FlixChatter Review: THE GOOD LIAR (2019)

Directed by: Bill Condon
Written by: Jeffrey Hatcher
Starring: Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Russell Tovey

Advertised as the first ever pairing of Dame Helen Mirren and Sir Ian McKellen, The Good Liar boasts perhaps two of film’s all-time greatest. Based on the best-selling book by Nicholas Searle (a former British Intelligence officer) and adapted to screen by (MN native) Jeffrey Hatcher, McKellen plays Roy Courtnay, an octogenarian career swindler who preys on greedy businessmen by day and conning rich, lonely widows of their retirement by night. Via online dating, he meets Betty McLeish (Mirren), a former Oxford professor and widower. She is immediately swept off her feet by Roy’s charming ways, to the chagrin of her grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) who grows suspicious of his nebulous history and character. Is he there to steal her money? Of course. But will this be an easy con, or are there twists and turns up ahead?

As expected, the two leads give a solid performance. McKellen is smooth, easy to watch and almost fun. The same can be said of Mirren, who exudes an airy, determined cool that seems so effortless. The first two thirds of the film is a slow burn of calculated intensity. The thriller unfolds with the taut directness of a Graham Greene novel. Propelled by the actors fine execution, The Good Liar engaged me throughout the first and second act.

Craftily directed by Condon (Gods and Monsters), the film, while predictable, stays focused and lets the two leads carry the weight for the most part. But it all falls apart in the third and final act. While we anticipated the oncoming twists just around the bend, some aspects of the story bordered on the preposterous and came dangerously close to being camp. The final third of the film unintentionally gave off the scent of being an exploitation film. Revenge movies of the late 60s and early seventies come to mind as well as pulp novels they were based on.

Because of Mirren and McKellen, we can forgive the unconvincing story in exchange for their screen presence. And they do give off an entertaining and unique chemistry. But I left the theatre feeling a bit swindled myself. Conned out of an ending that wouldn’t leave me feeling hollow and ambivalent. As good as they were in the film, it seems an opportunity was lost here for something that could have been really special.

The Good Liar is a slick, almost elegant (thanks to Carter Burwell’s score) but uneven film. The genius of the two lead actors mask the inadequacies of the story and screenplay, but not enough to save it from its own predictability and obviousness. It should be said that it was well-intentioned – addressing important issues regarding gender and portraying the redemption of one of its characters. But in truth, The Good Liar is so-so and just missed being great.

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FlixChatter Review: LAST CHRISTMAS (2019)

Directed by Paul Feig
Starring: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh and Emma Thompson

The holidays are upon us and along with that – holiday films. From “A Christmas Carol” to “Die Hard” and even to “Eyes Wide Shut”, the genre covers a wide spectrum of styles and there is always something, some motif, setting, style or narrative that makes it what it is and marketable this time of year. Paul Feig’s latest “Last Christmas” falls within the conventional side of this spectrum and appropriately so.

Emilia Clarke plays Kate, an aspiring and struggling singer living in London who also works as an elf in a Christmas store owned by Santa (Michelle Yeoh). Kate or Katerina (her Yugoslavian namesake) is a bit of a train wreck, borderline homeless, careless, irresponsible and jaded. Along comes Tom (Henry Golding), a stranger who happens to show up when she is at her worst but seems to melt her icy cynicism little by little. Slowly, she starts to turn things around, even with a hovering mother (played by Emma Thompson) obsessively doting on her.

To say any more would be revealing too much but Last Christmas reminds us of Bill Murray’s character turn/development in Groundhog Day, another holiday classic. Last Christmas follows the holiday template almost to a T in its predictability. However, Emilia Clarke’s performance is so charming that the movie succeeds in its intention. I’d forgotten she’d been Daenarys of Game of Thrones’ fame. Her comic turn as Kate is so natural and effortless that it’s enough to carry the film throughout the clichés, forced subplots, and feel-good story. We end up rooting for her through thick and thin. Clarke’s performance proves she’s not one-dimensional – a sign she will overcome being typecast, and hopefully more opportunities for complex roles in the future.

Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding and Emma Thompson are all merely there as supporting characters but there are some nice touches here and there. Last Christmas is cognizant of the times and reflects some of the political climate of today’s Europe and the western world. This is the world of Brexit and racism. Thompson (co-writer) and the filmmakers can be commended for at least trying to present a more realistic and diverse London.

The soundtrack is rich – filled with Wham! and George Michael classics. Michael’s song is the inspiration for the story and also a tribute to the late singer. Last Christmas is a cookie cutter of a film and not quite the classic it’s striving to be but it does have its heart in the right place. For some that might be enough.

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FlixChatter Review: YESTERDAY (2019)

I love The Beatles. In fact, my record collection (to quote Twin Cities label legend Peter Jesperson) begins with The Beatles and then goes from A-Z. During a company outing I struck up the subject by asking my coworkers: “You guys like The Beatles?” Their answer: “Who doesn’t like The Beatles?” And indeed, with Danny Boyle’s latest film, this assumption is rendered universal which is one of the key factors in making the premise of “Yesterday” work its magic.

Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a fledgling singer-songwriter, who despite his dedication and commitment to his trade just doesn’t seem to have the ‘thing’ to make it in the music industry. Gig after gig, from coffee house to festival circuit, no one seems to want to give his songs a listen. All except for one: local schoolteacher Elle (Lily James), his manager and childhood friend. She believes in his songs and most significantly, in him. After a failed gig at a music festival, Jack decides to hang it up. While riding home on his bike, suddenly the world changes. Inexplicably, in this world The Beatles never existed. No one remembers them, except for Malik of course. Armed with these songs, he is now in quite a predicament – or opportunity: What to do? A catalog full of Lennon-McCartney classics to be owned for the taking; to share them to the world or to pass them off as his own?

Patel is excellent as Malik, portraying him with sincerity and humor. Patel is also convincing as a musician, playing and singing with his own voice which is quite good given the awesome repertoire he’s been given. Lily James is simply radiant as Elle and acts as a great foil to Malik once his Hero’s Journey takes an uncontrollable turn. She is the down-to-earth element in his skyward trajectory to fame and fortune. But will he realize it in time before it’s too late?

The other stars in Yesterday are obviously the songs of Lennon-McCartney. The film assumes that we are familiar with them enough to get the in-jokes and album references. Being a Beatles fan myself, they are overly obvious and simplistic but quite satisfying. Admittedly, it’s a fantasy that friends and I have imagined in our younger years as we obsessed about The Beatles and endlessly played them on our aging turntables.

It’s a simple story, a fantasy/romantic comedy that asks us to escape to another dimension where The Beatles never existed. But I can’t help but think how the world would be so much different without The Beatles. Steve Jobs named his company Apple after the group’s record label. Would Ed Sheeran, who has a bit role playing himself, even exist in such a world? Part of the Rolling Stones success was its friendly rivalry with the fab four, yet they exist in this world as if it didn’t matter. Would the masses really have taken to the songs so quickly in such an environment, even with the help of social media technologies like YouTube and twitter? In my view, The Beatles were that influential to the state of contemporary culture since the 60s. Musicologists would probably correct me for these statement but the bottom line is that Yesterday asks us not to think too hard about those details but just to climb on board and enjoy the ride.

Filled with humor, amusing pop culture references, great songs and strong performances from the two leads, Yesterday is highly entertaining as long as we don’t think about it to too much. And by the way, part of The Beatles charm was their happy-go-lucky and not-so-serious nature (at least in the beginning). Wouldn’t it be nice to live in the surreal, joyous world that is portrayed by Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night? With Yesterday, Danny Boyle gives us 2 hours to forget the world’s troubles and ask ourselves “What if?”

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FlixChatter Review: SING (2016)

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Directed by Garth Jennings, Christophe L0urdelet | Written by Garth Jennings

Featuring the voices of: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Seth McFarlane, John C. Reilly, Taron Edgerton

The end of the year holiday season is always prime for finding movies kids can go to. After all, school’s out, and they need things to do to hold their attention. In my case, I needed to get them out of the house and a screening of an upcoming animated movie (courtesy of Flixchatter) would give my wife a couple hours of well-earned breathing time. My kids (7 and 9) are pretty picky about the movies we go to (my oldest held off seeing any of the Star Wars movies until after X-Mas) so I was a bit surprised after seeing the trailer that they were all-in.

Sing, directed by Garth Jennings (Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), brings us to a world inhabited by animals, namely a Koala: Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), an ambitious, if not overzealous theater owner working to keep his run-down theater afloat amid a string of failed shows and financial crisis. About to be evicted, he comes up with a plan to host a singing contest (a-la American Idol) with prize money of $1000. However, Buster’s aging and loveable Iguana assistant, Mrs. Crawley, mistypes the prize at $100,000. Animals from all over the city flock to Buster’s audition where we meet our main characters: Mike the mouse (Seth McFarlane), a devious but talented crooner; Ash (Scarlett Johansson), the punk rock porcupine; Rosalita the pig (Reese Witherspoon), a lovable domestic wife/closet singer; Johnny (Taron Egerton), a cockney accented Gorilla with the sweetest voice and finally Meena the elephant (Tori Kelly), a shy but talented singer with very low self-esteem. During and after the audition process, Buster hides the fact that the prize money isn’t what it seems and does whatever is necessary to keep the show going and revitalize his theater.

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The most interesting part of Sing is when the story hones in on the contestant’s private lives. Rosalita with 25 piglets, Meena with her encouraging family, Mike’s run in with the underworld, Ash’s arrogant boyfriend and Johnny’s criminal dad add a bit of dimension to these otherwise one dimensional characters. As with most movies of this genre, it’s filled with pop culture music references, many of which went over my head but trivial in the scope of things.

