Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Black Panthers, Eighth Graders, and Widows, Oh My! The Best Films of 2018

Another year another list of the best films of the year. It was a pretty great year. Such a great mix of films, funny, scary, sad; the year brought me through various emotions. My criteria for the best movies of the year are based purely on two main factors: artistic merit and pure rewatchability. These are the movies that I would want to watch again and again and ones I feel like have something to say either artistically or about the world around us. They may not all be instant classics and they may not be YOUR choices but that’s what so great about opinions, everyone has them and no one is ever wrong. Let's do this. 

1) Love, Simon  (dir. Greg Berlanti)– I have watched “Love, Simon” countless times this year. For me, it is pure joy from beginning to end with plenty of other emotions thrown in for good measure. The film is funny, sad, charming, and utterly relatable. It’s the movie that spoke to me on a personal level and therefore it transcends just being another teen comedy. The film falls into a genre that has become understandably rote over the years but every once in a while a fresh take on the well-worn genre makes its mark with something new or interesting to say. The fact that this teen dramedy centers around a gay teen is a miracle in and of itself. Nick Robinson is absolutely charming in the lead role and the film is peppered with colorful characters, an intriguing central mystery, a fantastic score, and an emotional mother-son scene that is forever burned into my consciousness. I absolutely loved “Love, Simon.”

2) Hereditary (dir. Ari Aster) – What a fantastic year for first time filmmakers. This buzzed about spook fest is easily the best horror film of the year. It works for some and not others which is what the best horror films tend to do. At the core “Hereditary” is an engrossing family tragedy about grief, loss, and mental instability, but there is something far more sinister at work as well. Toni Collette gives the performance of her career as the matriarch of a family who slowly implodes as the film progresses. Ari Aster's film debut is extremely disturbing, with scary images and completely shocking moments that are unforgettable. When THAT scene happened I wasn't sure I could keep going. The film is easily a modern horror classic.

3) A Star is Born (dir. Bradley Cooper)– Confession: I’ve never seen another of the iterations of the story (For the record, this is the fourth). Is that why it worked on me so well? Who knows. Bradley Cooper, making his directorial debut, and Lady Gaga, making her leading role big screen debut (she was already in Machete Kills, the second Sin City movie, and Muppets Most Wanted for the record), have tremendous chemistry as star crossed lovers. Cooper plays a fading music star while Gaga is a star on the rise. Sure it’s sort of well-worn territory but it’s done particularly well. Gaga is outstanding even if it seems like the role of an unknown talent suddenly hitting it big doesn’t seem like a complete stretch. She’s miles ahead of the work she did on American Horror Story: Hotel and anyone who can’t see that probably just has an issue with Gaga’s eccentric off-screen persona. The songs, most of which were written by Gaga and other songwriters are fantastic, including earworm “Shallow.” That scene, in particualar, was extremely moving as you sense the fear and anxiety in Gaga’s character and by the time she’s finished performing you’ve literally witnessed the birth of a star.

4) Black Panther  (dir. Ryan Coogler)– Easily one of the best movies Marvel has put out ever. This absolutely delightful action adventure has the fun of a James Bond film and the emotional weight of a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s a blast from beginning to end; the film is filled with likable characters from Black Panther himself King T’Challa and his quirky sister Shuri, the Q to his James Bond. A majority of the Marvel films have been rousing successes – mean they’re very entertaining – but few of them have had the craft of really great big budget filmmaking to really impress the way “Black Panther” does. Its army of kick-ass female soldiers is also fantastically refreshing. And best of all, you don’t need to have seen the countless films that have come before it, it’s stands alone, and is also just as rewarding for those to have seen all the others. This is a true blockbuster worth celebrating.

5) A Quiet Place (dir. John Krasinski)– This is such a great year for first time filmmakers. This time its the guy who played Jim on “The Office” (that would be John Krasinski) who makes an auspicious debut with a film about a family trying to live a post-apocalyptic life where most of the popular has been wiped out by giant monsters who have really good hearing. Krasinski stars with his real life wife Emily Blunt as parents trying to keep their kids safe and while trying to be very quiet. Even a knocked over lamp is loud enough to draw the terrifying creatures closer. This is a great example of taking a great concept and using a small budget and a large imagination to make something truly special. The film is absolutely thrilling and terrifying; I had flashbacks to seeing Jurassic Park in the theater as a young kid. Blunt makes a great heroine and child actors are also fantastic. The fact that a majority of the film is completely silent – save for a great Marco Beltrami score – makes it especially effective.

6) The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) – I can’t believe I have a British period piece on here. I’m not a fan of the genre but there’s just something special about “The Favourite:” it’s certainly a bizarre yet audacious piece of work and entertaining to a fault. Featuring a trio of amazing female lead performances from Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone, the film is the story of the slovenly Queen Anne and the catfight that ensues between two cousins to be her “court favorite.” The film is directed by the guy who gave us the even more bizarre film “The Lobster.” And few will remember his Oscar nominated foreign language film “Dogtooth” which is one of the weirdest yet strangely intriguing films I’ve ever seen. “The Favourite” is easily the eccentric Greek director’s most accessible films but it’s certainly not for everyone, this isn’t exactly your grandma’s traditional British period piece for sure. It’s way better. And so much fun.

