting for our hero and his friends all the way to the end.

I highly recommend this movie for the entire family. The book comes alive on the screen, and it pulls you into that thrilling world of virtual realiTye via master Spielberg’s first-person camera angles. You are right there as Parzival races through a Tron racetrack. You feel the hair on the back of your neck stand as he and the gang enter into Stanley Kubrick’s classic The Shining and Aech is clueless as to what’s in room 237. This is two hours and 19 minutes of complete entertainment and I challenge you to head to the theater and see how many Easter eggs you can spot.

5 of 5 stars

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V.O.D. Review: 29 To Life

BY ANDRES SOLAR

Superficially, 29 To Life looks like an indie cinema attempt at the typical Hollywood romantic comedy. Not so fast. Pleasantly, unexpectedly, it cuts much deeper than that.

Murphy Martin (compelling and rangy) plays a man of the titular age who, despite some moderate success as a chef, can’t seem to get his life together. He lived with his parents in the Los Angeles suburbs until they had enough and booted him out of their house and into a “mobile home”—his Jeep, which has also seen better days.

One of the things I like most about Alex Magaña’s debut feature is its freshness. 29 To Life is the type of movie up-and-coming producers should take interest in, and that’s because it’s a cinematic feast of notable young talent.

Lead actor ­­­­­­­­­­­­­Martin, steps up more often than not in a tricky role that’s more nuanced and risky than the average romantic comedy lead. In certain angles, he reminds me of a young John Doe, the veteran actor and L.A. punk rocker. So there’s definitely some grit behind Martin’s comedic grins.

Two or three of the characters miss the mark and the supporting actors playing them, too. Most of the supporting cast, though, plays well above average and some stand out strongly. Again, these folks are ripe for the picking. I can imagine all types of meaty roles for the savvy actor J.R. Ritcherson, who plays a store manager interviewing Barnaby for a job. Magaña also scored big landing Diana Solis for the role of Barnaby’s faithful high school buddy Madison, who knows how to steer him in the right directions. Solis, who appeared in the critically acclaimed CW series Jane The Virgin, is note-perfect in a key role that required a balance of charm, genuine affection, humor, sincerity, and vulnerability.

29 To Life features dramatic evocations, notes, and turns that piqued my curiosity more than once as to what might be next from the intriguing Angelino writer/director Magaña. He seems to possess that artistic power to see (feel, intuit, touch, smell, taste) things that most of us don’t.

Barnaby’s values pop up in his interactions with former schoolmates, prospective employers, and loved ones. He seems to suffer from some type of  mild, unnamed personality disorder that keeps his motivation on an endless rollercoaster ride. The refreshing part is his easy honesty with people he genuinely cares about. That’s the beginning of this movie’s real saving grace—it’s good-hearted.

There’s a sprinkling of comedic genius on display here, and the script offers some quirky chuckle-lines and scenarios that reveal a burgeoning comedy-writing talent. Out of nowhere, for example, the hapless Barnaby decides it’s a good idea to start drinking. He’s not particularly good at even that, and his drunky missteps show Magaña’s maturity and insight, both of which would go a long way in larger quantities. It feels real that an almost-thirty-something living out of their car and collecting aluminum cans out of the garbage would also grab a liquor bottle for a nip at some point. A bar scene where Barnaby gets handed a delicious opportunity to turn the tables on a wannabe alpha-male satisfies with a couple of hearty laughs.

Ultimately, 29 To Life won me over. Somewhere in the second act, the chemistry between Murphy and Solis becomes irresistible, in large part because we’re then witnessing a tender bond between two characters who are unusual, but in polar-opposite ways. What it comes down to is that this film’s many flaws are small, and they don’t have to detract from its heart, which is huge.

3 of 5 stars

Available via Amazon.com

Copyright 2018 by Andres Solar. All rights reserved.
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Miami Film Festival

Jason Reitman’s Tully to open 35th Miami Film Festival on March 9th

The filmmakers of the critical darling Juno (2007), which effectively launched the successful careers of Ellen Page and Michael Cera, follow up the 2018 Sundance world premiere of their film, Tully, as the opening night feature of this year’s Miami Film Festival.

Tully, about a mother of three young children who is surprise-gifted a night nanny by her brother, stars Academy Award-winner Charlize Theron. Written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, the film appears to offer twists and offbeat relationship dynamics similar to its beloved cousin Juno, if the trailer is any indication.

Copyright 2018 by Andres Solar. All rights reserved.

Courtesy of Miami Film Festival
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Film Reviews

Film Review: Phantom Thread

US-based writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest period piece—set in 1950s London—offers the filmgoer so much that I have to rate it among the most generous movies I’ve ever seen. Phantom Thread is about an artist, his quirks, and his neediness, yes, but it’s also about a whole lot more.

