Breaking a Monster

July 26, 2016 at 4:48 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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At one point during this film, executive producer Alan Sacks tells a father that his son is in danger of becoming another “Bieber,” invoking a sort of archtypal celebrity bogeyman as a means of trying to scare compliance. It is a fascinating moment in this behind-the-scenes glance at what it takes to make a rock star. This documentary follows three 12 year old African American boys as they try to make it big with their heavy metal band, Unlocking the Truth. The boys (Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins & Alec Atkins) were discovered by Sacks after Brickhouse’s mother posted YouTube videos of them performing in Times Square. Sacks, who co-created the TV Show “Welcome Back, Kotter” and who broke The Jonas Brothers, knows a good gimmick when he sees one and cute, prepubescent, headbanging Black boys is definitely a good gimmick. However, these boys are more than just that. They are also talented musicians and writers; their song “Monster” (which is the one most heard during the documentary) certainly sounds lyrically and musically like it belongs on the radio. That these songs are written and performed by kids is impressive. In fact, these boys are impressive, period. At many points during the film, they share thoughts and feelings that reveal each of them to be remarkably self-aware, insightful and world-wary. In one compelling scene, Brickhouse confronts Sacks with an online post claiming that the boys were only made famous because African American rockers are a gimmick. Sacks awkwardly tries to reassure him but Brickhouse knows better. But, herein lies the dilemma, because Brickhouse (so wise here and other places) is also the boy whose tantrum causes the Bieber comment. In the end, these are just kids. They do want to be huge celebrities but, when they are not on stage, they want to be skateboarding and playing Grand Theft Auto, not dealing with contracts and negotiations and they tend to handle those moments extremely poorly. I had sympathy for everyone in this film, including Sacks, who clearly believes in the boys but feels like he is banging his head against a wall trying to drag them toward success, almost despite themselves. This really is a story about all the work behind the glamour of being a star. Is it a reasonable thing to expect a 12 year old to not be a 12 year old? Because, in order to really succeed, it would appear that a child has to give up their childhood. And we wonder what happened to Bieber.

Star Trek Beyond

July 23, 2016 at 2:53 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

For those of you familiar with the Star Trek canon, this film will be exactly what you expect it to be, for better and for worse. Though widely more popular than the last one (“Into Darkness”), I liked it less. Perhaps, I am experiencing sequel fatigue, but I recall having the same reaction to the latest James Bond film after really loving the previous one. I think I am just craving something new and I didn’t really find it here. Much has been said about director Justin Lin (the ” The Fast & The Furious” series) and his style and it was noticeable here in the pacing, which was faster and more unrelenting than previous Trek films. For me, that fast pace is entertaining but led to little plot development; the film was a series of rapidly presented problems that were almost as rapidly resolved. However, what I was most aware of was how this story line seemed like best-of clips from so many Star Trek films before it. We have the one maniacal leader who has an irrational/poorly justified hatred of The Federation (or Jim Kirk, in particular) and who is somehow capable of getting others to mindlessly die for his cause. Inevitably, after the rest of his group is defeated, he ends up mano-y-mano against Kirk (or, as in the last movie, against Spock). Throw in a good henchman, wisecracking banter and maybe crash the Enterprise into a planet while you are at it, and you pretty much have the components of most of the films (“Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and “The Voyage Home” being the two notable exceptions). If they want to stick to the formula, fair enough. But, if you are not going to engage me with a plot that surprises me, give me more depth. Slow the film down. Have less unrelenting action and more opportunity to get to know the characters (and introducing Sulu’s husband doesn’t really count as getting to know the characters) and to create tension. I can’t help but think of the great “Wrath of Khan” and the final battle scene in the nebula. The film had invested in all of those characters enough that there was real tension in that scene and, because it unfolded so slowly, that tension really built.  It’s true that they had an advantage because Khan was an established character but Trek has the Klingons or the Borg or many others they can draw on. “Wrath” was a very slow paced film by this today’s standards but the pacing allowed me to invest in the action in a way this film never did. This one was like a roller coaster. I just hung on and then it was done. I mean, I enjoyed the ride but it’ll never stay with me. That nebula scene still does, even 35 years later.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

