Movie Review ~ Oxygen

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman wakes in a cryogenic chamber with no recollection of how she got there, and must find a way out before running out of air.

Stars: Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric, Malik Zidi, Marc Saez

Director: Alexandre Aja

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  They say with age comes maturity and that goes double for the film industry.  When French director Alexandre Aja started out in the early part of the new millennium, he hit the ground running with intense fare like 2003’s cult favorite High Tension.  Testing the resolve of his audiences (at least in the U.S.) by refusing to shy away from blood, gore, guts, and other things that make us wimpy Americans cringe, Aja became the go-to guy if you needed your film to push the limits of the R-rating and, at times, good taste.  His remake of The Hills Have Eyes gave some polish to Wes Craven’s grubby bare-bones original and how can we forget some of the visuals brought forth in 2008’s Mirrors (another remake, this time of a Korean film) and 2010’s 3D everything but the kitchen sink update of Piranha?

The old Aja was on display in 2019’s downright terrifying alligator flick Crawl, but something felt different in his approach to what could have been a chomp ‘em and leave ‘em box office gobbler.  Even though he was working with a film shot almost entirely on a soundstage that relied heavily on CGI effects to create its big nasty reptiles, there was a much clearer focus on atmosphere and thrills instead of the pure bloodlust that had fueled Aja’s productions for nearly two decades.  With the pandemic holding up plans for Aja’s big screen handling of the popular manga Space Adventure Cobra, there was an interesting opportunity for the director to step in on a project that had been drifting around for some time.

Originally set-up around Tinsel Town back in 2017 as O2 and set to star Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway, the actress never got around to making Oxygen and was replaced by Noomi Rapace (The Secrets We Keep) and a director who Aja had served as a producer for in past projects.  With its small set-up making it easy to film amidst restrictions implemented during the COVID lockdown, Aja took over as director and brought in Mélanie Laurent as a substitute for Rapace who remained as an Executive Producer.  Filming in July 2020 as Oxygen (or, Oxygène, s’il vous plaît)  the movie was snapped up by Netflix and became one of the streaming services initial offerings in its summer series of weekly film releases.

As the film opens, a woman (Laurent, Enemy) struggles to free herself from a strange cocoon in a darkened chamber.  She’s flat on her back and hooked up to a number of devices within this chamber with only a sentient operating system named M.I.L.O (Medical Interface Liaison Operator) to provide stilted answers to her questions.  It’s not that he’s being evasive (or is he?) but she’s just not asking the correct questions to discover not just where she is but who she is.  With no memory of her name or how long she’s been in what she learns is a cryogenic pod designed for hyper sleep (one that was decommissioned years earlier) she has to get M.I.L.O. to give her information that will help reconstruct the path to her imprisonment.  She can call out to law enforcement but without a name or location they are unable to come to investigate, let alone believe her in the first place. 

Representing another significant step forward for Aja, Oxygen might not ultimately score high on points in the originality department, but it does accomplish some respectable milestones along the way by keeping audiences engaged in the plight of our leading lady as she desperately tries to uncover her identity and how she came to be in her current situation.  I wasn’t sure at first the concept would be able to cover the full run time without cheating in some way and breaking free at some point to explore outside the pod.  I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the entirety of Aja’s film takes place within the cryogenic pod; instead of that feeling oppressive it winds up adding a degree of energy to the action and Laurent’s performance as her O2 levels decrease and she realizes time is running out.

A mid-point twist is the boost of energy that winds up carrying Christie LeBlanc’s script through to the end and it’s a nice little rug pull that shouldn’t be all that surprising if you were paying close attention from the beginning.  I wasn’t keeping as close of an eye as I usually do so I missed some obvious signs.  Twist or not, there are ample opportunities for Aja to show how much he’s grown-up since those High Tension days of gruesome ugliness.  Now, Aja seems entirely comfortable withholding some of the more squirm-inducing elements for when viewers are already a bit on the run, getting great mileage out of several sharp objects seen as benign medical tools making precise contact with skin.

There’s likely not a lot of replay value to be found in Oxygen once you’ve breathed it in but Laurent’s performance is so good, as is Mathieu Amalric (Quantum of Solace) as the HAL 2000-ish voice of  M.I.L.O., that it’s entirely worth catching at least once.  The bonus is that you’ll see a director genre fans have long admired continuing to find sophistication in his work without losing the pointy edge that made him such a household name in the community to begin with.

Movie Review ~ Sound of Metal

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A heavy-metal drummer’s life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.

