Movie Review ~ Marriage Story


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A stage director and his actor wife struggle through a grueling, coast-to-coast divorce that pushes them to their personal and creative extremes.

Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Merritt Wever, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Martha Kelly

Director: Noah Baumbach

Rated: R

Running Length: 136 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Relationships are hard.  We all know this because we’ve all been in one and understand the complexities that go into forming a bond with someone and the work necessary in keeping those home fires burning.  Even if you love the person deeply, there are times when you need to remember the reason why you got together in the first place.  These are internal feelings hard to express not just to an outside observer but to yourself.  Now add in a shared career, living space, and the livelihood of another human being and you have a little more of an idea how much a marriage ups those stakes.

Marriage Story isn’t the first movie to explore the crumbling of a union, nor will it be the last but it’s the first one I can remember that seems to have found a way to believably get inside the hearts, minds, and psyche of two people that have decided to call it quits.  The reasons aren’t cut and dry, they haven’t been given Hollywood-ized rationales for parting ways but instead are balancing carefully weighed and emotionally resonant choices that, for at least one of them, have been agonized over.  There’s no early dramatic spike where one announces to the other “I want a divorce”, when the movie opens we’re already in that space and that’s how writer/director Noah Baumbach invites us into the private lives of a family navigating an unknown space.

Successful New York theater director Charlie (Adam Driver, The Dead Don’t Die) and his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin) have enjoyed building up their small theater company over the past decade.  She’s a former Hollywood actress that left the glitz for something more challenging and gritty, finding that in Charlie’s creative work environment.  They have a son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), and a seemingly pleasant life suggested by opening voice-overs by the two in which they extol what they like most about the other.  Turns out this is all an exercise used in mediation to facilitate an easy separation.  Charlie has hurt Nicole and she’s asked for a divorce.  She’s accepted an offer to film a pilot in L.A. and will be taking Henry with her while she films the show, Charlie will stay behind to bring their latest production to Broadway.

As the movie unfolds and a planned amicable separation turns ugly, the husband and wife become unlikely adversaries.  As parents, they become spiteful and their collaborative friendship sours.  Charlie leaned on Nicole more than he knew and when she withdraws that support he understands, slowly and too late, all that she sacrificed.  When Nicole hires a cutthroat lawyer (Laura Dern, The Fault in Our Stars), the gloves come off; small incidents become fodder for character assassinations and negotiations on living arrangements bring out the worst in everyone.  Charlie enlists the assistance of two lawyers, one (Alan Alda, The Longest Ride) is more pragmatic of the situation and the other (Ray Liotta, The Iceman) isn’t afraid to get down in the mud with Nicole’s attorney.  One guess who he winds up paying a hefty retainer to.

Many have compared the film (in small theatrical release now and streaming on Netflix) to 1979’s divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer and they aren’t so off the mark.  That film is decidedly more focused on the man’s point of view and Marriage Story has a more even keel, never quite taking the side of either party but leaning every so slightly into the Nicole camp for the majority of the 136 minute running length.  Charlie is going to frustrate a lot of people (disagreeing, my partner and I had a long discussion about him after) because many of the problems with the marriage seem to stem from his lack of self-awareness regarding putting his own needs above others.  I don’t necessarily disagree with that call out, but there’s a difference between being knowingly self-centered and simply lacking the skills to separate what is important now from what is important in the long run.  Charlie falls into that latter category.

It’s not a huge secret Baumbauch (Mistress America) drew inspiration from his own shaky divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh when composing this film.  I’m not sure how much she’d appreciate this movie or how much of Nicole is drawn with her in mind but Nicole is often shown as quietly harboring resentment that she later wields at her ex-husband in sometimes cruel ways.  True, it could be a justified way of exerting some power for the first time when she felt powerless for so long, but it doesn’t always make her look like the better party.  It helps innumerably that Johansson gives Nicole layers upon layers of nuance, peeling back each cover for us and showing a refreshed person underneath.  The wife in a divorce is often relegated to a cliche but Baumbach works with Johansson to make this wife more than just a woman breaking free from a joyless union or nobly taking back her hard-won freedom, this is a woman simply saying she wants a different life and having the confidence and courage to make it happen.

