Bad Times at the El Royale

October 13, 2018 at 8:27 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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It’s a long night some time in 1968 or ’69, in a hotel on the Nevada/California border and things are just not going well. In the world of cinema and theater, this is a common trope. At least since the mid-twentieth century, we have had stories of characters, all with their own secrets, trapped together for a day, a night, a weekend, until everything unravels. The first of these that I recall is O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” and the last one I remember is Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” If a story like this is going to work, the characters have to be colorful enough, the stakes high enough, and the tension taut enough. Well, you can consider all those boxes checked. From the first scene, we know at least part of what is at stake. But, this is a Drew Goddard movie. He has directed only one other film (“The Cabin in the Woods”) and one TV show (“The Good Place”). Anyone who has seen either of those works, understands Goddard’s skill at misdirection and the joy he takes in slowly peeling back the layers of the onion. There are not nearly as many layers here as in the brilliant “Cabin in the Woods,” but this is a fun ride none-the-less. Everyone plays her/his character with grand abandon, although Chris Hemsworth is particularly creepy fun. And, mark my words, a year from now, we will all know the name of Cynthia Erivo; she has a presence on screen that is hard to ignore. Also, while we are speaking of things hard to ignore, the set was fantastic. Really, truly a joy to look at. It looked like something Wes Anderson would have created. It was so full of tiny, perfect details, like the split color of the carpeting between California and Nevada, the yellow high heels left by the jukebox, the entire feel of the honeymoon suite. The almost cartoon color palate reinforced the over-the-top feel of everything in this film. This film understood exactly what it was: a campy thrill ride that the audience could laugh at and jump at and thoroughly enjoy. And, for all of the excess, it also managed to find time for a genuinely touching moment and a sort of cathartic ending. This isn’t a masterpiece and it won’t take home any Oscars (nor is it even Goddard’s best film), but this is a damn fine way to spend a Saturday night.

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A Star is Born

October 7, 2018 at 5:43 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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For a storyline originally written in 1937 (and remade in ’54 and ’78), “A Star is Born” can feel remarkably relevant today, with it’s themes of love, alcoholism, and the costs of fame. But the way we tell stories changes with each generation and these theme can come dangerously close to melodrama in the wrong hands. There could be genuine cause for concern that Bradley Cooper’s are the wrong hands, given that this is the first film he has directed. You needn’t worry. This was clearly a labor of love. Cooper has said he relates to the material on a deeply personal level, and it shows. He has made a deeply personal and moving film. It’s worth noting that he took a risk on Lady Gaga; this was her first lead role. She could have bombed, yet she gave a powerfully vulnerable and honest performance. And this story also seemed deeply personal for her. Perhaps, Gaga knows something about being thrust into the spotlight and commodified by an industry. The chemistry between Cooper and Gaga on screen is one of the most electric pairings I can remember. They both have very expressive faces and they seem to genuinely love each other’s company. They were also surrounded by a terrific supporting cast including Sam Elliot (who is always fantastic), Anthony Ramos, Dave Chappelle, Rafi Gavron, and Andrew Dice Clay. It is Dice Clay who most surprised me. I think of him as mostly an 80s shock comedian. But, here, he was genuinely touching, gentle and funny as Ally’s father. He really made a small role shine. Cooper knows how to get really warm, genuine performances from all of his actors. He also showed a deft hand at constructing and lighting a scene. Compare the tight camera angles and warm lighting of the scene where Ally and Jack first meet to the broad sweeping cameras and flared lights when they first performed on stage. He knows how to shape emotion with his use of visuals and sound. For a first-time directer, I found him to be remarkably confident. Cooper apparently put real work into developing the deep mumbling voice he used in the film. It was very effective and fit the character well. It was also sometimes really hard to understand what he was saying. Sometimes, when he and Elliot were talking, I couldn’t follow their conversation at all. That’s a minor quibble, but a larger one is the way the film ended. So, spoiler alert for those of you who have never seen any of the films. The 1976 film veered off into safer territory by having the male lead die in a car accident. In the first two films, he drowns himself in the Pacific because he realizes his alcoholism is holding his wife back. In this film, he hangs himself in the garage. I will say that scene was beautifully shot and with a good deal of restraint. It stayed as far from the melodrama as it could, but the ending is melodrama at its core, and it let’s the audience off the hook. By the end of the film, we know Ally and Jack love each other, and we know that Jack is holding Ally back. His suicide (especially as it is goaded here by the one “villain” in this film) allows everyone to remain a good guy. Jack dies a tragic hero. We can feel sorry for his addiction and sad about his death, and we don’t have to confront what his living would have meant. Likewise, Ally remains the wholly unblemished hero, pure from start to finish. It’s safe for the audience to love her unambivalently. That’s sweet, but it’s not real life. What would have been far messier (and richer) would have been for him to live and for Ally to choose her career over him. Now we are forced to deal with a certain degree of ugliness in our heroes. But, in “A Star is Born” we are all safely let off the hook to leave the theater loving them both completely. Everyone in the audience will love both Jack and Ally. There will be no ambivalence, no debate at dinner later, and no insight either. This is a terrific film and you will almost definitely be seeing it awarded on Oscar night. But, it could have been more than a terrific film. It could have been a classic. And it almost was.