Stars: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric

Director: Darius Marder

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  For years growing up I had that sweet Walkman with the fuzzy headphones that made listening to music great but let in a ton of outside noise.  At the time, it didn’t matter to me because this was years before noise-cancelling headphones and earbuds so I’d wrap that easily warped wire around my larger than average head and let the sound flow right into my ears.  I wanted it loud…loud enough to hear every word.  When I did get my first set of headphones that went inside the ear, I’d press them so far in they acted like an ear plug because…I wanted it loud.  I listened to the music in my car at max volume, the TV was cranked up, everything was loud loud loud…my poor parents, neighbors, and friends.  Then I went to a concert at a small club for a popular band and for some reason at this venue the sound reverberated in a way that just threw me for a loop.  I’d been to concerts before and heard seriously amplified sound…but nothing like this.  My ears rang for weeks after, blocking out voices and causing me to strain to hear anything.  I started to learn to get  good at reading lips because I was too embarrassed to admit to anyone that I couldn’t hear what they were saying.  Miraculously, over time, my hearing returned but that was officially it for my flirting with loss of hearing and ever since then I’ve been overly cautious about how sound affects my environment.

The opening moments of Sound of Metal (from Amazon Studios, now available to stream via Prime Video) gave me real anxiety as I watched Reuben, a punk-metal drummer for rising band Blackgammon keeping up with lead singer/girlfriend Lou as she scream-sings her way through one of their crowd-pleasing metal anthems.  The deafening music is nearly hypnotic, not in anything purposefully lyrical but in the way Reuben (Riz Ahmed, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) is following along and, eventually, in how we start to see small hints he’s noticing something slightly off in himself.  Director Darius Marder spends the next two hours following Reuben on his journey of self-discovery, beginning with a diagnosis that could limit and watching him navigate roadblocks of his own making.  Far from your typical ‘overcoming disability’ type feel-good film, Sound of Metal still has a tremendous amount of heart and deeply felt soul and its at its all-time best when no words are spoken at all.

When Reuben suddenly experiences a loss of hearing the morning after an intense Blackgammon gig, he leaves a note for Lou (Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) in the RV they’re traveling on tour in and finds a local doctor that can see him. Told he has done irreparable damage to his hearing with less than 30% remaining, without expensive cochlear implants he will soon be completely deaf.  Unable to make it through the next scheduled show, Reuben admits to Lou what’s going on and fearing her former-user boyfriend will relapse due to this debilitating news she helps him find a safe space to learn about being deaf in a controlled environment.  Originally hesitant to be away from the only person that’s truly loved him, Reuben’s hand is eventually forced into joining a community of deaf recovering addicts run by Joe, a Vietnam vet and former alcoholic.

Played by Paul Raci, Joe’s tough love approach may not be anything new by the standards of this type of filmmaking but in Raci’s hands (literally) and through the script by Darius Marder and his brother Abraham (who also composed the music with sounds-designer Nicolas Becker) the role becomes the key puzzle piece that was missing in getting Reuben’s life back on track.  Not just in terms of learning how to live as a member of the deaf community but in living a fuller life using his natural talents to bring out the good in others.  Joe sees that in Reuben, fosters it, encourages it, and asks him to join the movement in helping it continue to grow.  The crux of Sound of Metal is what Reuben chooses to do with this new world that waits for him and very much wants him to be a part of it.  Does he want this new life in his community, a community that feels they are whole as they are…or does he feel like he needs his hearing to be “fixed” and rejoin Lou who has done some soul-seeking of her own after returning to France to live with her father (Mathieu Amalric, Quantum of Solace)?

This is a film of endless gifts, starting with the performances offered by the three leads.  Ahmed’s work has consistently been strong but it’s at a totally different level, full of body and spirit.  Training for six months on the drums as well as learning ASL, it’s hard to fathom the movie was shot in just four weeks.  Even if her part is minor and acts as starkly contrasting bookends, Cooke too is an actor that never fails to bring something interesting to her appearances and whether she’s letting loose as a rock banshee or displaying a softer tone crooning en français with her dad, her energy is always vibrant and palpable.  The chemistry between the leads might be a tad off, reading more like good friends and bandmates that soulmates but several of their interactions feel like good examples of character improv done right.  The supporting players, a mixture of adults and children, are pulled from the deaf community and are impressively naturalistic in what is the screen debut of most.

Sound of Metal’s secret stealth weapon is Raci’s unforgettable performance as Joe.  At first, you aren’t sure how much he’ll factor into the story but once he’s locked in place you recognize just what he’ll come to mean in the grand scheme of what Marder is going for.  Raci delivers in each scene, showing a raw talent for off-the-cuff interaction that is refreshingly straightforward.  Raci gives Joe could have been a simple repeat of so many other performances it resembles but there’s a lived-in quality and world-weariness in Raci’s eyes that you can’t fake.  It’s almost as if Marder and the crew just happened to find the exact character they had written live in living color.  Count on this performance, as well as Ahmed’s, getting to the very final talks when those end of the year award nominations start coming out – both are well deserved nominees.