Speaking of Johansson, in the same year she was so great in Jojo Rabbit, this is arguably the best work she’s ever done and it’s a performance that doesn’t peak early.  Though a lengthy speech to Dern may feel like her big moment she has more surprising scenes throughout and it’s a wonder to watch her work.  She has believable chemistry with Driver and I bought the two had formed a family with Robertson and felt that twinge of guilt she experienced when she was breaking up that unit.  I struggle with the popularity of Driver, failing to truly understand why he’s as universally acclaimed as he is and for much of the movie I just wasn’t getting the sewn up Best Actor buzz that followed him with this movie.  The final thirty minutes, however, had some pretty powerful scenes for Driver to play and he works them, especially an emotionally on-the-nose Sondheim song, like a master.  I’m not sure it’s an Oscar slam-dunk as others do, but it’s certainly worthy of recognition.  What I am scratching my head on is the fiery buzz around Dern’s divorce attorney.  Now, you won’t find a bigger Dern supporter than myself and while I found her to be a strong supporting player along with Alda, Liotta, Julie Hagerty (as Nicole’s mom), Merritt Weaver (Welcome to Marwen, as Nicole’s sister), and Martha Kelly (Spider-Man: Homecoming, as a hilariously deadpan social worker), is this an Oscar-winning role? No way.  Dern can do this kind of role in her sleep and I found it sadly lacking in the kind of levels that I normally would look to an Oscar-winning performance to showcase.

Written and directed by a man that went through a difficult divorce, Marriage Story could easily have been a way to exorcise some frustrations of that experience but instead Baumbach has brought forth a sensitive and at times understated exploration of separation.  Not just the legal pieces or the physical distance between the families but the emotional aspects of what happens when people are removed from the lives of others.  They say divorce is like a death and it’s the most telling in two moments from the movie.  One scene a character looks on a wall and sees family pictures in which they are well represented, later on after all is said and done they visit the same wall and they have completely disappeared, like they never existed at all.  It’s one of the saddest moments Baumbach captures.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Ritual

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of university friends trekking through the forests of north Sweden are stalked by a malign presence that doesn’t want them to leave.

Stars: Rafe Spall, Robert James-Collier, Arsher Ali, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid, Maria Erwolter

Director: David Bruckner

Rated: TV-MA

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  For a while, it seemed like Netflix was getting to be a place where cheap-o horror was coming to flourish.  I can’t tell you how many times I was enticed in by an interesting bit of artwork, description, or star rating only to be opting for something else five or ten minutes in because the movie was garbage.  Then, once the company started to become a fledgling-movie studio and wanted to be taken a bit more seriously, you could see a shift in the way they started to acquire content to release under their own banner.  While Netflix would soon get into the game of financing their own films, in order to build out their library they had to track down some quality completed work first.

That’s how they came to procure The Ritual, a nifty little horror yarn based on a 2011 novel by British author Adam Nevill.  Adapted by Joe Barton who helped to give the story a bit more of an arc and directed by David Bruckner (V/H/S), this was another one of those pleasant surprises I wasn’t expecting to enjoy as much as I did.  Like Apostle, what The Ritual may have lacked in overall prestige had it been made in the studio system, it more than makes up for in creativity and atmosphere.  Receiving a small release in the UK before Netflix bought it, it’s a movie I can see not being totally right for theaters but working better as an at-home watch.

A yearly weekend trip for a group of five university friends takes on a special meaning a year after losing one to a random act of violence.  Paying tribute to their fallen buddy by moving forward with his idea of hiking the mountains in Sweden, Phil (Arsher Ali), Dom (Sam Troughton), Hutch (Robert James-Collier, Downton Abbey), and Luke (Rafe Spall, Prometheus) are approaching middle-age and realizing they aren’t the same kind of friends they were in their youth.  They squabble and press each other’ s buttons, clearly missing their one friend who seemed to be the glue that held them all together.  The hike isn’t half over before one is injured and they have to find a way back to town.  Opting for a shortcut through a nearby wood proves a fatal mistake as the men walk headfirst into a place of evil.  Resting for a night in a ramshackle deserted cabin filled with the kind of harbingers of doom that scream “Turn back!”, the men wake up the next morning having had visions of death in their dreams to find strange marks on their body.  As the fear of the unknown mounts, so does the paranoia.  Unable to find their way out of the forest, they delve further inward toward an unspeakable terror waiting to be fed…and it’s mighty hungry.

