Sorry to Bother You

July 16, 2018 at 7:40 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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If you are unfamiliar with Boots Riley, founding member of the Coup (the funk/hip-hop group from Oakland), I suggest watching this. In many ways, it will tell you everything you need to know to understand “Sorry to Bother You.” Riley’s general aesthetic is a combination of blunt, caustic political commentary woven with wildly creative and sometimes absurdist imagery. But, understand this, there is a point in every image you will see. “Sorry to Bother You” starts with an easy, comedic tone. My whole audience was laughing in the early scenes. They were accessible to all, with heavy-handed character names like Cassius Green (as in “cash is green”) and Diana DeBauchery (for some extra fun, try guessing who’s providing the dubbed white voices, or the elevator’s voice). But, pretty early on, Riley hints that he’s interested in deeper things here. The tone shifts slowly from lighthearted comedy to barbed political satire to psychedelic parable so slowly that the audience doesn’t know what’s happening until it already has. But, as my audience’s roars of laughter were slowly replaced by uncertain giggles, something important was going on. Riley has managed to tell a story about how slavery and the commodification of human beings work in the modern world. There were deep truths under strange images, and an ending as bleak a one as I have seen in a while. Riley is right, of course. There is no escape. This film will make you laugh out loud, it will probably make you shake your head in wonder, and (if you are really paying attention) it may just break your heart.

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Ant-Man and The Wasp

July 9, 2018 at 4:21 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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I am tempted to just refer you to my review of the first “Ant-Man” movie from 2015. Honestly, I feel pretty much the same way about this one. As I have said before, Marvel films bleed into many different genres. They aren’t just action films. They also include horror, comedy, and serious dramas. The “Ant-Man” movies are essentially caper movies. Think of the “Ocean’s” films: a team of heroes (each with her/his own skill set) team up to steal (or steal back) something. Various wackiness and smirky humor ensues. Actually, given the wacky-to-smirky ratio in this film, “Logan Lucky” might be a better comparison than any of the “Ocean’s” films. There is good, goofy fun to be had here, but little else. The plot is silly and so full of holes that is doesn’t bear reviewing. The characters are shallow and one note; everyone is some variation of cute/sweet and goofy. Ant-Man’s young daughter is high on cute/sweet and low on goofy. The villain’s are highly goofy. And almost everyone else is somewhere in-between. An atmosphere of adolescent slapstick pervades the entire film, with Paul Rudd’s winking, self-aware delivery right at the center of it. But this film has no real teeth. It wants to be naughty but won’t commit the way “Deadpool” does; these are kinder, gentler, PG-13 dick jokes. It all gets a bit tedious toward the end. The only thing with any real teeth (and those teeth were stolen from other parts of the MCU) is the mid-credits scene. If you watch the film, definitely stay for that scene. But, you needn’t bother waiting for the final after-credits scene. That was utter silliness and highlighted one of the least believable parts of the film. Speaking of unbelievable, as with last time, I was really bugged that they can’t play by the basic rules of physics. Items that shrink or grow, either change or don’t change mass depending on what serves the scene in that moment. So, cars and building can be picked up when shrunken down, as though they were matchbox toys. But, Ant-Man can still knock a full grown man down with his microscopic punch because it still contains the force and mass of his full-sized punch. It get’s even worse when they go to the “quantum realm.” How can a ship be fueled by fire when you are on a sub-atomic level? What is that fire made of? How exactly can you “shrink” fire? Am I being too picky and expecting too much? Perhaps there’s no way to make Ant-Man not goofy. Maybe, this is just the best way to play him. And, I will admit, the film is not without its charms. Rudd can genuinely be funny and I did get a few good laughs. I honestly did not hate the film. And I can’t even say that I resent having paid for it (thanks Movie Pass). I can just think of other ways to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon. In fact, I would highly recommend you watch this one on Netflix on a lazy Tuesday night.