7) BlacKkKlansman (dir. Spike Lee) – A triumphant return-to-form for audacious director Spike Lee. This Spike Lee joint is funny and scary in all the right places. Based on the true story of a rookie African American police detective who goes undercover to infiltrate a local chapter of the KKK is a story you’d never believe unless it actually happened. A great lead turn from John David Washington and fun work from Adam Driver and even Topher Grace as David Duke. Lee employs some of his usual cinematic trickery to magnificent effect, opening with a scene from Gone With the Wind and ending on actual footage of Charlottesville. In the end, the film dares to declare we haven’t come very far and it’s a truth that hurts. The film is such a wild and crazy ride and it’s easily one of the most unique and special films in quite some time.

8) Eighth Grade (dir. Bo Burnham) - “Hereditary” isn’t the only horror film on this list. “Eighth Grade” masquerading as a quirky comedy about girl in middle school is actually a film about the horrors of adolescence. Anyone who was an awkward 13 years old will pretty much be traumatized here. I joke of course (somewhat) as “Eighth Grade” is actually a fantastic film and it’s successful because of its uncanny realism. Comedian Bo Burnham makes his directorial debut here and is somehow able to tell the story of a girl named Kayla (Elsie Fisher, simply sensational here) and her awkward misadventures during her final days of middle school. Burnham, who also wrote the film, seemingly stages sequence after sequence of fictional moments that seem to be plucked from your own life: going to a pool party where you don’t really know anyone, uncomfortable parent conversations, year book superlatives, the fear of entering high school, terrifying run-ins with your crush, and the list goes on. It’s a simply audacious debut.

9) Widows (dir. Steve McQueen)– A criminally under-seen heist thriller from director Steve McQueen. I don’t know why no one went to see this outstanding thriller. I refuse to believe it was because it’s about women. Maybe it was too soon after “Ocean’s 8?” Maybe “From the director of “12 Years a Slave” scared people away? Either way, if you haven’t seen “Widows” do yourself a favorite and watch it. The film stars the always reliable Viola Davis as the wife of a criminal whose husband is killed in a botched robbery. She and the other wives of the men killed get together to pull off a job to pay back the bad guys who left them with terrible debts to pay. The cast of ladies (and men!) is outstanding. Hans Zimmer gives us another great Dark Knight-inspired score, the script offers plenty of fun twists and turns, and the film’s third act is extremely suspenseful stuff.

10) Mission Impossible –Fallout (dir. Christopher McQuarrie)– A true masterwork of big budget spectacle. Filmmakers are finally realizing that many audiences are tired of seeing overblown computer effects, we want to see people doing real things and fighting other people, not giant robots. The Mission: Impossible series magically gets better with each additional entry (this is the sixth one if you’ve lost count) and “Fallout” is a true action-packed masterpiece. The film marks the first time a director has returned to the franchise; that would be helmer of the last entry Christopher McQuarrie and this time things are less complicated plot-wise. All the great spy thriller moments are there including some of the most impressive and jaw-dropping stunt work ever captured on film. The film’s technical merits are through the roof – the percussion heavy score from Lorne Balfe, Rob Hardy’s smooth camerawork, and the audacious production design all work together to create one of the most satisfying spy thrillers of all time. The final act of the film is classic nail-bitter stuff; truly great work all around.

11) Ready Player One (dir. Steven Spielberg)– Ladies and gentlemen, fun Steven Spielberg is back. Not that he hasn’t tried before, but this is easily his most flat-out fun movie since “War of the Worlds.” This delicious ode to 80s pop culture is going to be a love it or hate it premise for most people. Those who are so over nostalgia porn need not apply. But the film goes beyond nostalgia and creates a truly fascinating world and a story that is engrossing as it is sheer fun. The movie takes place in the future not unlike the one seen in “Minority Report” except this time technology has allowed everyone to join a seemingly magical virtual reality world called the Oasis. The creator being just as eccentric as Willy Wonka has left three challenges for players and the one who wins the seemingly impossible tasks will earn the right to own the Oasis. This is pretty much all surface level entertainment that is done really well with impressive special effects that are entirely computer generated mixed in with live action scenes shot by longtime Spielberg DP Janusz Kaminski. And lets not forget the terrific score, not by Spielberg regular John Williams, but Alan Silvestri. This is pure entertainment through and through.

12) First Man (dir. Damien Chazelle)– Another criminally under-seen box office failure. I think people want to see Ryan Gosling memes but don’t actually want to watch his movies. That’s too bad. Damien Chazelle is one of the most interesting young filmmakers working today. He leaves the bright and colorful world of La La Land to tell an intimate tail of grief and redemption in the form of a studio bio pic of Neil Armstrong. Shot in a scrappy, low-budget quality that really feels authentic to the time period, “First Man” is not the glossy “Apollo 13” style drama many people were expecting. You have to admit that this is certainly a different take on the type of genre you’ve seen countless times. Chazelle and his DP Linus Sandgren produce some truly gorgeous imagery here along with a beautiful, catchy score from Oscar winner Justin Hurwitz. Gosling is great as usual and Brit Clair Foy is good in a traditionally thankless role as “worried wife” but she turns it into something special. This was an absolute joy to watch.