With a small cast and modest budget, Bruckner does good work by never letting the audience get too far ahead of the game.  There’s a lot of exposition in Barton’s script near the end that has to be conveyed without slowing the action down and it’s nice to see these important final scenes aren’t bogged down by all of this explanation.  As is often the case, the solution isn’t always as interesting as the mystery but The Ritual manages keep us engaged longer than most.  The gore is doled out appropriately and the performances from the men are nicely metered in comparison to the emotional stakes presented to them.

I hope Netflix continues to take cues from successful acquisitions like The Ritual.  While the film may be a bit cliché in some of its crude moments of violence, I liked the quieter times it focused on the men and their relationships to each other.  It produces some more than decent chills and works hard to bring its audience into the mood of the situation.  A cut above, no doubt.

31 Days to Scare ~ Apostle

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1905, a drifter on a dangerous mission to rescue his kidnapped sister tangles with a sinister religious cult on an isolated island.

Stars: Dan Stevens, Lucy Boynton, Michael Sheen, Bill Milner, Mark Lewis Jones, Elen Rhys, Sharon Morgan

Director: Gareth Evans

Rated: TV-MA

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Plenty of horror movies come and go with varying degrees of value over time.  The tried and true masterworks are like warm blankets, boons to the soul that work no matter the circumstance or situation.  Some are quick larks that entertain in the moment and fade from memory before you close your eyes for the night.  The bad ones unfortunately tend to stay in your mind because you can’t believe you’ve wasted time on something so pointless when you could have been reading that Alexander Hamilton biography gathering dust on your nightstand.  Then there are the new classics that appear on the scene and you know almost right away they’ll have an impact that remains after the last drop of blood has been shed.

It’s been nearly a year since I fired up Apostle on Netflix and it was by happenstance I caught it at all.  It totally wasn’t on my radar, even though it boasted a tantalizing cast and was written and directed by Gareth Evans.  Evans was behind the eye-popping amazement that was The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2 so I was eager to get a peak at what he had conjured up.  You could tell from the beginning Apostle wasn’t your average run-of-the-mill horror film and as it played on I kept waiting for the misstep that would prove to be the expected letdown…but it never came.  This is that rare unicorn on a streaming service that arrives with little fanfare and winds up knocking your socks clear off your feet.  Anything I was expecting from the film was thrown out the window and I got so much more than I could have imagined.

Arriving on a small Welsh island at the turn of the century, Thomas (Dan Stevens, Beauty and the Beast) is looking for his kidnapped sister that he has tracked to this location.  Being held for ransom but a religious cult, Thomas poses as a new convert to gain passage into the sect and when he arrives he isn’t prepared for the danger that awaits him.  Though he finds his sister fairly quickly, getting off of the island alive won’t be as simple.  Led by the charismatic Malcolm (Michael Sheen, Home Again), the order demands blood from their followers as a way to feed the land that’s eternally…hungry.  As Thomas seeks a way off the island to safety with his sister, he needs to steer clear of the town elders and an array of suspicious eyes that are always watching his every move.  Flashbacks to his past as a Christian missionary hint of a man that’s already suffered a great deal for his beliefs, he’s not about to follow a similar fate here with these people.

With support from Malcolm’s daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton, Bohemian Rhapsody), Thomas goes deeper into the heart of the island and discovers the mystery that lays at the heart of the cult.  Who or what is feasting on the blood of the townspeople and what is lurking in a tunnel linking the makeshift village to a cave on the coast with ancient drawings suggesting there’s a deity dwelling within the island.  Could it be the entity referred to simply as Her? Or the protective figure known as The Grinder? The answers to these questions come with a considerable bit of bloodshed and grisly gore, shown in gruesome detail by Evans.  Never one to shy away from violence, Evans doesn’t hold back here, employing torture devices used to extricate confessions from suspects and putting a meat mincer to grotesque use.