July 17, 2016 at 5:14 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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This film reminded me of the little foreign gems we used to see in the 90s, like “Waking Ned Devine,” “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and “The Full Monty.” These are gentle comedies that live in a vaguely magical world, where disparate people come together, form a bond and get changed in the process, where nothing truly terrible ever happens and everything works out in the end. We see fewer of these films today; it seems like most comedy now is self-referential and deeply cynical. Here, there is nothing remotely cynical. This film is an easy delight from start to finish. Taking place in rural New Zealand, the story follows Ricky (relative newcomer, Julian Dennison), a 13-year-old foster boy left with a cantankerous farmer, Hec (Sam O’Neill from the “Jurassic Park” series) and his wife. Through a wholly unbelievable set of circumstances, Ricky and Hec find themselves hiding in 100 hectares of New Zealand bush from the absurdly incompetent police and dozens of others looking for them. Director/co-writer Taika Waititi made the indie film “What We Do In The Shadows” that was my least favorite film last year. But, where I thought that film was too pleased with itself to be funny, this one was utterly charming. Waititi knows how to make the most of his stars. Dennison is delightful as the young, guarded smart-ass and O’Neill plays the perfect foil for Ricky’s humor. Rachel House is also a joy to watch as the ridiculous social worker on a manhunt for Ricky. Waititi is currently directing the newest “Thor” movie and I will be curious to see what he does with a story as somber as that one. This one is anything but somber. The story moves along at a swift pace and the jokes are quick and light. There is nothing remotely realistic about his adventure or how it ends but nobody cares. This film is good, silly, lighthearted fun. You will laugh the whole time and wish we lived in a world as simple as Ricky’s.

Zero Days

July 15, 2016 at 5:56 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Documentary director Alex Gibney is known for making grim and revealing documentaries that hardly anyone sees, such as “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Taxi to the Dark Side,” and “Freaknomics.” He has a keen ability to explain complex subjects and build drama in what can be a fairly dry medium. Both are on display here. In this documentary, he uses reenactments, graphics, digital stand-ins and interviews with more than a dozen people who have served in key security positions within the U.S. and around the world to tell the story of Stuxnet: the virus that got away. From the moment it arrived on the scene in 2010, attacking the Iranian infrastructure, it has been the subject of much debate. Where did this stunningly complex piece of malware come from? Who created it? What is it designed to do? And, now that it has spread, what are the implications? Gibney leads us through a maze of stonewalling bureaucrats, ratcheting up the tension, as he leads us closer to the truth. The story unfolds so much like a good thriller that you have to remind yourself this is a documentary, not fiction. When all is revealed, the implications will cause any thinking person to pause and consider the world around them. How fragile the world we take for granted truly is. Like a good horror story? Skip “The Conjuring 2” and see this one instead. It’ll scare the crap out of you.

 

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

July 4, 2016 at 6:29 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ½

Whatever else anyone may think of Frank Zappa, those who know anything about him would agree that he was an iconoclast. In fact, it is hard to think of anyone in pop culture who was more iconoclastic than he was. From his arrival on the music scene in the 1960s, Zappa was hellbent on exposing just how limited our idea of music is. He turned notions of rhythm and melody upside down, pushing the boundaries of what was thought of as music and the end results have influenced generations of musicians. All of that seems like good enough reason to create a documentary about him. However, this film is hardly about him at all. We learn nothing of his upbringing, what shaped him musically or about wife and the kids they raised. We also don’t hear current musicians talk about his influence. What we get are edited together sections of interviews he did over the years. And the man clearly hated interviews. The Zappa we see comes across as disdainful, bored and arrogant but it’s hard to know if that is who he was or just how he felt about the inane questions he was being asked. Though, I suspect that is who he was, given the homophobia, sexism and general disdain he showed for popular culture. The man was clearly brilliant but was also clearly aware of his brilliance and his certainty about his view of the world became a bit exhausting at times.  It might have helped if I had seen more than just a series of old interviews cut together in roughly chronological order. His wife Gail passed away in late 2015 and, since then, the estate has been in disarray as his 4 children have been fighting it out for control. I can’t help but wonder if this film was rushed out in an attempt to manage some of the large debts that were accruing. I think Frank Zappa is a difficult man for many people to understand and, sadly, I don’t think this film will help. I realize that he didn’t care about his legacy but I am sure his family does. There is another film about him due out in the next year or so. Maybe it can do what this one did not.

 

The Legend of Tarzan

July 4, 2016 at 5:44 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

In any discussion about the character of Tarzan, we must start with a basic conceit: he can talk to animals. He is a grown-up’s Dr. Doolittle. This is silly and inexplicable but it is Tarzan. If you cannot accept that going in, then this is not the film for you. We must also acknowledge an inherent colonialism at the heart of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s story of the aristocratic white boy who tames the dark continent. To that end, this film tries hard to shed as much of that difficult history as possible. Here, the white people and their colonial tendencies are the true villains and the Africans are unflinchingly noble and honorable. Samuel L. Jackson plays George Washington Williams, a real former Civil War soldier who traveled to The Congo in 1890 and wrote the letter heard at the end of the film. Though it was a stretch to include him in a Tarzan story, it seems to serve to temper the implications of the white man coming to save the day. The script even attempts to deal with how savagely gorillas were described in Burroughs’s work (contrary to their true nature) by inventing another species of ape that looks exactly like gorillas but act like Burroughs’s fantasy. All of this I can accept as part of the job of bringing a story like this to a modern audience. And I understand why they wanted to make this movie now. With the current level of CGI, animals and landscapes can be rendered almost believably and, as a result, we can get a visually realized Tarzan in a way you could not have dreamed of even 10 years ago. And this film is stunning; the landscape is breathtaking in scene after scene. It struck me as remarkably like the recent “The Jungle Book,” only intently serious. Where “The Jungle Book”‘s dialogue was light and playful, this dialogue was painfully weighty, making how bad it was all the more obvious. Characters all sounded like they were plucked from the 21st century, using modern colloquialisms and expressing modern sentiments. I found that dialogue (and Alexander Skarsgård’s fluctuating British accent) to be quite distracting. However, that isn’t why we go to see a Tarzan movie and, in fact, I think the audience gets what it came for. We get our daring hero, our captured heroine, our creepy-fun villain, lots of action and lots and lots of animals. This film is a romp and nothing more, just like the classic Tarzan films were, just with cooler animals.