13) Spider-Man: Into theSpider-Verse (dir. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman) – Hands down the best animated film of the year – though Ralph Breaks the Internet comes in a close second – “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a truly groundbreaking animated comic book film that is easily one of the most fun movies of the year. It may even be one of the best Spider-Man movies ever made. This wildly original take on the web-crawler follows teenager Mile Morales as he becomes the new Spider-Man… but not before a portal opens up and sends other “spider-people” from other dimensions into his world. It’s an admittedly weird set-up that somehow works and it’s probably because the story was written by Phil Lord, the guy partly responsible for “The LEGO Movie” and the “21 Jump Street” films. A truly satisfying and unique superhero tale that is a delightful twist on characters that we know and love and new ones we haven’t seen before. Really fun stuff here.

14) Three Identical Strangers (dir. Tim Wardle) – One of the most fascinating stories of the year. This remarkable documentary starts off with a remarkable story of three young men who, in the early 70s found out they each were separated at birth and were actually identical triplets. They quickly became a sensation at the time. It seems like such a warm and fuzzy story but there is some darkness here. The film is actually a fascinating expose on the shady dealings made by the adoption agency where the babies were adopted. The film is entertainingly directed by Tim Wardle – it features some re-enacted scenes, interesting interviews, archival footage, photographs to weave a story that keeps being unwrapped layer by layer. The film certainly goes to places you make not expect from its initial happy-go-lucky opening but it draws you in like truly great non-fiction filmmaking tends to do.

15) Bohemian Rhapsody (dir. Bryan Singer, Dexter Fletcher)– And this is where I lose you. Yes, one of the most unfortunately controversial movies of the year, the movie ‘film twitter’ doesn’t want you to like – or even see – “Bohemian Rhapsody” is actually a really great crowd-pleaser. Is is a perfect film? Far from it. But the outstanding central performance from Rami Malek as the one and only Freddie Mercury is one of the best of the year. So what’s the controversy? For starters, director Bryan Singer, who right now has a terrible reputation in Hollywood because of his dodging of some Kevin Spacey-like allegations, gives the whole project an icky feeling. He was actually fired from the film with weeks to go during shooting. Director Dexter Fletcher was hired to finish the film and see it through post-production. Singer is no-longer really associated with the film except for that pesky onscreen credit that he still has – but blame the DGA’s rules not the film or the countless others who worked hard to make it as good as it could be. It’s one of the better music biopics, it doesn’t break the mold in any real way and sort of wallows in cliches but because Mercury was such a fascinating person and Malek is so charismatic, it’s hard to take your eyes off him AND the movie. The music is great, the performances are fun, and I don’t believe the film tries to hide Mercury’s sexuality in any way. The movie is pretty gay actually. Does it get all the real life facts right? Of course not – this isn’t a documentary – but you know what? The film did make me want to learn more about Queen and its leading man and that’s not a bad thing. There’s a reason that almost everyone I know who saw the film liked it – it’s entertaining from start to finish!

Almost made the cut:
Roma – Beautiful b&w cinematography, deeply personal, and a strong message about our current state of affairs.

Halloween – A fantastic reworking of a popular slasher franchise that had lost its way. Even a few hiccups can’t ruin the welcomed feminist bent including Jamie Lee Curtis’ delightfully cuckoo performance.

Upgrade – This extremely fun and violence sci-fi thriller isn’t the most original futuristic commentary on the evil powers of technology, but this John Carpenter-inspired romp is one of the more underrated films of the year.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – I was more of a “Sesame Street” kid, but the sheer likability of TV icon Fred Rogers comes through in this extremely moving film about everyone’s favorite cardigan-wearing neighbor.

Blockers – An absolutely hilarious and criminally under-seen sex comedy with surprising female empowerment is a laugh riot from beginning to end. It doesn’t totally reinvent the wheel but it’s a sheer delight.

Avengers: Infinity War – A culmination of ten years of Marvel super nerd stuff that completely satisfies – even with that major cliffhanger ending.

Friday, January 11, 2019

There’s Something About Barry: The Gorgeous “If Beale Street Could Talk” a Worthy Follow-up to “Moonlight”

Barry Jenkins’ last film “Moonlight” ending up beating frontrunner “La La Land” for Best Picture. The two films couldn’t be more different, but they both were gorgeous feats of filmmaking. Imagine the pressure of living up to your Best Picture winner with your next film? If you want to compare apples to oranges “If Beale Street Could Talk” is nowhere near the exquisite piece of work that “Moonlight” is but it’s a beautiful film in its own right. And doesn’t that just sort of make it feel like a disappointment? It's sort of depressing how expectations play such a strong role in the moviegoing experience but I tend to find that a great movie is a great movie no matter what you may have thought you were gonna get. That being said “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a moving picture, with plenty of gorgeous camerawork - that was also a highlight of “Moonlight” - but it’s a more traditional storyline and narrative and it therefore doesn’t quite feel as impactful. The film’s story is certainly one that make sense in today’s divisive world but I think there are more powerful pieces of work that have similar things to say. The acting is great and the characters are well-developed.

Taking place in New York City in the early 1970s the film follows young lovers Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). The two grew up together and eventually it turned to love. But then Fonny is falsely accused of raping a woman and goes to jail. Shortly after Tish finds out she’s pregnant with Fonny’s baby. Tish tells her family who is supportive considering she’s only 19 and her boyfriend is in jail. Her mom Sharon (Regina King) and her father Joseph (Colman Domingo) invite Fonny’s family over to tell them about the pregnancy – in a fantastic scene of family awkwardness – and they are less than thrilled. Tish, with the help of her loving mother set out to prove Fonny’s innocence. Meanwhile the film crosscuts with Tish and Fonny’s blossoming relationship and the events that lead to his arrest.

