Movie Review ~ Finding Vivian Maier

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary on the late Vivian Maier, a nanny whose previously unknown cache of 100,000 photographs earned her a posthumous reputation as one the most accomplished street photographers.

Stars: Vivian Maier

Director: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel

Rated: NR

Running Length: 83 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: What I love about a documentary that isn’t focused on war or politics is that they don’t have to waste precious celluloid (does anyone still use celluloid?) in their attempts to humanize their characters. There’s less excuse making, less partisan grandstanding, and just a general lack of that brazen BS that accompanies any investigation into a hot button issue. No, what is so great about movies like Finding Vivian Maier is that they can interview people who knew our titular character and have them say how aloof she came across, how independent her spirit was, how downright mean she could be, and it doesn’t detract from the fact that this woman had a remarkable talent that she kept all to herself.

Filmmakers John Maloof and Charlie Siskel (movie critic Gene Siskel’s son) have a good looking Oscar nominated documentary on their hands with a central subject so secretive and interesting that I’m actually glad her life remained a mystery until well after her death because to have any concrete answers from the source subject would have spoiled some of the magic.

When Maloof happens upon a box of Maier’s photographs and shares them with an art collector friend, there’s little interest until 2009 when Maier’s work took off like a rocket via the internet. Though she took thousands of pictures, Maier had hardly any developed either because of cost or lack of need. From what we learn, Maier was very much an in the moment photographer and the stunning snaps we see displayed show as much of Maier’s curious complexities as it does the seemingly mundane subjects she captured on film.

Maloof and Siskel’s film traces what little we know about Maier from her upbringing in New York as the daughter of immigrant parents to her days of working as a nanny for several families, many of whom are interviewed here. Maier was a tough taskmaster, relentlessly private, and kept her world very small…making the images she took over 40 plus years all the more interesting because they’ve locked engaging facets of humanity in a single frame forever.

Though she had two former charges that took care of her and paid her rent as she grew older, Maier’s personal life was also a mystery. When she died in October 2009 she had little worldly possessions…save for boxes and boxes of undeveloped film that would become her legacy. In discovering the treasures she kept hidden, Maloof and Siskel found more than an unknown’s life work…they found a valuable piece of history.

Movie Review ~ Mr. Turner

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An exploration of the last quarter century of the great, if eccentric, British painter J.M.W. Turner’s life.

Stars: Timothy Spall, Ruth Sheen, Martin Savage, Lesley Manville, Karl Johnson, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson,Marion Bailey, Sandy Foster, Amy Dawson, Richard Bremmer

Director: Mike Leigh

Rated: R

Running Length: 150 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: The more movies I see I realize that I’m developing a real shine to the “Watch Me” kind of film experience. What I mean by that is that I much prefer a director to have some faith in the audience and allow us to be taken in not by telegraphed scenes that are necessarily easy to discern meaning from but by plots/characters/moments that require a little extra attention to be paid. As opposed to the “Show Me” kind of style, the “Watch Me” director has faith in the material and, though it may cater to a specific crowd, it’s not always made for a ridged target audience.

That being said, let me start off my review of Mr. Turner by saying that the thing I like most about director Mike Leigh is that he’s not a “Show Me” kind of director. Leigh has historically given his work a lot of slack, allowing them to mosey forth instead of speed ahead. Let me also say that Mr. Turner is very worthy of its four Oscar nominations for Dick Pope’s Cinematography, the Production Design from Suzie Davies & Charlotte Watts, Jacqueline’s Durran’s Costume Design, and Gary Yershon’s Original Score. All artistically sound and playing perfectly into the historic drama based on the life of artist J.M.W. Turner.

But good heavens, the film is tedious. The old saying about watching paint dry has never been more true (or literal) as in Mr. Turner.

Now look, I’m not one to turn my nose up at long period pieces nor would I begrudge any who would…but Leigh’s languid film surely is paced just as deliberately as the director intended but it’s a murder on the backside unless you have the benefit of taking in Mr. Turner from the comfort of your own lounge chair.