Hearts Beat Loud

July 3, 2018 at 12:56 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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After the sort of week that can make cynics out of dreamers, this lovely film was just the antidote I needed last Saturday. It reminded me that the world is mostly filled with human beings who just want to live and love and tell stories about those things. This is the very sweet, and very ordinary, story of girl going off to college and her father closing down his business and how they both deal with those changes. Everything about this film worked for me. This is director Brett Haley’s 4th film (I quite enjoyed his film “Hero” from last year) and he shows a deft hand at managing complex emotions and getting strong performances from his actors. It doesn’t hurt that he has such a great cast. Nick Offerman (“Parks & Recreation”) is perfect as the father who is losing two things at once. He portrays the heartbreak and humor in a way that feels exactly right. Kiersey Clemons plays his daughter. She is the type of actor who might look vaguely familiar to you, because she has played recurring roles in so many tv shows (“Extant,” “Transparent”, and “Angie Tribeca,” to name just a few). She also made a splash in the terrific 2015 movie, “Dope.” She is fantastic here and plays off Offerman perfectly. She also does all of her own singing in the film and has a stunning voice. The songs, written by Keegan DeWitt, felt exactly right for the vibe of the story. This film probably won’t win any awards and, sadly, it won’t be seen by many people. But I loved every single minute of it. It feels like the perfect antidote for an old cynic like me.

 

Incredibles 2

June 18, 2018 at 5:09 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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Despite coming 14 years after the first “Incredibles,” this film takes place just a few months after the last one left off. The magic of animation is that nobody has to look any older, and almost everyone can play their same character; the one exception being “Dash,” who is now voiced by a different prepubescent boy (some things are even beyond Pixar’s magic). In a refreshing role reversal, this film centers more on Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), as she goes about trying to stop the evil Screenslaver, while Mr. Incredible is stuck at home babysitting. There are some nice twists and turns but, overall, this film really feels like a retread. Where “The Incredibles” felt fresh and funny a decade-and-a-half ago, there was nothing new here, both in terms of story and animation. The use of infant Jack-Jack and his seemingly endless powers was sometimes entertaining and it did seem like the biggest laughs all surrounded him. However, I don’t know if that’s enough to really recommend this film. There was no surprise in the story at all and, in fact, I would be shocked if you couldn’t guess who Screenslaver was the first time you saw his/her alter ego on screen. When this movie hits your streaming service of choice, check it out. You won’t feel like you wasted your time. But I wouldn’t suggest spending money on it. That said, my audience screamed with laughter throughout the film. Both adults and kids seemed to be having the time of their lives. So, who am I to judge?

First Reformed

June 17, 2018 at 8:08 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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What a strange little film. Taking place contemporarily in upper state New York, the film is about the priest for the small First Reformed church. It is so small, in fact, that he serves primarily as a tour guide for visitors to this 250 year old church that once served as a link in the Underground Railroad. The priest, Father Toller (Ethan Hawke) is also dying slowly and painfully from a stomach tumor that he seems unwilling to do anything about. A young pregnant woman (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to speak to her husband, who is feeling intensely guilty about bringing a child into this world we have made such a mess of. Things slowly begin to unravel for Toller from there. First Reformed and Toller are overseen by the unnamed reverend (Cedric the Entertainer) at the Abundant Life megachurch. They’re planning a celebration for the 250 year anniversary of First Reformed, and the celebration is being paid for by an oil magnet, Edward Balq (pronounced “balk”). Balq’s name is almost certainly symbolic and, likely, most things in the movie are as well. “Abundant Life” and all of its bigness seems to represent the feel and priorities of modern American Christianity (ie worship God, so that you can be rewarded). If so, then First Reformed represents old-school Calvinist Christianity (ie worship God, so that he’ll help carry the burden of your suffering). Most of the sets seem to have a spartan emptiness (eg one wooden chair in a large, otherwise empty, room) that matches this sentiment. Toller’s mood (and, indeed, the mood of most of the film) is quiet, pensive and anguished. The music is brooding. The story arc seems to be calling out modern Christianity: once we stood up against the wrongs people did (even at personal risk), but now we get in bed with those who give us money, regardless of the cost. From that perspective, Toller is the hero of the film, which makes his final decisions quite confusing. In fact, the entire final scene is baffling. My family and I debated if the final scene was real or in his head. And just how much of a Christ metaphor was Toller supposed to be in that scene? And what does that mean? I found most of the film to be a bit sleepy and plodding with a baffling head-scratcher of an ending. It certainly made me rethink the first 90% of the film; that’s definitely a good thing. I think some people will like this film, and I think some will even understand it. If you do, would you please explain it to me?