Barry Jenkins’ direction, as in “Moonlight,” is lyrical and visually stunning. Characters looking directly into the camera is effective. Jenkins has a love affair with closeups. Cinematographer James Laxton’s lensing is scrumptious – a simple image of a red umbrella in the rain is burned into my memory. Composer Nicholas Britell’s bluesy, horn-infused score is as beautiful as the imagery. All the performances are good – Layne and James have a particularity strong chemistry that radiates off the screen. King is great as the supportive mother but I wasn’t especially wowed considering her Oscar frontrunner status.

Overall there is a lot to love about “If Beale Street Could Talk” it’s a movie that raises important issues, but doesn’t shove them down your throat. The film still makes powerful statements about police corruption and the unjustly incarceration of African Americans while still leaving you feeling somewhat hopeful. The film really is a beautiful love story based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same name. The film certainly doesn’t reach the high bar set by Jenkins’ previous effort but it’s certainly a worthy successor. I’m ready to see what else he’s got up his sleeves.  GRADE: B+

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Dick Flick: “Vice” is a Darkly Comic Portrait of Power

Wikipedia defines the word “vice” as “a practice, behavior, or habit generally considered immoral, sinful, criminal, rude, taboo, depraved, or degrading in the associated society.” No wonder the movie “Vice” is about vice-president Dick Cheney. Following the flashy and fun style of “The Big Short” but without all the terminology and convoluted plot that was so confusing to us general folks. Christian Bale transforms himself, yet again, this time to play Cheney as the slimy, power-hungry creep he was. “Vice” doesn’t use humor quite as much as “The Big Short” but it has some truly interesting things to say about modern politics. It may not be the sort of entertainment many of us want in these politically charged times but it’s another cleverly directed dramedy with fine performances and something to say about the state of the world we’re currently living in. Conservatives need not apply.

Let’s get this out of the way first, anyone who thought George W. Bush was a good president is not going to find much to like about “Vice.” It’s a scathing critique of him and his administration. And yet it doesn’t necessarily portray Bush and his team as complete morons… at least not too much. It’s obvious writer/director Adam McKay is making a strong political statement and there’s no dancing around that. Bush is played by recent Oscar winner Sam Rockwell and the actor does a good impression and makes a good job in the limited role. An entire film lambasting George W. is almost too easy. And you can watch Oliver Stone’s “W.” for that. Here, we witness the political rise of one of the most mysterious and least liked politicians in American history. On the flipside he was also one of the most powerful American vice-presidents, a role he himself thought of as meaningless and pointless. The film purports that the former politician and businessman sought an opportunity to be the most powerful vice president for a man who sought the presidency to please his father and not because he actually wanted the job.

McKay employs some really fun cinematic techniques which makes “Vice” more than just your standard biopic. For instance, when Cheney ends his bid for the presidency in the early 90s (mostly because his daughter Mary came out as a lesbian) the film suggests the story of the Cheney’s is over. The credits begin to roll until the film’s narrator (Jesse Plemons appearing onscreen as a blue-collar worker named Kurt) interrupts and says that’s not where things end at all. There’s even a sequence in which Dick and his wife Lynne (Amy Adams, really strong here) perform Shakespearean dialogue as they retire to bed. But as a straightforward biopic, Cheney’s story is still pretty interesting actually considering he had a lesbian daughter (played by Allison Pill) and accidentally shot a friend in the face with a shot gun during a quail hunt.

The main takeaways from “Vice” is what so many people assumed all those years ago when George W. Bush was president: that Dick Cheney was really running the show. It’s true though. Certainly your political beliefs will certainly help you decide whether “Vice” is the type of movie you find appealing but you can’t help the innovative style of McKay’s script and direction. Sure he borrows a lot of what worked in “The Big Short” but I found “Vice” way more engrossing of the two. In the end the film isn’t afraid to portray the main character as exactly what he is: a dick.  GRADE: B+ 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Not Another Queen Movie: The Darkly Comic “The Favourite” is a Crowning Achievement

I’m just as shocked as you are: I adored “The Favourite.” This is a period costume drama for people who don’t like period costume dramas. Though I’m sure if you do like costume dramas it just might be one of your, ahem, favorites of the year. Taking a cue from the likes of “Barry Lyndon” and “Amadeus,” and set during the early 1700s, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ irreverent and stunning black comedy “The Favourite” gives us a peek at the eccentric Queen Anne and her relationship with two cousins fighting to be her court favorite. It’s essentially a lavish costume drama cat fight but it’s oh so much more. Featuring a trio of spectacular leading ladies, lush cinematography, and a storyline that is as unpredictable as it is fascinating, This film is every bit as bizarre and charming as you’ve heard. It’s an odd and royal delight.

Not everyone is going to love “The Favourite.” It’s certainly an unusual film and that’s because Lanthimos is an unusual director. His most well known film is about Colin Farrell turning into a lobster. A few lobsters make an appearance in this film because apparently Queen Anne was a truly bizarre monarch. How much of “The Favourite” is historically accurate? I don’t know but this certainly is loosely based on the real life royal.

Portrayed by a commanding Olivia Colman, the Queen is an eccentric middle-aged woman constantly riddled with disease and pain. So much so that she leaves the important work to her main confidant Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (an equally good Rachel Weisz). Sarah’s hapless cousin Abigail (Emma Stone in one of her strongest performances) comes to court in hopes of getting work. But due to a string of events and circumstances Abigail soon finds herself in with the Queen’s good graces and soon it drives a wedge between Anne and Sarah setting off a cat fight of royal proportions. 