There’s a bit of a full circle feeling behind the scenes with Sound of Metal.  In 2012, Darius Marder had the original story idea for The Place Beyond the Pines and would go on to co-write the screenplay with the director of that film, Derek Cianfrance.  Years later, Cianfrance was working on the idea for Sound of Metal but wound up abandoning the movie, eventually passing it to Marder who would write and direct it.  From its incredible sound design (give Becker the Oscar right now, I mean, right now) to its unflinching way of showing the frustration and fear someone losing their hearing experiences, Sound of Metal excels in its sincerity and follows it through to the bitter (sweet) end.  One of the true highlights of film-watching in 2020.  Don’t you dare miss it.

Movie Review ~ The Grand Budapest Hotel

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.

Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson

Director: Wes Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  In the interest of total transparency, I wanted to let you know that I’m not a dyed in the wool devotee of Wes Anderson.  Sure, I devoured The Royal Tenenbaums as fast as the next art house hound but I started to have my doubts with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and, full disclosure, didn’t even bother with The Darjeeling Limited.  Meryl Streep got me back to Anderson providing a voice for the clever clever clever The Fantastic Mr. Fox and my journey was complete with 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, one of my top films of that year.

It’s March now but I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel in February and knew even then that another Anderson film would be near the top of my list for 2014 because this film represents the filmmaker at his most imaginative, most focused, most comedic, and most free from the convention and chumminess that I felt stymied some if not all of his pre Moonrise Kingdom works.

Here’s a director with that rarest of rare gifts…a point of view.  You don’t even need to know this is a Wes Anderson film to know it’s a Wes Anderson film.  His use of color and his attention to symmetric detail demonstrates a skill very few directors possess and Anderson continues to lead the way.  It says something that in Hollywood’s copy happy climate I can’t recall another studio or director that has even attempted the kind of precision and whimsy Anderson makes look effortless.

His new adventure (and it’s truly an adventure) takes place in three different time periods (and, if your theater is heeding the filmmakers instructions, three different aspect ratios) and charts the goings on of the titular lodging and it’s charismatic concierge that made it famous   Inspired by the writings of Austrian Stefan Zweig, Anderson’s film has a little bit of everything from campy farce to murder mystery foibles.  Behind every door of the hotel could lie danger or a lusty encounter with lord knows who.

Priding himself on his exceptional service in and out of the bedroom, randy would-be sophisticate concierge Gustave H (an inspired Ralph Fiennes, Skyfall) mentors young lobby boy Zero Moustafa (perfectly etched by Tony Revolori in the past and F. Murrary Abrahm in the almost present) in the ways of love and lodge, eventually embroiling him in a family squabble after a rich old lady (a marvelously brief cameo by Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin) kicks the bucket under suspicious circumstances and leaves a prized painting to the concierge that warmed her bed.

Chock full of familiar Anderson players, some are seen briefly while others have meatier roles that allow them to go all out.  All are standouts but notables are Adrien Brody (The Pianist) as Swinton’s son wanting his just reward, Willem Dafoe (Out of the Furnace) drawing on his Shadow the Vampire character to play a ghoulish thug, Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park, The Big Chill) odd as ever as a family lawyer, Jude Law (Side Effects) as a curious writer, Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom) turning up as a detective while Saoirse Ronan (How I Live Now, The Host), Jason Schwartzman (Saving Mr. Banks), Tom Wilkinson (The Lone Ranger), Owen Wilson (The Internship), and of course Bill Murray (The Monuments Men) pop up when you least expect them to.

No big surprise that Anderson’s film is given the grandest of grand production designs courtesy of production designer Adam Stockhausen (Oscar nominated in 2013 for 12 Years a Slave), art directors Stephen O. Gessler (Cloud Atlas), Gerald Sullivan (The Dark Knight Rises), & Steve Summersgill, set decorator Anna Pinnock (Life of Pi), and three time Oscar-winning costume designer Milena Canonero (Carnage).  Frequent collaborator Alexandre Desplat composes a typically tonally perfect score that sets the mood with style.  Count on all to be recognized with Oscar nominations a little less than a year from now.

Hopefully, Anderson, Fiennes, and the picture itself aren’t too distant of a memory when the award nominations are announced at the end of the year.  It would have been so easy for Anderson to toss this jewel of a picture into the 2013 award race but I think it was a wise choice for Fox Searchlight to hold this one back a bit and let audiences come down from their American Hustle and Gravity highs to start their new season off with a bang.