The Wife

September 10, 2018 at 9:43 am | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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About an hour in to the film, while they are having dinner, the titular’s husband says that the couple in his son’s story are a cliché. The humor is that the son was writing about his parents. But, the deeper humor is the acknowledgement that this film is built entirely on a cliché. Stories like this one have been told so many times before. In fact, I think there is another film coming out this Fall with the except same theme. That makes it very hard to be distinct and relevant. The relevant piece is given a bit of a boost by the #MeToo times we are living in. The stories of pompous, self-involved, mediocre, emotionally-adolescent men and the strong, brilliant women who support them do have a particular resonance now. However, distinctness here is harder to come by. There is nothing in the script or the dialogue to lift this film beyond average. What it does have, though, is Glenn Close at it’s center. A six-time Oscar nominee, who has never won, Close is searingly powerful here. She is the only reason to see this film, but she really is one hell of a reason. Great performances always involve the body. Look at how she carries her shoulders, the way she holds her head, how she sits. Everything in her physical performance gives us a woman who wants to be invisible, who is quiet and submissive. But her eyes tell a different story and that is what makes this such a performance. In fleeting expressions and deeply penetrating looks, we see that Joan is not meek at all. In fact, she is raging and indignant. She is much smarter than everyone else in the room and so fed up with all of them. To capture all of that, not with language but with her presence, is a remarkable feat of acting. This was a five-star performance in a two-star movie. The story goes as stories like this will and it has it’s mild amusements and sometimes clever language along the way. However, every moment the camera looks at Close is a moment of joy.

Searching

September 4, 2018 at 1:13 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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This is one of those reviews where I am not quite sure how much I should say. I went into this movie knowing nothing except that it had a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and starred John Cho (the current “Star Trek” movies, the “Harold & Kumar” movies, “Columbus”). I am so glad I did that, as it allowed the film to surprise me. So, I will say this, the story itself is not the interesting thing here. In fact, the actual story is rife with most of the standard clichés for a mystery/detective story. If the film had been shot in the standard way, it would make a decently entertaining Netflix show; like all the European detective procedurals I have been watching lately, it would be interesting enough to binge on for a few days. However, what takes this film to the next level is the way it was shot, and I think that’s all I want to say about that. Director Aneesh Chaganty, in his first full-length film, has found a way to tap into this exact moment in our culture. “Searching” will seem utterly quaint 20 years from now and would have been utterly confusing 20 years ago, but it speaks very effectively to right now. Chaganty cleverly uses technology to tell his story and create tension, humor, pathos, mystery, etc. All the clues to solve the puzzle are there on screen, though he does sometimes get a little heavy-handed at pointing out the connections when he wants the audience to get it. I’m not sure how many people will give this film a chance, but I’m glad I saw it. In fact, I’m really glad; I was entertained from start to finish. Oh, and by the way, I picked the trailer that seemed like it would least give away what I am talking about, but you might still figure the gimmick out, so watch it at your own risk.

We the Animals

August 27, 2018 at 4:07 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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This beautiful and moody movie is less about a story arc and more about how it makes the audience feel. Based on a novel by Justin Torres, the story takes place in Upstate New York some time in the 1980s and focuses on a boy growing up with a Puerto Rican father and white mother and trying to come to terms with his sexuality. Given that Torres grew up in Upstate New York, is gay, and has a Puerto Rican father and white mother, one might be excused for thinking that this fictional story is built on real bones. Either way, the film is a compelling one, though I think the bulk of the credit goes to Jeremiah Zagar for his nostalgic directing. His use of grainy film, warm lighting, and interesting camera angles makes parts of the film feel like a home movie. He combines that we interesting imagery that creates emotion in the viewer. For me, it felt plaintive, almost melancholic at times, but never outright sad. There was a sort of hopefulness, even a playfulness, that also pervaded the film. That is what I was mostly struck by: how this film evoked such a complicated array of emotions, while portraying the most meager story arc. Everyone was someone you could like. Even when they were being ugly, I still felt sympathy for all of them. Strangely this muted the impact of the ending, which really was pretty tragic (and already toned down from the book). Yet, my emotional response was subdued by the waters I was swimming in. This film was less of a roller coaster than a mellow ride– moody and sweet and never terribly disturbing.