The BFG

July 3, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

After my trilogy of films-most-people-will-never-see, I had decided to review something a bit more mainstream. Though, judging by this weekend’s box office, it would appear that this one won’t be much seen, either. What a shame; it truly is a delight. Hewing closely to the Roald Dahl book that it is based on, The BFG tells the story of a young orphan girl who gets captured by and befriends a Big Friendly Giant (yeah, that’s not the first “F” that came to my mind, either). He teaches her about dream catching and they fend off some evil giants with the help of the Queen of England. It is very much a Roald Dahl story from start to finish, full of whimsy, absurdity, wordplay and silly humor. And (remarkably, for my 2nd movie in a row) it has a running fart gag. This is light, easy stuff. I doubt there is enough drama to scare a modern 5 year old. Nor is there any real character development or a deeper meaning to the story. This is simple, easy-going fun. It would probably not be enough to recommend if it weren’t for the BFG, himself. As a combination of cutting-edge CGI and Mark Ryland’s acting, the giant was an astonishing and moving work of art. Ryland, who has a storied career as a stage actor, had a variety of small film roles until he was launched to stardom after his Oscar win for “Bridge of Spies.” I was enthralled by his giant, who was (by far) the most alive CGI character I have ever seen. He was so expressive and Ryland filled him with such a sense of joy and wonder that I was swept up. The story did not matter, as long as I could watch that giant fill the screen. Rarely has a single character mattered so much. See this film because it is light and fun and silly escapism. See this film because it is a joyous way to spend two hours. But, mostly, see it for that Big F’ing Giant.

Swiss Army Man

July 2, 2016 at 10:51 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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Where does one begin? This is a film about the friendship between Hank (Paul Dano), an isolated castaway on the verge of suicide, and Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), a flatulent corpse that washes up on his beach. Yeah… exactly. This is truly one of the more bizarre films I have ever seen, but, what starts out as an “I can’t help but watch this car wreck unfold,” slowly becomes something genuinely mesmerizing, sweet and even insightful. This is due, in large part, to the fine acting of the two men who are virtually the only actors in the entire movie. Dano has long established himself as a fine actor who is willing to take on daring fare (think of “There Will Be Blood” and “L.I.E.”). His Hank is so gentle and vulnerable and injured that you can believe the evolution of his “friendship” with Manny. That he can make the preposterous seem possible, is a testament to his skill. In the past, I have had my doubts about Radcliffe, going so far as to claim in 2012 that “I could see the veins in his head positively pulsing with the effort of trying to [act]… It would appear he is not a natural (like young Dekota Fanning) but rather he will carve for himself a set of skills through sheer force of will.” Yet, nothing seemed forced in this performance. In what must have been an incredibly challenging roll, Radcliffe was able to give himself completely to the character. This performance has changed my perspective on his as an actor. Those of you who have been following me for a while will know that I value almost nothing more in a film than being surprised. I see so many movies that I often can guess during the opening credits where a film is going to roughly end up. Now, if the acting or script or something else is good enough, then I don’t mind that journey. But, when I can truly sit in an audience in sheer uncertainty, wonder and bafflement, that is a genuinely unique pleasure for me. Very few movies truly push the boundaries of their genre; to some degree, “Anomalisa” did it last year; “The Act of Killing” definitely did it in 2013. Yet neither is quite as bizarre (or sure to offend) as “Swiss Army Man.” However, I caution you against judging this film cavalierly. It is many things, but it is not glib. This is the first full-length film by writers/directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who are credited in the film simply as “Daniels,” and they clearly have something deeper they are trying to say underneath all of the bathroom humor. In fact, the heart of this film is one about acceptance for one’s self, first of all, but then for the fragility that lies in all of humanity. If you listen deeply enough you’ll find that, under the brash, discordant notes of its surface, you’ll hear a sweet and melocholy cry to just be wholly, transparently, unabashedly yourself. It is such a touching message, told in such a shocking, unconventional way. How could I not love that?

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