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.

Avengers: Infinity War

April 29, 2018 at 5:09 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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After a decade of teasing and flirting, “it” has finally arrived. And when I say “it,” I mean the culmination of 15 years of planning on the part of Marvel Comics to lift themselves out of bankruptcy and make their cadre of superheroes relevant again. And, relevant they have certainly become. “Avengers: Infinity War” has just had the highest grossing weekend of all time, at $250M. That is quite the turnaround for a company that was basically dead by the end of the 90s. The question, though, is, “can this film live up to a decade of hype?” You could certainly be forgiven for thinking that no film could, especially one of this scope. With over 30 named characters who have been central to previous films, there were a lot of moving parts this story had to manage. It’s a credit to the Russo brothers (who cut their teeth directing the “Captain America” films), that this story is as coherent as it is. There is not a single wasted minute in it’s 2:40 play time. From the first scene, it is up and running at full tilt. It can do that partly because no exposition is needed. They can assume that every audience member knows every character already. The biggest unknown was Thanos, and movies fail on poorly written villains. Fortunately, he is one of the best we have seen in the genre. He is incredibly powerful and complex. Though he wants to do monstrous things, it seems to genuinely come from a twisted sense of compassion. That makes him a fantastic character to watch. It can almost feel like a shame that he has to share screen time with so many others. Wisely, the Russos never bring all the characters together in the same scene; that would have been chaos. Instead, the film toggles between disparate scenes all over the galaxy, each with its own characters, goals, and story arc. This effectively allows each member of a huge cast to shine to some degree. The pace may be too much for some people. A legitimate criticism might be that the film is relentless. But, for a true fan, this will feel like payoff, especially in the final minutes of the film. It’s remarkable how tightly guarded the script has been. The internet abounded with theories as to what would happen; I am pleased to say that most were wrong. I was not expecting how the final 10-15 minutes played out. If I have one criticism, it is that I think they overplayed their hand a bit in the final scene. It might have been more impactful had it not been so extreme. When it started, I heard gasps in my audience. By the time it was done, we all knew the long-term implications would be more blunted than they initially appeared. Small quibbles aside, this was a fun ride that definitely left me ready for more. I can’t wait for Phase 2 of the MCU to unfold. If it is anywhere near as successful as Phase 1, we’ll be watching superheroes for decades more to come.

Oh Lucy!

April 9, 2018 at 4:13 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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“Oh Lucy!” feels like a movie that had something worthwhile to say, if I just could have paid better attention. Setsuko feels unfulfilled in her dead-end office job in Tokyo. Her niece, Mika, asks her to attend an English class that Mika can no longer go to. Setsuko is confused and then charmed by the unconventional teacher, John. But then he and Mika disappear to America, so Setsuko and her sister head off in pursuit. The film is sometimes funny, sometimes touching, sometimes insightful, and sometimes just odd. As the very strange love-triangle between Setsuko, John, and Mika plays out, there are some moments that feel really honest and moving. But they get quickly swallowed by many more moments that just feel weird and creepy. Some of the characters’ actions are so inexplicable (particularly Setsuko’s) that it can be genuinely hard to be sympathetic. In the end, the film required more work than I was willing to put in. I found my attention wandering and, by the time the credits rolled, I felt like there had probably been something worth seeing there; I just hadn’t seen it.