 

Hereditary

June 10, 2018 at 7:27 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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The unknown is almost always scarier then the explained; the unseen is scarier than the seen. That is why “Jaws” is such a masterpiece. For much of “Hereditary,” our imaginations are allowed to get the better of us. Vague outlines are seen in the dark, but we don’t really have any idea what’s going on. In this dark old house in the woods, anything is possible. And that’s all the fun. The audience is taken on a taut, and sometimes shocking, thrill ride as the story twists and turns in unexpected ways. Cinematographer Pawel Pogerzelski (“Water for Elephants”) knows exactly how to film a horror movie. He plays with light and shadow to create menace and mystery. He gives us tight close ups, just when we are begging for a wider shot to see what else is there. And he gives us panoramic scenes that have us searching the background for the danger. Much of what worked in this film was thanks to him. The score, which could be a bit heavy handed at times, was more effective when it took it down a notch. The cast was strong, led by the ever brilliant Toni Collette (“Muriel’s Wedding,” “The Sixty Sense,” “Little Miss Sunshine”). She was unhinged fun as the (maybe crazy) mother. Her son was played by Alex Wolff, who has mostly made his name on TV but is starting to build his film resume. This role will certainly help. He played freaked-the-fuck-out with wild abandon and gets credit for driving much of the story’s emotional energy. Newcomer Milly Shapiro was either brilliant as his sister or brilliantly cast, depending on how creepy and weird she is in real life. The ever fantastic Gabriel Byrne and Ann Dowd round out the cast. This really was a successful creepfest until the end, when things just sort of unraveled. This was director/writer Ari Aster’s first full length film. Much of the story was effectively vague and most scenes were laced with menace. But, as I said, much of that menace came from the unknown. In the final 15-20 minutes, the cards are all on the table and, once the mystery is gone, so is the energy. The final moments which (I think) were meant to be shocking, came across as vaguely silly. For much of the movie, I was on the edge of my seat. It’s a shame that, by the end, I was so ready to leave it.

Deadpool 2

May 30, 2018 at 4:11 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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2016’s “Deadpool” was such a punch-in-the-face and breath-of-fresh-air at the same time, that it was hard for me to imagine how a sequel could do anything but seem repetitive. Yet, D2 remains as fresh as the original. Ryan Reynolds is back as our titular hero(?), only this time he has a cast worthy of sharing the screen with him. The first film felt like it was entirely and only the Ryan Reynolds show. This time, he is definitely the center of attention, but he has a stronger bench of supporting characters. Josh Brolin is particularly effective as Cable. He is essentially Deadpool’s straight man and Brolin is a master of the deadpan, self-serious look required here. The humor is the same as the first film, only far more self-aware. It’s as though the success of the last film had 20th Century Fox screaming, “more referential jokes!” Everything in “Deadpool 2” is meta². And sometimes brilliantly so, as when Deadpool references “The Passion of the Christ” (the only R-rated film with a higher box office than the first “Deadpool”). Or when he again calls out the studio for not having the budget for any of the popular X-Men. There were quite a few fun cameos; look for the shocking reveal of who the invisible character “Vanisher” is. This film also had more of a plot than the first one and seemed to be introducing a possible cast of regulars for future films. It’s a crew I would be happy to watch again. As I have mentioned before, superhero films are coming into their own and one sure sign is how they are increasingly willing to cross genres. First and foremost, this film is a comedy. If you like self-aware, raunchy humor, I think you’ll find this as enjoyable as the last one. Perhaps, even a bit more so. If, for no other reason, than that there is 100% fewer masturbation jokes.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