Crazy Rich Asians

August 20, 2018 at 1:45 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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Okay, look. Before we get started, I feel like I should remind people that I do not particularly like rom-coms. This is just not my genre. I have never seen “When Harry met Sally” all the way through. In fact, I have never seen a single Nora Ephron movie. I vaguely remember a Keanu and Sandra movie involving a magic mailbox, but I don’t think I saw all of it. The last rom-com I remember really liking was 1999’s “Trick.” All of which is to say, I may not be the best critic of this movie. If you really like this genre, then this film seems to check all the right boxes. It has a beautiful couple at the center of the story. It has lots of friends and relatives that fall into all the categories a film like this seems to need: good, bad, gay, and wacky. You might laugh at times and get teary at times and probably generally have a good time, but you really won’t get much depth or anything that comes close to emotional truth. The most interesting thing about this film was its tone in the first half. As the couple arrived in Singapore and began meeting people, the clearest message of the film seemed to be, “America thinks it is the world leader, but it has no idea. Here’s what real power and wealth look like.” This sense was reinforced by the Napoleon quote that appeared on the screen just as the film was starting, “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.” For much of the film, there is a definite sense that this is a wake-up call to Americans; there are people out there in the world doing it better than you are. But, for all the images and talk of Chinese superiority, this is ultimately an American movie, and American values win in the end. In the final moments, even the matriarch of Chinese values sees the light (over a game of mahjong, of course!) and fully concedes to the superiority of American values. It’s the sort of nonsense bait-and-switch that belies the entire rest of the movie. And, I’m sorry if I am spoiling the ending for anyone but, this is a rom-com. If you cannot predict how it’s going to end, then I doubt you’re reading my reviews anyway; let’s just say that it doesn’t end with a murder-suicide (now that would have been interesting!). So, go. Enjoy the fantastic scenes of unbelievable wealth (maybe it will inspire your next vacation destination). Enjoy the beautiful people and the silly, easy humor. In fact, go and enjoy Awkwafina (she is the breakout star of this film, no doubt). Have a good time. Just don’t expect to be moved by anything close to an insight or complex emotion. This is pure cotton candy. It’s sweet but has no substance. It will be gone before you reach your car.

BlacKkKlansman

August 13, 2018 at 9:49 am | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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What an amazing 30 days in cinema we have just had. One month ago today, on July 13th, we had the release of “Sorry to Bother You.” Two weeks later, we got “Blindspotting.” And now, we have this film. Three powerful Black films by Black directors, writers, actors that are all trying to confront the moment we live in, using comedy as their medium. Of the three, Spike Lee’s speaks most directly to this exact moment in time. There is a greater sense of urgency in this film, and the anger here is even more explosive than the end of “Blindspotting.” The film starts as an easy situational comedy, based very closely on an unbelievable true story. A young Ron Stallworth becomes the first Black officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department. It’s 1974. Shortly after joining, he is promoted to undercover detective (in real life, it took 4 years), and promptly joins the Klan. Stallworth is played by John David Washington. The son of Denzel, Washington has largely stayed out of film until last year. After this, you can expect that you’ll be seeing a lot more of him. His low key performance matched the easy going 70s vibe that this film had for much of its run time. As absolutely ridiculous as the events of this story are, in reading interviews with the real Stallworth, I have found that, if anything, the truth is even stranger. Some pieces of the story have been changed for the sake of the narrative arc (like the timeline, the addition of a girlfriend, the explosive ending), but all the weirdest stuff (right down to the Polaroid incident) is very real. These Klansman, David Duke included, were apparently even dumber in real life than in the film. Lee had to make them smarter, just to create some narrative tension. All of this makes for a very funny film that can, at times, feel light, almost like a fun little caper movie. Yet, be prepared. You will be assaulted by racist invective throughout. And “assault” is the right word and the experience is very intentional on Lee’s part. Even while laughing, you will find yourself squirming with discomfort. And, if you think that is the only discomfort you have to endure, wait until the end. In the last minutes, Lee does what he has done very successfully before in “Malcolm X” (which, incidentally, also had John David Washington, in a small cameo). Throughout this film, Lee makes it clear (through some clever laugh lines) that this story is about today; it’s 1976, but it could just as easily been 2018. And, in case you didn’t catch on, he drives it home in those final moments. They are powerful and disturbing and necessary. One person in my theater broke into open sobs. This is an important film. These are important films. Every American should see these 3 movies. Do not look away.