There is also lot of political business concurring in the form of an unfavorable war with France and a scheming member of Parliament played by Nicholas Hoult who tries to use Abligail for political gain. Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script can get a bit complex in that regard and if you’re not a student of British history it all may be a bit confusing but it’s not hard to get the general essence of what’s happening. The film is certainly its strongest when it’s focusing on the dynamic of the three leads, the balance of power between them, and perfectly timed dark humor.

Lanthimos brings an outlandishness to the film that makes it unlike most films of this genre. Most period pieces detailing the lives of monarchs are stuffy and feel like a history lesson. “The Favourite” is anything but stuffy. An intriguing plot development early in the film sets the stage for what becomes a an almost suspenseful tale of ladies gone mad. Colman is mesmerizing as a crazy cat lady version of a royal monarch. Stone and Weisz play so nicely off each other and each create full realized characters. Most of the time in films set in this time period everyone looks and sounds the same but here each lady is unique and spellbinding. Besides the brilliant technical production – the costumes, sets, and makeup – Robbie Ryan’s camerawork is as magnetic as the performances with stunning uses of fish-eye lenses, wide lenses, and even scenes lit with fire and candlelight. 

Finding a perfect balance of drama and humor, and an interesting take on politics, power, and excess, “The Favourite” is certainly one of this eclectic year’s most eccentric yet accessible films. And with three brilliant and dynamic performances from its outstanding leads, it's thrice as good as your typical stuffy costume drama.  GRADE: A

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Captain Larval: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a Funny and Bold New Take on a Legend

There’s something about Spider-Man. Ever since the popular comic book character first hit the big screen in 2002 it’s hard not to be obsessed. And just when you think you’ve almost seen enough of the character we’re given another completely gratifying and unique take that is truly unlike anything we’ve been given before. I’ve enjoyed every Spider-Man reboot and redo that’s been out there: everything from the “Amazing” version, to the fantastic MCU version, the Raimi versions - hey evenSpider-Man 3is watchable if horrible. There’s something strangely appealing about this web-shooting, wise-cracking hero that feels universal and relatable. Enter “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” the first animated theatrical film staring the popular wall-crawler. It’s a completely fresh and absolutely hilarious take on the character and everything you thought you new about the friendly neighborhood hero. Featuring innovative animation, a truly clever story, and interesting new characters and interesting takes on old characters, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a must-see for anyone who loves Spider-Man or is a human being.

To be honest the look of this Spider-Verse was jarring a bit. The fast-paced action, comic book-like computer animation, and almost stop-motion looking character movements were almost so new I wasn’t sure if my eyes were enjoying it as much as my brain. But as the film progressed and I settled into this new cinematic take on feature animation I really began to dig it. We’re introduced to a teenage Bronx boy named Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) who’s your average city teen except he’s a person of color which feels delightfully refreshing in this genre. His story may seem familiar: one day he’s bitten by a radioactive spider and then he begins to experience bizarre powers that are reminiscent of a spider. But that’s not possible right? Because in Miles’ world there already is a Spider-Man named Peter Parker who spends most of his time heroically saving the lives of the citizens of New York City.

In this world Miles quickly learns that there are many Spider-Men in fact. After a portal to another dimension is opened up due to the mischievous work of the evil crime lord Kingpin (Liev Schrieber), a whole handful of different versions of the web-slinging hero are transported to Miles’ reality. There’s a pig version, a black and white version, an anime version, Gwen Stacy as Spider-Gwen, and even an older, disheveled version of Spider-Man. The the unlikely meeting of this spider-powered group band together to defeat the Kingpin and restore the time continuum so that they can all return to their respective universes.

It all sounds so convoluted and preposterous but that’s the magic of animation and a top-notch script from screenwriters Phil Lord (“The LEGO Movie”) and Rodney Rothman. A story like this would never fly in live action but in cartoon form, mixed with a perfect dose of clever comedy, in-jokes, and meta humor it all works perfectly well. This movie exists in a world where Spider-Man comics exist and Spider-Man movies exists; the movie knows you’ve seen and read countless iterations of the character and it plays with that. And if you aren’t that familiar with the character (WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU??) the film probably still works because most of us, myself included, is unfamiliar with the Miles Morales version of Spider-Man anyway.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is an altogether engaging and cinematic animated masterpiece. The film truly has stuff for everyone; long-time fans will be just as blown-away as the newcomers. Besides, at this point who hasn’t seen Spider-Man in some form onscreen? It’s both comfortingly familiar and yet completely original. This wildly experimental film with its unique animation, clever story details, fantastic voice work, biting humor, pulse-pounding music score, and its initially jarring but truly mesmerizing visuals is one of the most unique, well-crafted, and fun movies of the year.  GRADE: A

Friday, December 07, 2018

The Pianist: “Green Book” is a Feel-Good Crowd Pleasing Dramedy – But Isn’t Flawless

On an award season podcast one pundit said “Green Book” is likely his mom’s favorite movie of the year even though she hasn’t even heard of it yet. Accurate. The film is entertaining from start to finish with completely compelling performances from its two main actors; they create a delectable chemistry together. General audiences will eat up the film; especially those who are prone to patting themselves on the back for seeing an “important” movie that deals with serious issues like racism. The film takes the point of view of a prejudiced white Italian-American man as he chauffeurs a distinguished black musician around for a concert tour of the segregated American South in the early 1960s. There’s comedy, there’s drama. In the end the white guy learns a valuable lesson and you leave the theater with your heart full. I felt conflicted – the movie works because of the performances and does leave you with a sense of hope but I can’t help feeling the movie is just another manipulative white savior story about how racism is bad.