May 27, 2018 at 8:10 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

There will come a day, in the perhaps not too distant future, when the interconnected, tie-in movie fever dream we are currently in will break. But, with the MCU running rough-shod over everything else in Hollywood, that day is not today. So, Lucasfilm plows forward with its goal of milking all it can from every corner of the Star Wars universe. “Rogue One” did well in theaters, and was widely praised, so why not? However, “Solo” is not quite as successful. I think “Rogue One” worked in part because it was a self-contained story. It held up on it’s own and drew from the Star Wars universe to add depth, without needing to rely on it. “Solo” could not stand on its own and does not even try to. It felt as though the writers made a check list of everything we know about Han Solo and just stitched the origins of all those things into a script and then filled in what was left. Occasionally, it worked well, as when the film doubled down on the infamous “Kessel run in 12 parsecs” mistake Lucas made in the original film. That was very clever. However, most of the time, these plot devices felt like add-ons. Alden Ehrenreich (the best thing in “Hail, Caesar”) makes for a passable Solo. He manages to muster the swagger of Harrison Ford’s Solo, but lacks the cool detachment. Ehrenreich’s is a more anxious, giddy performance. Perhaps, you could argue that is the way a young Solo would be. I can buy that, but I found it distracting and kept imagining what Ford’s performance would have been like. I was also disappointed that some of the best characters (like “Rio” and “Enfys”) had limited screen time, whereas the insufferable L3-37 was all over the screen. She was a clear attempt to replicate the success of K2SO from “Rogue One.” K2 had himself been an attempt to capture the magic of C3PO as the comic relief robot. K2 had worked. L3 does not, primarily because the writers were just trying too hard. I can imagine them all sitting around wondering, “how do we have another funny robot, but who doesn’t seem like a copy of other funny robots we have used?” This one came across as bullying, whiny, and mocking of today’s political climate (though I doubt that was the intention). Trying to make jokes out of anyone’s attempt to rise above oppression seems ill-advised to me. However, Donald Glover’s (“Community,” “Atlanta”) Lando Calrissian was pure fun. Glover, who is red-hot right now, was clearly having a grand time playing the character as a self-serving playboy. His performance added depth and context to Billy Dee Williams’s Lando. This was, at times, a fun film with some beautiful special effects. It was also glitzy, fast-paced, and a bit cold. As I said earlier, the story seemed to be written to fill in the cracks between the wash list of Han Solo trivia. The end result was entertaining but not great. Given that they clearly want to make more “Solo” films, I hope they try harder the next time. Oh, and am I the only one who thought all the other wookies looked more like they belonged in “2001: A Space Odyssey?” What was up with that?

Tully

May 6, 2018 at 5:54 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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Whatever you think this movie is going to be, you’re wrong. One of its pleasures is how it constantly shifted the script on me. Several times, I thought I had figured it out and then it shifted again. Is it comedy? Drama? Dark? Earnest? Creepy? Playful? Poignant? Part of the allure was in keeping all those options open while letting the film take its journey. As I have said many times in this blog, too often I can guess where a film is going and that can be very boring. I guessed exactly where this film was going… and I was wrong. So, I readjusted… and I was wrong again. I enjoyed quite a bit. All of which should suggest to you that I cannot say much about the plot without ruining something. So, let me tell you as much as you can gather from the trailer below. Marlo (Charlize Theron) has 3 kids and a husband who works all the time. She is run ragged and exhausted and near her breaking point, but then things change. Theron is a fantastic actor who has lost herself in roles before. This transformation is almost as thorough as when she played Aileen in “Monster.” She feels completely believable, and completely relatable, as the overwhelmed parents. When she screams in frustration, you want to scream with her. Diablo Cody, who exploded onto the screen 10 years ago as the writer of “Juno,” has made a name for herself writing strong, real women. And everything about Marlo feels real. Her two oldest kids are played beautifully by Lia Frankland and Asher Miles Fallica. Again, everything they both did seemed completely believable. Mackenzie Davis (“Halt and Catch Fire”) was another standout. This was a mostly sweet and mostly insightful story, inhabited with strong female characters. I don’t know if I will remember the film in a year or two, but I truly enjoyed watching it.

The Rider

April 29, 2018 at 5:36 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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I had two moments that hit like lightening during this film. First, I watch the lead character, Brady Blackburn, taming a horse. As I watched, I noticed the horse’s eyes and suddenly realized, “this horse isn’t ‘acting.’ This horse is genuinely wild and getting tamed right in front of me.” The second moment came when Brady visited his friend Lane Scott in rehab. Lane, a former Bronco rider, has been severely disabled in an accident. Watching him, and seeing video of his pre-accident, I realized he was also not acting. This person on screen had really ridden horses and is now really disabled. As it turns out, he is also really named Lane Scott. Scott had been an up-and-coming star in the bronco circuit before being severely disabled in 2013. In fact, Brady Blackburn turns out to be Brady Jandreau in real life. He was also a rising bronco star before a horse bucked him and stepped on his head. This film is the somewhat fictionalized version of his life story, and it seems that everyone is pretty much playing themselves. The father and sister in the film are his real life family. Everyone’s character has her/his own first name. Some family names have been changed, but all of Brady’s rodeo friends are playing themselves. This explains why the dialogue can sometimes feel clunky; these are not professional actors. But, that is more than made up for by the clear love and connection these people feel for each other. Jandreau is not an actor but, for this role, he did not need to be. There are many moments where the character Brady clearly blurs with the Brady playing him. In those moments, his emotions are so present and real and touching. Just like we watched Jandreau really tame a horse on screen, we are given the privilege of watching him tame his own ghosts as well. This is as close to a documentary as fiction can get. Visually and emotionally stunning, this is one of the best films I am likely to see this year.

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