A film of numerous superlatives, The Grand Budapest Hotel is, for my money, Wes Anderson’s finest film to date.  Energetic, often hysterically funny, and excellent from the first frame to the last it’s as close to a perfect film experience as I’ve had in some time.  For some, it may be too left of center to feel the same way but I was bowled over with little reservation.

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The Silver Bullet ~ The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Synopsis: The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.

Release Date: March 7, 2014

Thoughts: Are you ready for The Grand Budapest Hotel?  No, really, are you ready?  Because I have the inkling the first great movie of 2014 will arrive once Wes Anderson’s follow-up to Moonrise Kingdom opens its doors in early March.  Anderson is an acquired taste and truth be told it’s taken me a while to really warm up to his style but if it’s half as precise as Moonrise Kingdom this one’s going to be another strong entry in Anderson’s growing list of cinematic treasures.  As is always the case for an Anderson film, the trailer is more of an excuse to introduce the slam-dunk cast on board than it is to reveal plot details…I found myself saying “Like him, like her, love him, like him, love her…” as this second preview played on.  Highly anticipated to the point where it may not meet expectations, I’m trying to keep a lid on this one until I see it for myself.

Bond-ed for Life ~ Quantum of Solace

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The James Bond franchise is celebrating its 50th birthday this year and with the release of Skyfall I wanted to take a look back at the 22 (23 if you count the rogue Never Say Never Again, 24 if you count the 1967 spoof of Casino Royale) films that have come before it. So sit back, grab your shaken-not-stirred martini and follow me on a trip down Bond memory lane.

The Facts:

Synopsis: Seeking revenge for the death of his love, secret agent James Bond sets out to stop an environmentalist from taking control of a country’s valuable resource.

Stars: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Gemma Arterton

Director: Marc Forster

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Into every franchise a little rain must fall and though Quantum of Solace isn’t a fully fledged thunderstorm, it still leaves you feeling a little sad after the blue skies of Casino Royale.  It’s not as if the players entered into the 22nd Bond film with anything other than noble intentions – there’s a lot of good stuff to be found in the movie but seeing that it’s really a direct sequel to Casino Royale there is a sense of feeling cheated out of the opportunity for a totally new adventure.  Though Diamonds Are Forever also carried on a small piece of the story that ended On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, that film at least wrapped things up in its pre-credit prologue.

Without spoiling some of the later events that happen in Casino Royale and spill over into this film, Quantum of Solace opens with Bond seeking vengeance with no less passion than he did in Licence to Kill.  Determined to find the group responsible for a betrayal that’s hit too close to home, the opening moments of the film are a mountaintop chase delivered with breakneck speed and quick cut editing.  The first thing I noticed about this entry was its different filming style that favors the herky jerky hand held camera and flash cuts to its predecessors slow burn sweeping panoramas.  Under the direction of Forster (lensing his first true action film) the film enters the race at 99% so there’s not much room for the rest of the movie to keep pace.  The opening credits and title song are also slightly disappointing with graphic design studio MK12 taking over for Daniel Kleinman  with a mish mash of sand and sun and Jack White’s duet with Alicia Keys sounding slightly off key at time. 

Off key is maybe the best way to describe the movie because everything just seems slightly askew or off the mark…something that grows more frustrating as the film goes on.  At 106 minutes, it’s the shortest Bond film which is probably a good thing considering that it may also be its slowest.  Yes, there are some dynamic action sequences on land and sea but nothing ever takes flight like I think it could have with a better script and stronger direction. 

It’s no fault of the actors on board that the movie drags and I was more sympathetic to Craig in this film than I was in the previous entry.  Here he’s a haunted man that masks his pain with his determined hunt for retribution.  If he was a loose cannon in Casino Royale here he’s as wild animal as he goes above and beyond his call of duty to get the answers he’s looking for.

More depth is given to Dench in this film as well as she achieves duality in her role as Bond’s superior and also an unwitting mother.  Craig and Dench take the roles deeper than one would normally feel is required but the end result are stronger performances because of it.  Dench may be the biggest Bond girl of them all when you really think about it.

The real Bond girl here is Kurylenko that gives off a Catherine Zeta-Jones vibe and not much more.  A character with motivations that I feel we’ve seen before (in For Your Eyes Only, for example), she’s also out for vengeance that may align with Bond’s.  Frenchman Amalric is one of the slighter villains in these films but what he lacks in his physical presence he makes up for in his maniacal plans to steal a valuable natural resource.

I’ve seen the film four times now and I should freely admit that I’ve fallen asleep each time at some point.  I’m usually a pretty alert moviegoer and it’s not that the film lacks for loud action scenes…but around the 60 minute mark my eyelids get droopy.  That being said, watching the film back-to-back with Casino Royale is probably the way to go as both films are really all part of the same story.