How Peter Farrelly, the co-director of such comedy hits as “Dumb & Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary,” came to a story about a white and black guy becoming friends while navigating the segregated South is beyond me. The direction is fine. You can tell this is the work of a man who makes colorful, broad crowd pleasing comedies. Maybe it was the road element that attracted Farrelly to the project. Maybe he wanted to make a statement. Maybe he just wanted to try his hand at Oscar bait. But is a white guy from Rhode Island really the best choice to tell the story about how a prejudiced white guy learns to respect people of color? Farrelly is up for the challenge and he succeeds for the most part. But that sort of thing ultimately doesn’t really matter because the film that we’re given is actually a pretty enjoyable experience. And that’s because of Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali.

Mortensen is Frank Vallelonga a stereotypical Italian-American New Yorker with a family who works as a bouncer at the Copacabana and is looking for other work after the club is closed for repairs. He is recommended for a job as a driver for Don Shirley (Ali) a dignified pianist who is going to be taking a tour of the Deep South in the months leading up to Christmas. Don is a black man and there’s an immediate culture clash between the two men, but Don needs Frank because he’s a tough guy who doesn’t take anyone’s BS and will protect him as he enters the racially charged Southern states. Of course Frank has is own hang ups about people of color. As the film progresses we learn more about these men and how they begin to learn about each other and change for the better. Some scenes could have been a bit cringe-worthy in less capable hands like an amusing scene where Frank stops at a KFC to enjoy fried chicken and he gets Don to eat the finger food for the first time. I sort of admire how the film plays a bit with some stereotypes and sort of calls them out.

Considering that the film is essentially an odd couple road trip movie, the script from Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga (Franks’ real life son) is pretty strong but I sometimes wonder how the film could have been even more authentic had people of color been the ones writing and directing it. Some authenticity is lost to be honest. And the fact that one interesting aspect of Ali’s character is sort of introduced and then glossed over felt frustrating. The film feels like it’s more about a white guy learning a lesson than a historically accurate portrayal of the horrors of being a black person in the South in the 60s. But this really isn’t that movie. I also have the sneakiest suspicion that the main audience for this film will most likely skew white and older. The type of audience who doesn’t necessarily run to ethnically diverse films. The film also generally feels a tad dated with a strong “Driving Miss Daisy” vibe but I’d watch this a million times before watching that film again. And the film's technical merits are fine but nothing groundbreaking.

In the end “Green Book” did actually win me over. It’ll probably win you over as well. The film works despite its flaws. Loping so much criticism on it because I did genuinely enjoy the film makes me feel a bit bad. It’s a crowd pleaser. It’ll warm your heart. You’ll wanna tell your family to go see it. There’s a reason this film kept winning audience award after audience award at various film festivals. Mortensen and Ali are extremely likable people and they play characters that you want to root for. Frank is capable of change and that’s a strong message even if it feels a tad manipulative. Ultimately the movie is a satisfying mug of cocoa on a cold winter’s night. But I do think there are more important films that do a better job at condemning racism and how to this day we as a country are still dealing with a horribly systemic issue that plagues our society. Maybe “Green Book” will change some people’s minds and make them feel a bit better about race relations. And that’s a good thing. But in a time where a progressive film like “Moonlight” can win Best Picture at the notoriously white Oscars, “Green Book” sort of feels like it’s stuck in neutral.  GRADE: B

Saturday, December 01, 2018

The Rice Storm: “The Front Runner” is a Fine, If Somewhat Forgettable, Political Docudrama

I truly believe there is a great movie somewhere in “The Front Runner” but as it turns out it’s merely a good movie, and that, I guess, can suffice. Perhaps it's a result of poor timing: I had just watched A&E’s gobsmackingly absorbing docuseries “The Clinton Affair” and no other scandalous political narrative could top that right now. The story of potential presidential candidate Gary Hart is somewhat fascinating, but it has nowhere near the notoriety of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “The Front Runner,” from hot-and-cold director Jason Reitman, wants to be the scandalous version of “Spotlight” or “The Post” but settles for a middle-of-the-road docudrama about the derailment of a well-liked politician. I believe it wants to be a commentary about tabloid journalism and the media circus that politicians can cause but it doesn’t quite have the bite of the best movies in this genre. The film features good performances and a nice sense of time and place but ultimately the film isn’t quite as charming as the guy its based on.

Hugh Jackman is trying for that elusive second Oscar nomination but unfortunately “The Front Runner” probably won’t suffice. It doesn’t help that it’s distributor, Sony, doesn’t seem to care much about the movie having dumped it in a handful of theaters post Election Day. Had the film followed the HBO political TV movie route he’d probably be talking Emmy. The film feels a lot like the fantastic HBO dramas “Recount” and “Game Change” about recent political media storms. As a theatrical release “The Front Runner” isn’t quite up to the task of the best of the genre; it ain’t no “All the President’s Men” though I feel it strives to be.