On the surface, a successful and phenomenally fastidious fashion designer/dressmaker in London wakes up to find his soon-to-be-former love relationship has become shapeless and threadbare. His business manager/sister/co-cynic “Cyril” (Lesley Manville, a powerhouse) suggests he take a day off in the country, wherein he meets a waitress of considerable clumsy charm.

The auteur Anderson adopts a measure of the main character’s perfectionism, and all these proceedings look exquisite. His trademark, carefully considered camera movements, in these opulent settings, exhilarate on their own. Add to that the deeply inspired, richly layered story; lively, often hilarious characters; and Jonny Greenwood’s lavish, jazz-and-classical-inflected score, and Phantom Thread becomes a ravishing model of haute couture cinema. Especially in the opening sequences, the old-Hollywood feel permeates. The fabric of this instant classic is shot through with filaments from The Lady Eve (1941) and Roman Holiday (1953).

Though Anderson has expressed his admiration for certain “90-minute romantic comedies” (see his homage to them in Punch-Drunk Love [2002]), Phantom Thread is not exactly that. For starters, it’s not one second too long at 130 minutes. The laughs come unexpectedly and steadily, though effortlessly. The writer fashions art out of dialogue, and here his punk rock ethic contrasts well with the formal, olde-style English verbiage of Hitchcock, say. From your seat in the house, you’ll notice the laughter emerges in pockets and sprinklings, refreshingly, instead of in the unanimous roars of ordinary comedy fare.

As much as Daniel Day-Lewis perfectly astounds in his masterful performance, the venerable actor is also the consummate team player. The fruits of his openness to what his fellow actors are doing and to the purpose and effect of each scene are palatable on the screen—deliciously so. The chemical reactions between his “Reynolds Woodcock” (Anderson credits Day-Lewis’ and his sense of humor for the character’s name) and love-interest “Alma” cause simmering, smoldering, and surging. Vicky Krieps, an intriguing, magnificent actress from Luxembourg, brings to Alma subtlety, humor, and surprising powers that are crucial for Woodcock’s muse and occasional foil.

The director wisely intuited the importance of their chemistry in fully fleshing out his enthralling tale. He knew the breadth, height, and depth of Day-Lewis’ onscreen presence and his counterpart had to be unflinching. Krieps’ Alma barely blinks at Woodcock’s bluster, and when she does it signals a confident potency of her own.

The results of their emotional dueling are dual: first, a grand, finely tuned examination of power dynamics in romantic relationships; second, a tension necessary to the film’s conflicts and suspense. For his multi-faceted master-craftsmanship, Anderson is rewarded with a hauntingly beautiful film which also works as a love/hate yarn for the ages.

The writer/director has long been at, or close to, the top of the list of American, world-class filmmakers, so one must look at his films as parts of his canon, too. In the more serious aspects of Phantom Thread, Anderson considers the legacies of deceased parents, continuing his long-running exploration of difficult parent-child relationships. His interest in this area is so strong and complex that it has informed every single one of his eight narrative films, and there’s no reason to expect he’ll ever eschew such themes. Parent issues, especially paternal—though in this work he takes a decidedly maternal tack—seem built into his creative life. Anderson’s visiting and revisiting family problems afford his films cores of timeless truth and scenes of devastating passion.

He seems obsessed with—young or adult—children confronting their living-but-absent, dying, and even dead parents to express their deepest-seated emotions—often rage, but sometimes adoration and yearning. It’s as if Anderson himself is seeking an answer through his art and, as his partners in crime, we benefit also, from the films’ effective thought provocations and spine-tingling disturbances.

A New Year’s Eve party scene here recalls not only The Godfather Part II (1974), but Anderson’s own Boogie Nights (1997). The director loves the symbolism of the boisterous countdown and the enthusiasm and romantic idealism of the partygoers. But especially the visceral angst of the forlorn and lonely in the midst of bubbly, magical optimism. Visually thrilling and evoking a lover’s yearning to physically and emotionally find their straying partner, the scene feels like a classic to be enjoyed over and over, and indeed so does the whole of Phantom Thread, in the final analysis. Anderson fans will also be tickled by Day-Lewis briefly channeling William H. Macy’s “Little Bill” in the parallel Boogie Nights New Year’s Eve party scene.

5 of 5 stars

Copyright 2018 by Andres Solar. All rights reserved.
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Film Review: Acts of Violence

“Good guys”: Ostensibly badass Police Detective James Avery (Bruce Willis); supposedly even more badass Afghanistan war veterans, the double-barreled brothers Deklan (Cole Hauser) and Brandon (Shawn Ashmore); the vets’ other brother Roman (Ashton Holmes); Roman’s fiancée Mia (Melissa Bolona).