If this all makes the movie sound intense and hard to watch, well, it is.  It’s also gorgeously made and performed by a fully-committed cast.  The isolated setting and mythical undertones give the film a supernatural bent while the violent religious fanaticism provides horrors of its own as no bond proves too strong to be tested.  Not going to lie, I had to turn away a few times because the images were too disturbing, but it was strangely energizing to see such bold filmmaking conveyed with such sophistication.  Available on Netflix, this is a must-see for fans of horror of genre filmmaking.  A great selection for a Friday or Saturday night in or a rainy Sunday afternoon (after church), Apostle will rattle your cage with fire and brimstone.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Irishman



Synopsis
: A mob hitman recalls his possible involvement with the slaying of Jimmy Hoffa.

Release Date:  September 27, 2019

Thoughts: The pending release of any Martin Scorsese film will always create buzz but there’s a special kind of hum that’s been generated from his next film, The Irishman.  It’s not just that it marks another high profile director turning to a streaming service (Netflix) to finance and release their film but it also re-teams Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street) with two of his greatest collaborators.  Seeing Robert DeNiro (Cape Fear) playing another hard-boiled gangster is all well and good but boy, it’s already a huge thrill to see Joe Pesci coaxed out of a semi-retirement in this first teaser trailer.  Add in Al Pacino (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood) and you have a triple-crown of heavy hitters in mafia films helmed by the godfather of the genre.  Though it’s too early to call this one a slam dunk, Netflix is likely gathering all their four-leaf clovers and betting on The Irishman to get them back into the Best Picture race they so narrowly lost last year.  

Movie Review ~ Roma


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A story that chronicles a year in the life of a middle-class family in Mexico City in the early 1970s.

Stars: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Nancy García García

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review: In a strange sign of the technological age we’re living in now, one of the most epic cinematic accomplishments of the year will likely be seen by most people first on their televisions, iPads, or (yikes) their smart phones.  Though it was given a small theatrical release for a few weeks and can still be seen in cinemas for those that live near a metro area, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma debuts for everyone else today on Netflix.

Taking place over the course of a year in the 1970s, Roma is Cuarón’s loosely autobiographical look back at his time growing up in Mexico City and the relationship his family had with their housekeeper.  Throughout the year we track the family as they go through growing pains and internal fractures, all seen through the eyes of Cleo, their maid.  As played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, Cleo has a quiet grace that suggests a world-weariness when it comes to practical matters but a striking naiveté in matters of the heart.  Over the year we get to know her, Cleo will experience her own journey (literally and figuratively) as she navigates the treacherous terrain and emotional complexity of first love.

The family takes up most of the air during the scenes inside the house but anytime we venture outside their gated walls the film explodes with sounds and sights, vividly relayed in Cuarón’s own gorgeous black and white cinematography.  There’s a freedom to these sequences that parallel the more staid existence of Cleo’s life tending to the family.  Her employers and their children are never cruel in a stereotypical movie way to her and often treat her like she’s a family member.  All tread a fine path that blur the lines between employer and employee, culminating in an emotional climax you think is the end of the film but leads into a finale Cuarón uses to drive home a bittersweet reality.

As a follow-up to his Oscar-winning work on Gravity, Roma is a bold move for Cuarón.  Not only has he taken a huge risk by teaming up with Netflix at a time when the internet service is vying for a place as a legitimate movie studio but he’s telling a deeply personal tale that doesn’t have the same commercial prospects as his previous work.  He’s cast a lead with no prior acting experience (Aparicio is a true revelation) and delivered a 2+ hour black and white movie entirely subtitled for home consumption where people’s attention span isn’t at its most focused.  Yet it’s this kind of risk-taking that has made Cuarón such an accomplished craftsman over the years and why Roma works on every level.  From the opening shot to a nerve shredding sequence ¾ through the movie that I won’t spoil for you, to the very last credit you see, this is Cinema with a capital C.

Big screen or small screen, there’s little doubt this is one of the finest movies of 2018 and one that deserves your full consideration no matter how you choose to take it in.  I was lucky enough to see it on a huge screen without outside distractions so was able to take in the sheer size of Cuarón’s masterful vision of his youth.  I’m interested to view it again on my television to see how the experience changes things, if at all.  I suspect the small but mighty performances might play even better at home while some of the majestic shots Cuarón devised might lose some impact.  If you can get to the theater, I strongly suggest making the effort.  If you can only see it from the comfort of your own home then please turn off all the lights, turn your phone off, and let the film take you away for 135 minutes.  It’s worthy of your undivided attention.