Had Leigh’s direction been less artful or Timothy Spall’s performance been conveyed with the smallest hint of artifice, this would be the stuff of tortuous college lecture halls — but coupled with the aforementioned worthy production team there’s a beauty to the proceedings, giving it quite a lot of purpose even when there’s not a lot of vested interest.

Aside from Spall, there’s splendid performances from Dorothy Atkinson as Turner’s long-suffering maid and Marion Bailey as a widow that provides a bit of spark to Turner’s later years. These are the scenes that carry the movie forward, bridges between more than a few interminable passages of watch-checking.

Whatever portrait this review may have painted for Mr. Turner, make no mistake that it’s a glorious looking film…but time is of the essence and beauty, like a great painting, can only be stared at for so long.

Movie Review ~ Virunga

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of brave individuals risk their lives to save the last of the world’s mountain gorillas; in the midst of renewed civil war and a scramble for Congo’s natural resources.

Director: Orlando von Einsiedel

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Browsing your Netflix queue you may lock in on Virunga’s cover image, that of an imposing mountain gorilla and young baby sitting in front of an armed solider and have thoughts of other monkey movies pass through you head. There’s a bit of false advertising going on if you think that Orlando von Einsiedel’s Oscar nominated documentary is just about the protection of the gorillas in the Virunga National Park situated in the African Congo because in reality the film is an engaging look at larger conservation efforts underway at this pristine national park.

Established in 1925, the park was intended to be a sanctuary for the endangered wildlife population being driven out of their natural habitat by land developers and oil companies. Poaching has become a serious problem with the illegal killing of these protected animals as a way to undermine the necessity of the park and acting as a gateway to have the park become less and less expansive.

Following several stories/people that pass through the park, Virunga puts a lot of information out there in quick succession about the history of the Congo as it brings us to the present problem at hand. We meet the various people working to protect the land and all that live and make a living within, from a kindly man that works in the gorilla sanctuary to the rangers that risk their lives stopping the vicious poachers.

All well and good for a portrait of life but the film goes a step further by bringing to light investigative journalism that points to oil companies taking extreme measures to ensure their place in the front of the line for tapping into new oil deposits purported to be under the land deemed protected. A French journalist risks her neck to meet with shady sub-contractors that may or may not work from multi-billion dollar corporations while a family-man ranger wears a wire and secret camera to catch officials attempting to bribe him for looking the other way.

It’s hard-hitting, eye-opening stuff, shining a light on problems that exist half a world away. It’s no shocker that noted conservationist Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) hung his hat on Virunga as an executive producer, it’s exactly the kind of slick product the actor has focused his humanitarian work on in the last decade.

Even if it can feel a bit catch-all at times with its moments of breezy gorilla antics giving way to a breathlessly tense journey through an active warzone, Virunga feels both affective and effective. Make sure to stay until the last credit has rolled.

Movie Review ~ Last Days in Vietnam

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The Facts:

Synopsis: During the chaotic final weeks of the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army closes in on Saigon as the panicked South Vietnamese people desperately attempt to escape. On the ground, American soldiers and diplomats confront the same moral quandary: whether to obey White House orders to evacuate U.S. citizens only–or to risk treason and save the lives of as many South Vietnamese citizens as they can.

Director: Rory Kennedy

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Though it may seem to some like a horrifying distant memory in this era of the Iraq War and Operation Freedom, the Vietnam War remains a singular event in our history that has provided the basis for countless books, movies, media pieces, testimonials, and documentaries.

The latest entry is Rory Kennedy’s Oscar nominated look into the harrowing final days when much effort was spent on getting Americans out of the line of fire as the North Vietnamese Army blazes a trail into the heart of Saigon. With American men and women that have made a life and have families in the country, the question becomes who gets to be the first to leave and how do they keep their families together when protocol might tear them apart?

Kennedy’s documentary is an action-movie unto itself, seeped in political maneuvering and last minute decisions that cause ripple effects among the crowds that climbed the walls of the U.S. Embassy desperate for a seat on the helicopters that would bring them to safety. For the South Vietnamese, to stay would mean certain death so every angle is explored/exploited in their attempts to flee their fallen city.