“Bad guys”: Cocaine kingpin Max Livingston (Mike Epps) and his henchmen.

That’s really all there is to this movie.

Acts of Violence is a good-guy/bad-guy story concocted in the sewers of downtown Cleveland. That’s not the setting (though that might have been more honest); that’s where the hearts and minds of the writer and director appear to have done their work. Armed with action star Willis and a mind-numbingly dull, poorly written and, most of all, wholly uninspired script, the producers present a cheaply stamped out plastic product of no interest to the moviegoer of even the mildest discernment.

Though it hardly matters, bride-to-be Mia gets kidnapped by the henchmen at a nightclub during her bachelorette party (That way, she can be the sexy kidnapping victim in a tight, white-lace dress throughout the movie, see?) Blow-boss Max finds out about his lackeys’ extracurriculars, and he’s pissed. He expects more from his muscle. They should dress nicer and not kidnap young women. (Yes, it’s preposterous through and through.)

Meanwhile, by-the-book Detective Avery ain’t movin’ fast enough for lover-boy Roman and his jarhead bros. Move over Bruce Willis, and let the Army men take over the hunt for the kidnappers! Ex-military don’t answer to nobody. Take no prisoners and all that jazz.

Boilerplate cynicism. Automatic gunfire then, now, and always. Blood for blood’s sake. Yet it hasn’t the tension or power of an afternoon soap opera. Everything’s a given. The only unsettling angle is that a film titled Acts of Violence could be so thoroughly rote. The “body count,” a favorite Hollywood metric, is high in an unconscionable movie made by unconscious people. That’s disturbing—unlike anything in the film. As with other utterly vacuous action boondoggles (Olympus Has Fallen [2013] comes to mind), nothing is visceral here except the creepiness of the movie’s mere existence.

So, you know what? Fuck this movie. Fuck Acts of Violence and its misguided, cynical message, which is something like, “Violence is necessary and gun violence is cool. Might as well celebrate it.” Fuck that.

If this putrid product of Hollywood’s worst instincts is worth anything at all, it’s for its inadvertently reflecting the psyche of certain sick U.S. population pockets. The American hero of the past 10 years is the veteran of our petroleum wars in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In Acts of Violence, he is a better man than the workaday police detective and indeed, the action tells us, veterans of recent wars should replace regular police officers. In this way, the film is a work of yearning for militarism to imprison the nation once and for all.

“We, the paramilitary law enforcers of America, hate the limitations of laws, Bill of Rights and all,” this movie says. So, the dream of every police officer here (embodied in Bruce Willis) is to throw his badge at his superior, flip off the boss, and go “take care of business.” Business being shooting a “bad guy” in the head and then shooting him five times more for good measure—and doing so as that gem of American personhood: the private citizen with automatic firearms. Vigilante “justice,” military “justice”; that’s the Acts of Violence vision for America.

Or should we be grateful that anyone at all still joins the police department and attempts to work within the bounds of the Constitution? Is that this film’s cautionary tale? “Thank a cop because, if we had our druthers,.. heh-heh!”

I’m rooting against “Acts of Violence.” I’ll be following the film’s box office numbers and hoping it does poorly. Never a big fan of Bruce Willis anyway, I’ll avoid his projects and appearances more than ever now. Why pick on Bruce? This film would not exist—would never have been made—without his participation. Too often, that’s how Hollywood works. Star power combined with a formulaic project gets the green light. Bottom-of-the-barrel filmmaking—product assembly, to be more precise. These terrible films get made because people will go see “generic Bruce Willis action movie.” How many will actually go? I’ll keep you posted.

Whoever does see it will either feel like showering immediately afterward or—in the unlikely event they like it—will have become a slightly lesser person because of it. The abysmal acting alone is insulting. Not a single actor on screen seems to care a lick about the film they’re making, including Willis. I commiserate with them. Acts of Violence is dankly impoverished in language and style. It smells of mildewed basements and diesel exhaust, and the director is either high on the fumes or oblivious.

Why is a film critic rooting against a movie? In this case, it’s for the hope and satisfaction that would accompany an Acts of Violence flop. That would represent one less poison pill the American people will have willingly swallowed.

0 of 5 stars

UPDATE: After writing this review, I did a quick online search to see how Acts of Violence was faring since its limited release (which included South Florida) on January 12th. Nothing. I couldn’t find the movie playing anywhere. My first thought was that its distributor, Lionsgate Premiere, had pushed the release back. Still nothing. Then I saw the little banner on the movie’s IMDb.com page: “Watch Now from $6.99 on Amazon Video.” *critic chortles* In short, Acts of Violence didn’t even make it out of its limited opening weekend without getting pulled and banished to VOD-only. Nice work, America. Nice work.

Copyright 2018 by Andres Solar. All rights reserved.