A Quiet Place

April 9, 2018 at 3:57 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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If you had asked me 10 years ago what my least favorite genre of film was, I would have told you musicals (it still is, in fact). But, if you had asked my second least favorite genre, I would have said horror. I grew up believing that I hated horror movies, all the while consuming any Hitchcock I could get my hands on (“Wait Until Dark” was my favorite film in my mid-teens). I didn’t equate those films with the slashers I had come to associate with horror. I have only very rarely enjoyed a slasher film (“Scream” being the clearest example), but I love a film that is creepy, tense, and anxiety producing. And over the last few years, as the industry has become more open to films outside the slasher sub-genre, I have discovered some amazing ones (e.g.  “The Babadook,” “It Follows,” “Get Out“). Consider this one as a noble addition to that list. Taking place in the very near future, the story follows a family trying to survive against some undefined evil that has spread throughout the world. The creatures are attracted to sound, so they have to be very very quiet. Here is a piece of advice: don’t see this film in a loud theater. A lot of the film happens in silence and you will hear every crinkle of cellophane, every slurp from a cup, every whispered comment. Setting that aside, the film drew me in from the first scene. That scene is beautifully crafted and plays with audience expectations brilliantly. By the time it ends, you know what’s at stake. It’s a fantastic way to build audience investment. The film also builds tension well. It has only a few jump-in-your-seat scenes, but it does has a continual sense of dread and anxiety that was rarely abated. What made the film most effective is that it was ultimately a family story. In that sense, it reminded me so much of the brilliant, “The Road.” The story is really about how you keep those you love alive in a world of perpetual violence. As such, this film could be a metaphor for so many things happening in so many parts of the world right now. John Krasinski, who is best known for his role in the American version of “The Office,” starred as the father, directed, executive produced, and co-wrote the film. His real-life wife, Emily Blunt, plays his wife in the film. This was clearly an important film to him and his passion shows in his performance. If you ever needed to be convinced that Krasinski can be more than a goofy comedic actor, see this film. Likewise, Blunt is terrific as a mother desperate to protect her kids. The daughter is played by Millicent Simmonds, who is hearing-impaired in real life. Her character’s inability to hear is played off of the creatures’ super-hearing is some very effective ways. Lastly, Noah Jupe plays the young son. His performance reminded me of Kodi Smit-McPhee’s in “The Road.” Both did a terrific job of looking anxious and scared all the time. In a film with essentially just a small cast, everyone needs to be on point and they were. This was a strong film: it had great characters, a solid plot device, a good story arc, and some genuinely creepy scenes. If you want a film that will keep you on edge and not bathe you in blood, this is the one for you.

Ready Player One

April 2, 2018 at 11:23 am | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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I find it hard to judge a movie whose book I read first. There are very few times when a movie is as good as, or better than, the book that inspired it (the LOTR series, as an example). Now, let’s be clear, “Ready Player One” is no masterwork of fiction. It’s light, easy sci-fi that can be read in a few days and likely forgotten in a few months. It probably would not even factor into this review, except that I just read the book and so, it was fresh in my mind. I was keenly aware of how much exposition was necessary, particularly in the beginning of the film, to set the stage for the audience. Yet, I was also aware of how much was being left out. That said, the two people I saw the film with, who had not read the book, did not seem to think that the story was unclear. But there was a lot left out that I thought really helped build out this world. I also could not help but be aware of all the changes that were made, some of which blunted any emotional impact the book had. What you do get is a fast-paced story that tries to balance world-building with action and stunning visuals. That makes sense. The book was very visual, describing in detail the various virtual locations the story moves through. It’s a testament to how far (and how fast) visual effects have progressed, that nobody is talking about the look of this film. We spend a lot of time looking at beautifully rendered virtual faces and they are really quite impressive. There is a scene that takes place in the hotel from “The Shining,” and it looked like a real set; with only a couple of exceptions, that hotel looked photo-real. The real reason this book has made any splash (and was even made into a movie) is that it is rife with 80s references. An action/sci-fi/virtual reality movie with 80s references just seems like it would appeal to everyone from 15-55, and Hollywood must love those numbers. So, if you’re in the mood for some nostalgia, open your mouth and waddle up to the hose. There are so many pop culture references (from the 60s through the 90s) in every single scene, you might wish you could pause the movie to catch them all. And you still won’t catch them all. One of my friends burst out laughing at one point. Apparently, the spell being used was taken verbatim from the 1981 movie “Excalibur.” Who knew? Apparently, nobody else in my audience. This film can be a fun ride but, be aware, it is all spectacle and no depth. The one “message” about the importance of living in the real world is so tacked on and saccharine that it almost feels sarcastic. If you want a goofy good time, see this film. Just don’t expect it to stick with you. Spielberg has made masterpieces that will stay with me my whole life. Five years from now, I won’t even remember what this movie was about.