31 Days to Scare ~ Gerald’s Game

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: While trying to spice up their marriage in their remote lake house, Jessie must fight to survive when her husband dies unexpectedly, leaving her handcuffed to their bed frame.

Stars: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Carel Struycken

Director: Mike Flanagan

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: When Stephen King’s novel Gerald’s Game was first published in 1992, film adaptations of the authors work had already been buzzing around for a while.  Most of King’s early books had already found their way to the screen and the well was beginning to run a little dry for marketable projects a studio could push into production.  While a King renaissance was still a few years away when his short stories were mined for more dramatic material, a few of his early ‘90s novels fell through the cracks.  With its relatively small cast of characters and abundance of inner voice monologues likely deemed too tough to adapt by studios looking to fast track flicks, Gerald’s Game kept falling to the bottom of the pile, even as lesser works got their fair shot at the big screen. Originally part of a larger planned work that included the story that became Dolores Claiborne (which found its way to the movie theaters in a drastically underrated 1995 production), Gerald’s Game finally gets its moment to shine in a first rate production courtesy of Netflix and writer/director Mike Flanagan.

It’s a beautiful day for the Burlingames as their arrive at their lake house nestled far away from neighbors and the outside world.  Hoping for a romantic weekend away to add some spice to their marital bed, every detail has been thought of.  Jessie (Carla Gugino, San Andreas) has packed a sexy new slip and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood, Endless Love) brings along two shiny pairs of handcuffs.  An unexpected turn of events leaves Gerald dead on the floor and Jessie tethered helplessly to two bedposts, her screams for help echoing silently across the waters.  With no one set to arrive for days, thirst and desperation set in for Jessie…especially when she receives several visitors both real and imaginary.

Revealing more than that would ruin the game King has devised and Flanagan has finessed with King’s blessing.  Flanagan made wise choices in removing some of Jessie’s inner voices and/or consolidating them to a singular person.  The seemingly happy couple had demons that are explored over the course of the film, especially Jessie who suffered a trauma as a child that wound up affecting the choices she made for herself.

Over the past several years with films like Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and last year’s Netflix gem Hush, Flangan has demonstrated a real knack in crafting movies with good atmosphere and nice scares while digging surprisingly deep into the psyche of his characters.  Jessie is a multi-layered creation, thanks not only to Flanagan’s creative way of telling her back-story but in Gugino’s bold portrayal of a woman in crisis.  She’s matched well with Greenwood, first coming off as a genial workaholic husband before showing a more sinister side as his sexual proclivities turn aggressively frightening.  Even in death he has a hold on her, as evidenced by Flanagan letting the dead speak as one of Jessie’s imagined houseguests.

This is a Stephen King tale, though, so expect some nifty twists and turns as the action unfolds.  While Flanagan creates some remarkable tension, he isn’t hoity-toity enough to shy away from a good old fashioned shriek-inducing scare or moments of gooey-gore that had me covering my eyes.  For eagle-eared King fans, there’s also a nice little morsel that ties this film to a previous King adaptation in a most enjoyable way.

Unfortunately, it’s not all fun and games when it comes to the ending.  Perhaps showing that the material couldn’t quite stretch past the 90 minute mark, Flanagan has a few finales to contend with here and none truly satisfy.  Both convenient and confusing, the final fifteen minutes are a bit of a muddle that fall well short of the superior first 2/3rds of the film.  It’s not weak enough to destroy the good-will Flanagan has roused in his audience, but a decent amount of it does evaporate.

With the pool of quality genre films getting low, Gerald’s Game is a fun addition to the good pile of available content you can stream and enjoy.  Gugino’s performance is aces and even with the few missteps mentioned above, as usual Flanagan acquits himself in the long run.  Definitely worth checking out.

31 Days to Scare ~ Circle

circleThe Facts:

Synopsis: Could you trust a jury of your peers with your life? The contestants of a mysterious death game must make harrowing decisions as they strategize for survival in this psychological sci-fi thriller.

