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Film Reviews

Film Review: Ocean’s 8

BY RUBI DEL RÍO-HERRERA

Ocean’s 8 may have just pulled off what 2016’s Ghostbusters remake attempted—a successful all-female cast. The film oozes sex appeal, something the Ghostbusters reboot didn’t bring to the table. Now take those elements, mix in some A-list actors (along with a few “B”s and “C”s), add in a heist, and this may be summer 2018’s biggest hit—with the potential for a few sequels to boot.

Our story starts with Debbie Ocean, the sister of Danny Ocean (played by Sandra Bullock), sitting in front of the parole board after serving a five year stint. Debbie manages to convince the board that her criminal intentions are in the past and that she just wants to live a normal life; though it’s not long after that we realize that her Sweet Polly Purebred act is just an act. She soon works her criminal magic in a five-star hotel. Bullock is masterful; she is your girl next door, your sexy goddess, and your smart diva rolled into one for this character.

Now, we all know that since this is Ocean’s 8, our protagonist has come up with some elaborate plan involving criminal activity, and soon enough we find out how Debbie has been keeping busy in jail for the past five years—planning an elaborate jewelry heist. Knowing she can’t pull this off alone, she teams up with her trusty sidekick, Lou (played by Cate Blanchett), the counterpart to Rusty in Ocean’s 11. Together this sexy criminal duo recruits an all-female team to pull off the biggest jewelry heist in history.

The plan is to steal a Cartier necklace—the Cartier Necklace— at the Met Gala, the biggest fashion party in New York City. The first step is to get the famous Miss Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) to wear the diamond dangler. Daphne is their way into the party, and they recruit Rose (Helena Bonham Carter), a washed up designer who is desperate for money, to couture the dress Daphne will be wearing at the Gala.

“Nine Ball” is played by “Umbrella” singer Rihanna, who is the computer hacker of the bunch. Comedian Mindy Kaling plays Amita the diamond expert, while “American Horror Story” alum Sara Paulson plays Tammy the swindler housewife. Newcomer Awkwafina plays Constance, the street hustler. The plan seems perfect… until they meet a few glitches along the way, but it won’t be long before this sexy group is able to think on their feet and smooth out the creases to try and get away with the perfect plan.

There is one thing I’m leaving out: my favorite part, and all I want to say is that indeed hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. I guess you can say it’s Debbie’s payback. But you’ll have to go see it to know what it’s all about. If you are an Ocean’s fan, then I highly recommend Ocean’s 8. It’s super sexy. Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett are definitely the female version of George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Their chemistry works and they are able to pull off the story. I smell sequels with this duo.

3 of 5 stars

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Pope Francis – A Man of His Word

BY RUBI DEL RÍO-HERRERA

Director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire [1987]) makes a tough task look easy in his new documentary Pope Francis: A Man of His Word. The task is no less than capturing the essence of a man.

Wenders’ wisest choice here is breaking the fourth wall, a technique that allows the individual in front of the lens (the subject) to look directly into the camera and address the viewer. This is exactly what happens when Wenders interviews Pope Francis. The effect draws the viewer into the story and makes one feel as if the Pope is directly talking to you. It is an ingenious method for certain documentaries, as it touches each viewer personally and allows them to be absorbed by the story. In this case, you also draw near to the words and messages of a man who speaks with candor, love, and truth.

One has to wonder, What is Wenders’ objective? Is it the man behind the robe? As we watch, we begin to understand that this film is not just about Pope Francis’ life. It only glimpses his past through archival footage, that of the man previously known as Jorge Bergoglio, an Argentine Jesuit. Instead, Wenders concentrates on the present and the papacy.

Pope Francis’ papacy begins at the retirement of the last pope in 2013, and the film opens recounting the life of St. Francis of Assisi in a shot of the Umbrian village of Assisi. The birthplace of the patron saint of the poor and sick. This is the man after whom Pope Francis was named and, more importantly, the saint who he has devoted his life to following.

This is evident in Pope Francis’ vows, rejecting the offerings of the papacy. We also see that his home is less extravagant than the official papal residence in the Apostolic Palace. He travels in a small electric car to meet heads of states. So, the film focuses on Pope Francis’ humbleness, compassion and, most of all his love for mankind, in keeping with the lifework of St. Francis.

Wenders does occasionally turn his lens toward subjects the Catholic Church for years has not wanted advertised, such as its positions on homosexuality, its plague of sexual abuse spread by priests, and the cover-ups thereof. Pope Francis’ answers to difficult questions reveal a man who is empathetic to each cause differently. He issues no criticism on homosexuality by answering, “Who am I to judge?” He feels that the Church needs to repair the wrongdoings of sexual abuse, and shows support of civil proceedings against defendants formerly of the Church.