Eighth Grade

August 5, 2018 at 8:07 pm | Posted in 2018 | 2 Comments
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“Eighth Grade” is one of those strange little movies that you can be glad you saw, without necessarily having enjoyed seeing it. It does its job almost perfectly, almost too perfectly, in fact. Taking place in the last week of 8th grade, it follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher, “Despicable Me,” “Despicable Me 2”) as she doles out sage advice on her YouTube channel and then desperately tries to follow it in her own life. She’s shy, awkward, sweet, has a huge crush and a well-meaning dad. These are not exactly original themes, but I am not sure I have ever seen them presented more realistically. I was reminded of the 2003 film “Thirteen” (my god, that was 15 years ago!). Just like that film attempted to tell us what it was like for that generation, “Eight Grade” updates us on the post-millennial crew. I found that one remarkably real, at the time, but it seems like sheer melodrama in comparison to this film. “Eighth Grade” was written and directed by Bo Burnham, a 27 year old known mostly for bit parts. Burnham has managed to tell a completely real story, full of real characters. The film centers around Fisher, who is in every scene, and she does an absolutely fantastic job. The entire film felt like I could be watching a hidden camera documentary about adolescents. And, that is both its strength and its weakness. In the end, I don’t find the lives of middle school students to be either gripping or enjoyable to watch. They are all so damned painfully awkward. I was able to laugh at some of those moments, but others made me want to look away mortified by how much they reminded me of my own childhood. In terms of pure technique (writing, directing, acting), I would give this film a 4.5. But, in terms of my own pure enjoyment, it would get a 2. So, I split the difference in coming up with my rating. If you are an adolescent, a parent of an adolescent, a film lover, or just enjoy wallowing in awkwardness, I would line up for this one. Otherwise, it might not be the film for you.

Blindspotting

July 29, 2018 at 11:39 am | Posted in 2018 | 2 Comments
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There’s something happening here that I find exciting. 2018 has been the year of writers/directors raised in Oakland (Ryan Coogler, Boots Riley, Daveed Diggs & Rafael Casal) and their works have been exciting and dynamic. The latest one, “Blindspotting,” was written by and stars Diggs and Casel, who grew up together in Oakland. Their film is the most intimately placed within Oakland itself. It starts with a montage of local scenes, very cleverly placing images of gentrification alongside images of an older Oakland. This film is about many things, and one of those things is the way the city is changing as it gets richer and alienates those who have lived there their whole lives. It feels like a love letter to the city and a bit of therapy for Diggs and Casel. “Blindspotting” is essentially a buddy comedy that has been beaten into something darker and more urgent. It is so effortlessly funny, when it is trying to be funny, but that humor always has an edge right underneath the surface and the film’s tone can turn suddenly. When it does, the audience is forced to realize that the people we have been laughing with are in real pain. The humor keeps the rage at bay, but only for so long. Diggs and Casal are so naturally comfortable in their roles that one can’t help but wonder how much of themselves is in each character. Anger, pride, sadness, joy, fear, love, desperation live in both characters all the time. These were two outstanding performances in a film full of great performances. “Blindspotting” refers to the way two images can be juxtaposed on each other (think of the silhouette that is both a vase and two faces) and we can only see one at a time; we always see first the one that is our primary image. It’s a very clever way to talk about our unconscious biases and it has many meanings, both on the macro and micro levels. It is partly about the juxtaposition of poor vs gentrified Oakland and about the ways cops and Blacks see each other. It is also about the ways friends see each other and the way in which one event can forever change how someone sees you. It is both a broad film taking on deep issues and an intimate story about finding one’s way. And it’s about what happens when all of those things come crashing together. At a time when you might get inundated by movies to see, don’t miss this one. It’s one of the best of the year.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

July 29, 2018 at 10:59 am | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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Apparently, somebody ran the numbers and the more running Tom Cruise does in a film, the better it does at the box office. Well, based on that metric, MI: Fallout should do very well. During its 148 minutes, Cruise runs and runs and runs some more. Its quite remarkable that, at 56, he is doing more stunts than he did 30 years ago. In fact, perhaps the most entertaining part of this film is watching Cruise in action. Famous for doing his own stunts, he has some really amazing scenes. There is an extended motorcycle chase through Paris that is a stunning piece of choreography; I was on the edge of my seat for that entire scene. Where scenes got CGI heavy, they were less impressive but no less entertaining. Much of the fun in a movie like this comes from the ridiculousness of it all. Spy thrillers as a genre (think the Bond or Jason Borne films) are action films at their core; they live and die on how fast paced they are. Movies like these are primarily about entertainment. So, a flimsy plot is not the worst sin. In fact, a plot can even be absurd, as long as it serves the action.  Part of the fun here was in just how ridiculously some of the plot points were constructed in order to set up action scenes. My audience laughed out loud at several of these points and I think you should. Some of the humor comes from the clever absurdity of the writing. Films like this don’t require great feats of acting. In fact, MI:Fallout’s only real missteps came when it was trying to add emotional depth and pathos. The story arc about Ethan’s long-lost wife brought nothing to the film. It felt forced and silly. Fortunately, in every other way, this film knew exactly what it was. From start to finish, it was a fast paced and fairly funny piece of summer fun.

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