The animation is tight and frenetic. The music is loud and bombastic. There is enough slapstick to elicit the laughs and giggles throughout. However there are some key dramatic moments involving Johnny and his relationship with his father and a little bit with Rosalita and Meena that resonated with my kids in a positive way. While my youngest was up from his seat dancing to the tunes and performances, my oldest cried a bit at the tender moments with Johnny and his dad. This was a good thing in my book.

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Finally, Sing avoids the predictable and loathsome culture of winning it all (American Idol, The Voice) to its credit. There are no Simon Cowells here which is a good decision on Illumination’s part. It’s really about finding your voice (literally and figuratively) and being true to yourself that really matters in the end. While that makes Sing as cheesy as it implies, it’s true – Sing is as light and cheesy as you would expect. But sometimes, with kid’s movies, that’s just what the doctor ordered.


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FlixChatter Review: Kubo And The Two Strings (2016)

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Directed by Travis Knight | Written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler

Featuring the voices of: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, Brenda Vaccaro and George Takei.

This latest film from Laika is a 3D stop-motion animated film. It tells the story of Kubo, a boy who comes across the ocean as a baby, adrift with his mother, fleeing some sort of great danger – one that has left him with only one eye. In hiding, he grows into a young boy and demonstrates a magical affinity for storytelling and origami. He uses this gift to mesmerize the townsfolk with tales of great warriors and monsters for a bit of money. Meanwhile, his mother, also possessing magical powers, is slipping away in a deep melancholia and fading memories. She forbids him to stay out after dark for they are being hunted by those responsible for taking his eye. As the story progresses, this inevitability comes to pass and those forces catch up to him.

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Kubo and the Two Strings is a gorgeous film. Laika, which builds on its resume of Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls, has slowly and meticulously been perfecting it’s craft in the genre. 4.3 seconds of animation was produced in a day – the film taking 5 years to complete. Its look is stylish and impressive, fooling this reviewer’s eye into thinking it was done completely in the CGI domain.

Even more impressive are the themes the film tackles: love, life, death, rebirth, grief, the idea of memory as sacred and divine, and the power of storytelling. In this sense, “Kubo” strives for Studio Ghibli territory and is much closer to Miyazaki than any Dreamworks/Pixar/Disney offerings of late. It is appropriate to describe “Kubo” as a Samurai film as it has elements reminiscent of Kurosawa especially in its depiction of evil and the supernatural, as well as the hero’s journey.


While the film doesn’t completely succeed in its efforts to address all of these themes, it doesn’t fail either. Kubo should be lauded for not dumbing down its ideas to cater to the lowest common denominator. There is a darkness and melancholia added on to the film’s optimism and humor – and this seems fitting to its execution: simple with a dash of complexity. I also found its un-sentimentality refreshing in the era dominated by the Frozens and the Finding Dorys.

Kubo and the Two Strings is not perfect but it makes a valiant effort in a mature way. The filmmakers should be commended for that.

Note: the film has some scary images and sequences and not recommended for kids under 10.

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FlixChatter Review: Café Society (2016)

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Café Society is director Woody Allen’s latest film about old Hollywood – or sort of. Set during its golden age (30s, 40s), its main protagonist is Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a naïve young New Yorker looking to make his way by moving to Hollywood to work under his uncle Phil (Steve Carell in a wooden performance), a high powered Hollywood agent.

Leaving a loving Jewish family in New York, which includes his mother Rose (an excellent Jeannie Berlin) and a gangster older brother (Corey Stoll), Bobby arrives in LA, and taken under his uncle’s wing. To help him get acclimated to his new surroundings, Phil tasks ‘Vronny’, his secretary (Kristen Stewart) to show him the sights. Before long, a romance ensues and some rather complicated triangles come into play.


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is watchable at best, with Vittorio Storaro’s gorgeous photography, its glamorous ensemble cast (Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Sheryl Lee) and Allen’s trademark impeccable pacing. However, the cast is mostly sidelined to the rafters.

Aiming seemingly for that classic, light, airy romantic comedy – the likes of Twentieth Century (1934), but without it’s creative punch and slapstick. It’s peppered with cynicism throughout, perhaps to intrigue a moviegoer discussion into the imagined realities of love and romance in the Hollywood jet-set. But it all feels a bit hollow and ultimately, forgettable.

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Perhaps Allen’s point is to stress the emptiness of the rich Hollywood life, but it’s hard to care for any of the main characters who don’t evolve much. It does feel a bit like Allen doing a monologue on Hollywood, love and death to himself. But that in itself, unfortunately, does not make a great, or even a good film.

The one redeeming quality about the film are the scenes with Bobby’s immediate family, which were too few and far in between. The family dynamic offered the most effective comedy throughout and reminded me bits and pieces of 1987’s award winning Moonstruck.

In the end, the Dofmans were the only characters I could sympathize with. And by film’s end, Bobby was most definitely not even a part of them at all.

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