As Democratic presidential candidate and former Senator Gary Hart, Jackman oozes with likability. There was a reason of course this man was the front runner for the nomination. The film follows reporters from the prestigious Washington Post (of Watergate fame) as they cover events leading up to the Democratic presidential primary. The film also focuses on reporters from the Miami Herald who are desperate for a story. An anonymous tip leads a group of Herald reporters to Hart’s DC house where they discover Hart seeing a young woman who isn’t his wife. Her name is Donna Rice and we never really get to know much about her. Probably because she’s played with limited range by Sara Paxton. The film also almost wastes the talent of Vera Farmiga who plays Gary’s wife Lee. She has some pretty great scenes in the film’s third act but the material from screenwriters Matt Bai, Jay Carson, and Reitman just isn’t as strong as she is.

“The Front Runner” is fine. It’s quite entertaining and I feel pretty confident saying that everyone involved behind the scenes are pretty darned talented. But there’s just something off with “The Front Runner.” The music score from Rob Simonsen is pretty great, the cinematography is adequate, the production design and costuming feels right. Maybe if it had aired on HBO it would have found greater success. The film has something to say about the behavior of powerful political people and the press but it doesn’t do anything particularly clever with the subject matter. I don’t think it speaks quite loud enough. GRADE: B-

Note: As it turns out, one of best things about the film is picking out all the timely references that were made on "The Golden Girls" at the time: everything from nods to Donna Rice and Gary Hart themselves, to Gorbachev and Jim and Tammy Bakker. Now that's a movie I want to see. 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Router Limits: The Clever “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is Rewarding and Emotionally Satisfying

How the hell did a movie with the phrase “breaks the internet” in its title make me cry? Curse you Disney, you did it again. The sixth consecutive CGI animated feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios is yet another homerun. And I’m sort of surprised it works as well as it does. “Wreck-It Ralph” was so clever and fun it almost felt like Pixar had made it. While that year Pixar gave us the more traditional “Brave” which felt like a step back despite featuring a strong female protagonist. This time the lovable “bad guy” Ralph (John C. Reilly) and his colorful best friend Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) enter the magical world of the literalized internet where they come across one crazy situation or character after another (including some familiar princesses). The film initially feels like it exists solely for overt product placement and silly puns but before you know it, in true Disney fashion, a truly moving story about friendship emerges in spite of the fast-paced chaos.

Can we just skip ahead to the part when all the Disney princesses show up? I won’t say anything specific other than it’s freaking awesome and hilarious. Most of the original voice actresses return to put a fun modern spin on their characters. In fact there is an entire masturbatory sequence set at a Disney fansite that feels all at once obvious and yet so truly humorous. They have a really fun time poking fun at themselves and it made me smile. There may even be an original song that I would love to hear sung at the next Oscar ceremony. Make it happen, Academy.

“Ralph Breaks the Internet” benefits from knowing very little about the places it goes. And it goes to some pretty fun places. The film cleverly uses product placement in fun and interesting ways. Ralph makes great use out of a giant push pin from Pintrest. The writers have used clever ways to make use of popular bidding site eBay which is used as a major plot point. And I love how the search bar is just a guy who interrupts you as he tries to predict what you're going to say. The writers (Phil Johnston & Pamela Ribon) actually have a lot to say about the world wide web and things like social media and the state in which we live. All the filmmakers seem to be having a great time bringing this colorful and thoughtful film to vibrant life. And the voice actors aren’t half bad either. There is some great work from the likes of Taraji P. Henson, Gal Gadot, Bill Hader and more.

The first film was an ode to video gaming of another time. The second film feels a bit broader but still feels like it’s honing in on nostalgia, not unlike another similar film this year set in a digitized world “Ready Player One.” The film opens up and could have taken so many different routes but I think what they did present us with was ultimately very touching and clever. The message about how friendships and life changes was not lost on me and the parents being dragged to the theater by their kids. This is definitely another animated classic that you don’t need kids to appreciate. It’s funny, charming, has fantastic voice work, a fun music score, gorgeous animation, and like all the great modern animated films says something about the crazy world we’re living in.  GRADE: A-

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

About a Boy: The Powerful “Boy Erased” is Hard to Forget Despite Its Movie-of-the-Week Trappings

“Boy Erased,” based on the memoir of the same name, follows a college student named Jared who is forced to attend religious gay conversion therapy. His parents are religious and he lives in the Midwest. Not the easiest place to be a gay kid. “Boy Erased” is a really great achievement for Joel Edgerton who is hot off his well-received directorial debut “The Gift.” This film is special because it tells a story that needs to be told and yet it almost feels like a backward step after the progressive ideals of the rom-com “Love, Simon” released earlier this year. Even though that film didn’t allow its main character to be out and proud for a majority of the story, here we’re forced to witness people saying and doing horrible things to innocent gay teens. It’s not always an easy film to watch but I find that it has a lot to say about how “gay conversion therapy” is such an outdated, cruel, and ridiculous concept. After “Love, Simon’s” upbeat ending, “Boy Erased” feels like such a downer even though it’s wrapped up in a tidy emotional bow by the film’s end. As powerful as “Boy Erased” is, with great work from its actors, the film is ultimately a beautifully polished TV movie-of-the-week. But that’s not really a bad thing.