The first-hand accounts Kennedy has captured here are powerful in their recounting of this period of history and it’s clear that, like the returned soldiers haunted by memories of death and war, these are memories that are blazed into the minds of the interviewees. From top political players to the Vietnamese on the ground, Kennedy’s subjects aren’t presented in “us” or “them” sub-categories but as eye witnesses to the event that forms the center of the documentary: 24 hours of rescue missions recounted in great detail from helicopter pilots in the air and young soldiers doing their duty. These are stories of heroism in a time of conflict, showing that war didn’t fully sever our hearts from our heads.

With war documentaries available in full force to meet any of your historical needs, each new film has to have its purpose and focus to set itself apart from the crowd. With her famous political lineage very much on the mind of the viewer, Kennedy (Bobby and Ethel’s daughter) has a voice that’s clearly heard. Though focused on the last days in Vietnam, the documentary wisely shows how this time period was the start of something new.

Movie Review ~ The Boxtrolls

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young orphaned boy raised by underground cave-dwelling trash collectors tries to save his friends from an evil exterminator.

Stars: Ben Kingsley, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Dee Bradley Baker, Steve Blum, Toni Collette, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Simon Pegg

Director: Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable

Rated: PG

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I’ve been a fan of the last two films from Laika Entertainment, the stop-motion animation studio based in, of all places, Oregon. With Coraline and ParaNorman, the company showed that they weren’t afraid to craft a children’s film out of dark subjects and seemed to gleefully bask in their penchant for the ghoulish. It’s true that Coraline and ParaNorman have their intense moments as well as providing a way for parents to perhaps begin more sensitive discussions with their children about life and death.

Laika’s newest film is the Oscar nominated The Boxtrolls, based on the novel Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow and it finds the company coasting rather than accelerating as they tell another fractured fairy-tale filled with oddball creations. While the film is entertaining in spurts, I found my mind wandering more than it should – even in the most desolate of rehashed children’s tales I can normally find something to latch onto but I found my grip never fit with what Laika’s team was offering.

Featuring the voices of such trusted players like Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3), Elle Fanning (Maleficent), Toni Collette (The Way Way Back), Jared Harris (Pompeii), and Tracy Morgan (Rio 2), The Boxtrolls is centered on an orphan boy raised by trolls in a town prized for its taste in cheese. When a mean ole exterminator desperate to break into the upper crust makes a deal to rid the city of the troll vermin in exchange for entrance into high (blue) cheese society, it’s up to the young lad and his precocious gal pal to save the say.

Stuffed to the gills with wondrous stop-motion imagery, the film fills you up pretty fast in the visual department and at times it all becomes a troublesome blur. Where Laika’s previous efforts felt like a good mixture of style and substance, at 96 minutes The Boxtrolls seem to stay with us a little too long. No question that the film offers better entertainment than the majority of similar films aimed at families, but I wanted to be enchanted more than impressed.

The Silver Bullet ~ Aloha

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Synopsis: A celebrated military contractor returns to the site of his greatest career triumphs and re-connects with a long-ago love while unexpectedly falling for the hard-charging Air Force watchdog assigned to him.

Release Date: May 29, 2015

Thoughts: Had I not known before seeing this first look at Aloha who wrote and directed it, I can honestly say that I would have said to myself “Wow, this looks like a Cameron Crowe film…” and that says something about the type of movie Crowe is known for making. For his eighth film (and first in four years after the disappointing We Bought a Zoo), Crowe appears to have returned to the type of storytelling that first put him on the map.  In the first trailer for Aloha you can tell that he’s created real people, not some focus-group tested summary of average humans. And what about that cast? Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) and Emma Stone () are Oscar nominated red hot A-Listers with stars in an unparalleled ascent, joined by the likes of Rachel McAdams (The Vow), John Krasinksi (Big Miracle), Alec Baldwin (Still Alice), and the always interesting (if eternally grumpy) Bill Murray (Moonrise Kingdom). Originally referred to as The Untitled Hawaii Project, then Deep Tiki (shudder to think!) before blessedly settling into its current Hawaiian moniker, this could easily wind up in the saccharine melodrama bin…but I get the feeling Crowe has a warm welcome waiting for audiences.