In truth, Pope Francis is the pope of the people. He is just a man who recognizes that he has been given a gift to share with all who will accept and listen to his message of love. Wenders’ film will make you feel good about yourself. Leave you to feel warm and accepting of what it means to be an individual.

3 of 5 stars

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Godard Mon Amour (Le Redoubtable)

BY ANDRES SOLAR

Celebrated contemporary French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius (Best Picture Oscar winner The Artist [2011]) has delivered his “valentine” to the godfather of the French New Wave in Godard Mon Amour. While it might have come genuinely from the heart, as a work of cinema, its pulse is weak.

A film always says something about its creator, and one gets the sense that Hazanavicius’ story is also being told. Like Jean-Luc Godard, he lives the life of a French filmmaker and he’s married to a younger, beautiful actress (Bérénice Bejo, who starred in The Artist and appears here in a supporting role). The fragility of the artist (no pun intended) works as the film’s main theme.

I can see where making Godard Mon Amour could serve as a form of therapy for Hazanavicius, perhaps exorcising any of the demons that his titular director calls cliché: jealousy; the balance of individualism and attachment in relationships; the fear of becoming irrelevant, etc.

But the screenwriter/director assigned himself too many tasks to attend to. There are the biographical, historical, and political angles. There are the drama of Godard’s self-doubt and the comedy of his fumbling rebellion. The complex relationship with his wife. Every one of these aspects spread too thin.

Godard was prone to homages early in his career, so it make sense that Hazanavicius would want to pay homage to Godard but, especially in the third act, they are simply too many. Perhaps he felt it a playful approach, but I think “toying” is a better word for it. For a moderately accomplished—and certainly talented—director, getting to the low point of simply toying with his own film is unbecoming and feels almost banal.

Here again the multiple layers of irony in this film reveal themselves. Has Hazanavicius made a film of the sort Godard despises? In a slyly comic, real-life twist, Godard himself, hearing of the project in development, said that this was a “stupid, stupid idea.” Hazanavicius and the U.S. distributor sportingly made a poster with Godard’s proclamation in giant red letters.

However, the mere possibility that the elder might be right must have weighed on the younger director. Bravo to him, though, for daring to open the can of worms he must have known the telling of this story (based on an autobiography by Godard’s late former wife Anne Wiazemsky) would be. And, again, perhaps he felt he must do it for his own well-being.

One also gets the feeling much of Hazanavicius’ clever language gets lost in translation. Even with my limited, beginner’s, high school French, I could tell the translator took liberties every so often, summarizing a dialogue rather than trying to match any poetry in the original verbiage. At one point, the Godard homage involves the characters speaking to each other as subtitles of what each person is actually thinking flash where standard subtitles do. Well, the U.S. release being in French with English subtitles results in this particular scene having two sets of subtitles running at the same time. A bit of a mess.

At its funniest, Godard Mon Amour plays a lot like a good Woody Allen movie. One where Woody Allen plays himself, basically: the bespectacled, clumsy, neurotic filmmaker and his star-crossed love affair. Allen’s Bananas (1971) comes to mind, with its satire of Marxist politics and the clownish, clueless outsider who so dearly wants to be part of the revolution.

At its best, we glimpse Wiazemsky’s heartbreak as she realizes her husband is becoming another person at the expense of their marriage. Their quarrels ring true, especially due to Stacy Martin’s intelligent, subtly intense portrayal of Godard’s young wife. Louis Garrel, as Godard, also succeeds in his comedic turns, while perhaps a little less so in the serious sequences. He must contend with a script that repeats itself regarding the beloved filmmaker’s frustrations with, well, just about everything.

The film also repeats itself in depicting Godard’s boorish behavior. Here’s where Garrel’s Godard becomes tiresome not just for Anne, but for the viewer. Most disappointing is seeing Hazanavicius repeating his own, previously successful shots. In The Artist’s climactic, thrilling moment Peppy (Bejo) and George (Jean Dujardin) complete a ravishing dance number, both look directly in to the camera, and *spoiler alert* you can hear the actors breathing for the first time. It’s sheer brilliance, and the director makes it feel easy. On the contrary, as he struggles through Godard Mon Amour, he takes several actors’ asides to no avail, comedic or otherwise.

Michel Hazanavicius set a high bar for himself when he (along with Bejo and Dujardin) charmed our socks off with his ode to Hollywood and silent film. For his efforts, he went home with an Oscar (and Bérénice) one night in 2012. The talent is most certainly still there. He needs only to find the right story and to rediscover the free spirit that informed his masterpiece, and he’ll be ready to charm all over again.

3 of 5 stars

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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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Film Reviews

Film Review: Phantom Thread

BY ANDRES SOLAR

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.