Isle of Dogs

April 1, 2018 at 10:12 am | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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“Rushmore” was the first Wes Anderson film I saw and I have seen every single full-length film he’s made since then. They are almost always great films and some of them (“The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Moonrise Kingdom”) are brilliant. This film is one of his best. “Isle of Dogs” (read “I Love Dogs”) takes place in an alternate universe where Japan is ruled by the cat-loving Kobayashi family. Mayor Kobayashi has hatched a plan to send all of the dogs to a garbage dump island off the coast from Megasaki, the city he runs. His nephew then goes to the island looking for his displaced dog and therein lies the story. The dogs’ barks have all been “translated” into English, while the humans speak in mostly untranslated Japanese. We are aligned with the dogs and, like them, have no idea what the humans are saying, just as they don’t understand the dogs. It’s a clever conceit that mostly works, though Anderson does have to find creative ways for the audience to understand enough human speech to move the plot along. Anderson is beloved (just look at the list of starts in the tags under the film’s title in this review). He is the master of beautiful, odd, quirky, endearing stories and this film is all of that in droves. The visual images in this stop-motion film are truly stunning. Scene after scene, I was captured by the beauty and attention to detail. The characters are all charming, funny and lovable in a very Anderson sort of way. At his heart, Anderson is an optimist about human beings; he believes in our basic goodness and that, underneath all of our weirdness, we all want to connect. That very sweet notion infuses his films. Here, dogs are metaphors for the best parts of us: loyalty, bravery, sacrifice, love. Beyond just a cute story, Anderson is playing with far deeper issues. At times, the story works as a (sometimes heavy-handed) metaphor for fascism and the importance of resistance against tyranny. But its real strength comes when it sticks with the broader themes of love and connection. When “Isle of Dogs” takes us there, it is as charming a film as you’ll see all year.

Ramen Heads

March 29, 2018 at 6:16 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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This sweet Japanese documentary is the perfect companion to 2012’s “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” That film focused on Japanese love for sushi and told us the story of one man who had built a 3-star Michelin guide restaurant in a crowded corner of a Tokyo subway stop. There, he served meals that cost hundreds of dollars. The film was beautifully shot and placidly paced. There was a sort of Zen beauty to it that seemed to match the elegant simplicity of sushi. This film takes us into the entirely different world of ramen. We spend most of the film with Osama Tomita, who has just been crowned for the 3rd year in a row as having the best ramen in Japan. In his tiny restaurant, he serves meals that cost around $8 each. Sushi may be gourmet, but ramen is the everyman’s food. This film has a frenetic energy and earnestness that was absent from “Jiro.” These kitchens are full of bubbling pots containing countless mysterious ingredients. Each ramen chef has his/her own secret way of doing it. You get to meet several and watch them working. This was quite an education into the various types of ramen that exist. Filmmaker Koki Shigeno is such an earnest storyteller that it’s hard not to get caught up in his rapture. He is clearly one of the “ramen heads” he is describing and his adoration is infectious. After watching the love and effort that goes into these recipes, and after watching bowl after bowl of beautiful soup put in front of you, I challenge anyone to not leave the theater hungry.