Stars: Michael Nardelli, Allegra Masters, Molly Jackson, Jordi Vilasuso, Rene Heger, Julie Benz, Lisa Pelikan, Matt Corboy

Director: Aaron Hann, Mario Miscione

Rated: NR

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Ready for a bit of fun?  Circle is another of those neat-o finds on Netflix that intrigued me enough to add it to my queue and fire it up on a rainy day.  It’s a risky endeavor setting your entire film in one room with an ever-dwindling cast of unfamiliar faces but writer/directors Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione go all in and wind up with a surprising and surprisingly entertaining little thriller that feels like an extended episode of Night Gallery, The Twilight Zone, or The Outer Limits.

Fifty seemingly unconnected strangers wake up in a strange room positioned in a circle with several rows.  Why they are there or how they got there no one can say but this room has secrets that are revealed slowly throughout the movie.  The room also has a set of rules the group needs to figure out before time runs out.  Step outside of the circle, you die.  Stand still where you are, you may die.

Every few minutes a warning signal is sounded, alerting the group that another of them is about to lose the game and their life.  After the first few people meet their untimely ends, the crowd starts to slowly figure out how each victim is selected and it soon becomes a game of survival as they have to decide collectively who is worthy to live another round and who should be sacrificed for the good of the group.

What keeps Circle so watchable is the unknown.  Since the cast is comprised almost entirely of unknowns (save for a few character actors) you never know who is going to make it from round to round.  Just when you think a hero or heroine has emerged, the film switches things up and what you thought was happening turns out to be false.  In other movies, this trickery would be unforgivable but in the context of the game at the center of Circle, it makes for fascinating viewing.  Amazingly, Hann and Miscione even manage to stick the ending, bringing the film to a satisfying conclusion.

Simple in construct but complex in execution (pardon the pun), Circle can be seen as a bit of a social experiment.  Will the people deemed “worthy” be saved by those that society may turn its back on?  Will the strong survive or will they be the first to go?  How about young vs. old?  Male vs female?  The rules remain the same but the contestants are the ones that keep changing the game.  And you won’t be able to change the channel.  Circle is a good choice for those that like to keep guessing at the outcome and don’t mind being wrong.

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 ~ Drew: The Man Behind the Poster

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary on legendary movie-poster artist Drew Struzan.

Stars: Drew Struzan, George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Michael J. Fox, Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, Steven Spielberg, Sam Witwer

Director: Erik Sharkey

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  You may not know the name Drew Struzan but if you’ve seen a poster for a movie in the last 30+ years you most definitely have seen his work.  In a new documentary (available on Netflix) director Erik Sharkey charts the rise of Struzan through his humble origins as a starving artist (literally) to his early work designing album art for musicians and eventually into his legendary period of churning out some of the most iconic poster images in the history of film.

Along with his contemporaries John Alvin and Richard Amsel, Struzan’s poster designs are world famous for their complexities and innate way of telling you an entire story within one single image.  Unlike the majority of posters today that are Photoshopped to death with poor construction, Struzan’s hand-painted works are sometimes better than the movies they are advertising.  There’s a beauty to these paintings that can’t be mimicked by modern technology which makes the work he does all the more valuable.

Though I don’t usually add extra photos to my reviews, here is a small preview of some of Struzan’s body of work.  Can you name the movies these teaser images come from?

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While the documentary covers all the bases on where Struzan came from and how he came to do what he does so well, the film is painted with broad strokes that manage to be informative while keeping the viewer at arm’s length.  That’s partly, I suppose, because Struzan seems like a straight-forward guy that has had little of your typical Hollywood conflict.  Soft-spoken and humble, aside from a lawsuit involving paintings that were stolen by an associate of his there doesn’t seem to be anyone that has a bad thing to say about him.

What’s more, Struzan comes off as a genuinely nice guy, a family man that chose to stay home in his early days with his wife and young son while his colleagues partied like rock stars with their rock star clients.  Struzan alludes to a painful childhood raised by parents that “didn’t like me” and locked him out of the house when he returned from his first semester away at college.  Not much more is said of this and I’m guessing Starkey didn’t push Struzan on a subject that obviously has some pain attached to it.

With interviews from many of the stars and directors Struzan has provided art for, the documentary is a mostly just a genial piece of pro-Struzan propaganda and I’m totally OK with that.  If it comes off feeling like you’re simply paging through one of Struzan’s impressive coffee table books with voice-over narration from the man himself, it doesn’t matter because it still makes for worthwhile viewing.  A must watch for any true cinephile.

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