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 | 1 Comment
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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.


July 29, 2018 at 11:39 am | Posted in 2018 | 1 Comment
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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.

You Were Never Really Here

July 23, 2018 at 7:29 am | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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If there is a through line in the works of Joaquin Phoenix, it would be the way his characters seem heartbroken; there seems to be something deeply sad in his eyes that shows up in all his work. Here, we have the story of a brutal man doing brutal, ugly things. To call him a hit man would be to make his work sound too highbrow. What he does is cool and efficient, but it is also very up close and personal. That said, don’t worry if you’re squeamish; the violence we are here to witness is purely psychological. Wisely, director Lynne Ramsey (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”) keeps all of the physical violence just off screen. We either come across it moments after it happened or the camera turns away just as it’s about to. Either way, for all of the death and mayhem, the audience never sees a single person physically hurt. Emotional pain, on the other hand, is on constant display. Phoenix’s “Joe,” is a deeply scarred and haunted man, as we slowly learn through flashbacks. He’s broken and barely holding himself together. Actually, no. He’s not holding himself together at all. Through some striking recurring imagery, Ramsey effectively show us how obsessed he is with his own death. Over the course of a twisting and twisted story line (parts of which are difficult to follow), Joe finds a potential lifeline is a young girl carrying brutal scars of her own. Perhaps there is some measure of salvation to be had there. Phoenix’s laconic, almost lethargic, approach is perfectly suited for his character. Making him slow and ponderous makes him much more disturbing. As part of this approach, he has a tendency to mumble his lines, which can make them hard to hear, unfortunately. As effective as Ramsey’s and Phoenix’s choices are in creating mood, they also leave clarity off the table a bit too often. This is a beautifully constructed film, full of interesting and powerful choices by both the director and lead. It’s worth watching, just for the craft. But, it will leave you a bit emotionally hollowed out and maybe even a bit more confused. I think it’s worth the journey, but not everyone is likely to agree.

Sorry to Bother You

July 16, 2018 at 7:40 pm | Posted in 2018 | 2 Comments
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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.

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.


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?



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.

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