Love, Simon

March 25, 2018 at 9:59 am | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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Let me take you on a journey. Or perhaps I should call this review, “how I learned to relax and love Simon.” My first red flag was that the theater was filled with adolescent girls. I was one of 3-4 adults and one of maybe 2-3 men. At one point in the film, the titular Simon (Nick Robinson, from another YA film, “Everything, Everything” and “Jurassic World”) refers to his choice of a Jackson 5 song as “twee.” That struck me as everything wrong with this movie. No kid uses the word “twee” and, in fact, his use of that word pointed out just how twee the entire film was. This is the type of story that has no footing in the real world. Nobody acts like they normally would. The kids are all too cool, clever, and self aware. The adults are impossibly wise, hip and (yes) self-aware. None of the adults talk to these kids the way real adults do. This is especially true at the school, where the vice-principal (the always funny Tony Hale from “Veep” and “Community”) and drama teacher (Natasha Rothwell) act in ways that are much more designed to make the audience laugh than to be remotely believable. This is a perky, happy community, where even the bad kids are laughably bad at being bad. Director Greg Berlanti (from most of the WB’s superhero shows) has made a clear choice to eschew realism for sentiment. You see, Simon is a young man struggling with his sexuality; he does not want to ruin his perfect life by letting his family and best-friends know he’s gay. But then another student announces anonymously on the school social media site that he is gay. They begin to correspond, both using pseudonyms, and Simon falls in love with this unknown person. It is an interesting conceit because the audience becomes invested in who it might be. But the entire film is just a build up to that final reveal, with everything along the way existing to check various humorous or sentimental boxes, without exploring anything remotely close to truth. In fact, when it gets it’s closest to truth (when Simon makes a series of really selfish choices), it takes the easy way out, allowing for a pat solution, rather than exploring the difficult, real-life consequences of those choices.  Sitting in the theater, thinking about films like “Moonlight” and “Call Me by Your Name” that tried very hard to get at something real, I found myself annoyed by the artifice. But then, something started to happen. I became invested in the emotional arc the film was taking. Despite myself, I liked Simon and I wanted things to work out for him. I was as invested as those thirteen-year-old girls (well, maybe not “as invested.” Let’s just say “invested”) in finding out who “Blue” was. The ending was unbelievably sentimental and phony and a little bit silly and it worked. I was swept up in those final moments, maybe partly because the entire theater had erupted in squeals, clapping, crying, and full-on Beatlemania screaming. Or, maybe, just because it was done well. And it occurred to me that Berlanti had made the perfect YA movie. I was never the audience, but it still managed to affect me. I think that says something. Halfway through the film, I was taking mental notes at how annoyed I was. But, I walked out of the theater emotionally spent and feeling oddly nostalgic for the passion of youth. I can’t really hate a movie that took me there, no matter what the journey was like.


The Death of Stalin

March 24, 2018 at 11:44 am | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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“The Death of Stalin” is a sometimes funny, sometimes interesting, oft times grim look at the struggle for power after Stalin’s death. Director and writer Armando Iannucci tries to do for Russian politics what he did for the U.S. and Britain with the parody “In The Loop.” That film was often screamingly funny and shockingly foul-mouth, thanks largely to actor Peter Capaldi (the previous “Doctor Who”). This film gets there occasionally but far less often and far less successfully. This may be partly because these actors, fine as they are, do not approach the material with the same caustic indignation Capaldi did. Jason Isaacs (the “Harry Potter” films, “Star Trek: Discovery”) came the closest, but his role was too small and his delivery was not quite as masterful as Capaldi’s. But, I think the real problem is the source material. It is far easier to laugh at the absurdity of American and British politics, which feels comfortably like laughing at oneself, than it is to laugh at the grisly chain of events taking place in the power vacuum left by Stalin. The film is a barrage of casual slaughter, both mentioned and witnessed, that we are supposed to laugh at, partly in the absurdity of how casually it is treated. But that is a joke that can take the viewers only so far without also wearing us down. I felt my audience wanting to laugh (I think we had all come expecting good, silly fun), and we all tried gamely. But, in the end, we mostly sat in silence. I did learn something about the machinations within the Soviet government that would eventually lead to Khrushchev taking control. But I might have enjoyed that more in a drama or even a thriller; all the silliness seemed to make light of it. I do get the desire to point out the absurdity in government and I loved it in “In The Loop.” It just didn’t particularly work well for me here.


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