Director Joel Edgerton is an actor. So there’s unsurprisingly great acting in his films. Lucas Hedges is fantastic in the film in a very internalized lead performance as Jared. Nicole Kidman doesn’t have much to do until the film’s second half when she realizes what her son has been experiencing. Russell Crowe has even less to do as the preacher father who is mostly responsible for sending his boy away. You do get a sense it’s because these people do love their son and they’re doing what they think is right, as ignorant as it may be. They're certainly not the open-minded parents we saw in "Call Me By Your Name." The gay conversion camp is every bit the nightmare anyone with even half a brain would think it’d be. Edgerton himself plays the head of the organization and he’s an intimidating presence. You heart goes out to all the other young people forced to be there. The script is also by Edgerton and he sort plays a bit with structure by filling us in on the events that led to Jared being sent away.

Edgerton doesn’t do anything fancy with his camera and instead lets his actors do the work. Besides a sort of flashback structure the film does little else to really wow the viewer. The actors do the work. Jared's fellow therapy inmates are a bit fleshed out. Gary (played by pop star Troye Sivan) is a kid just playing the part until he can be released. Jon (Xavier Dolan) is convinced his therapy is working and refuses to even shake another guy’s hand. What’s most disturbing about this place is how little Jared’s parents actually know about what’s going on there. How a parent could subject their child to something their given little insight into is just sad and disturbing. As heavy as the film can get the film actually offers a sense of hope and is ultimately extremely moving.

I won’t assume anything about director Joel Edgerton’s sexuality but it’s hard to imagine a straight man could but so much love and attention to a story about the trials and tribulations of a young queer man. It’s probably because a majority of the cast is Australian and foreigners just have a more progressive attitude than the average conservative American. In the end, even if the film isn’t necessarily a bold statement visually, the film’s story is very emotionally engaging as are the terrific actors. I think it’s an important film even if it feels like you’d rather be watching a movie where LGBT characters get to just be themselves. The film initially feels like an after school special but in the end I was converted.  GRADE: B+

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Desperate Housewives: “Widows” is a Fantastic Heist Thriller With a Message

British director Steve McQueen’s last film was the Best Picture winner art film “12 Years a Slave.” It was a power film about survival. Five years later he brings us another film about survival albeit much more “commercial” but it still cares an important message this time about race and gender. Based on the 1980s British miniseries, “Widows” is a fantastic heist drama with equal parts social commentary and entertainment value. Its outstanding and diverse cast is captivating to watch, McQueen’s direction is stylish, and the twisty script is deliberately enthralling. This is  perfect mid-budget studio entertainment that is too much a rare breed these days.

When isn’t Viola Davis just plain captivating to watch? Every. Single. Time. Here she’s Veronica the wife of Harry (Liam Neeson) who has recently died in a botched robbery along with his other partners. His death hasn’t only left a void in Veronica’s life, but a rather large debt owed to local crime boss/politician Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry). Jamal is running for a local alderman position against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) who has a strong family history in politics. When Jamal and his brother/henchman Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya threatens Veronica she devises a plan to pull a job herself made from plans from the notebook her husband left behind. She recruits the widows of the other men killed in Harry’s botched job including Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) who are also strapped for cash. It’s sort of “Ocean’s Eight” filtered through the lens of Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee.

Working from a script written by McQueen and “Gone Girl” scribe Gillian Flynn, McQueen has crafted a gut punch of a film. It balances its characters and plot elements remarkably well. The film takes its time establishing these characters who have found themselves in a desperate, unfortunate situation. Veronica is a complex woman and as we learn more about her and her husband and a tragedy from their past that is a commentary about race relations in our current world it all feels almost too real. But the film is allowed to breath as the film focuses on a not too complicated heist (after all these women are inexperienced civilians). Moments of earned humor thankfully lighten things up here and there while suspense dominates the film’s final act with Hans Zimmer’s Dark Knight-like score being the driving heartbeat. Visually speaking the film has plenty of outstanding camerawork and long takes from McQueen’s go-to DP Sean Bobbitt.

The performances here are all topnotch. The ensemble is simply sensational. The three leading ladies are all fantastic. Along with relative newcomer Cynthia Erivo (who just recently stole “Bad Times at the El Royale” from her more famous peers) as a babysitter who ends up as the ladies’ getaway driver. The men sort of have less to do and are more squarely filling out the Lillian roles rather well. And Kaluuya has an especially frightening presence a complete 180 turn from his Oscar nominated heroic work in last year’s “Get Out.”

For a story that originally came out nearly 30 years ago, “Widows” has a lot to say about race, gender, and politics. And it’s all wrapped in an entertaining bow of gunplay and car chases. It was a sheer delight to sit through in fact, entertaining and artistic to a fault. This is a film filled with an outstanding ensemble cast that is mesmerizing to watch; the fact that it features such strong roles for women and people of color is the icing on top of a perfectly executed cake.  GRADE: A

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Yas Queen: Freddie Mercury Biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” Will Rock You

“Bohemian Rhapsody" may not be the movie everyone wanted but it’s the movie we’ve got and for all intends and purposes it’s pretty damned good. It’s easy to piss on the film because of its notorious behind-the-scene troubles. Director Bryan Singer was fired weeks before the film finished shooting; another director (Dexter Fletcher) was brought in to complete the film and see it through post-production. The sour note is the fact that Singer received sole directing credit. Does that suck? Yes. Should the film be punished for it? Not really. “Mr. Robot” breakout Rami Malek stars as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury and he’s simply stunning in the role. It’s as if he’s possessed by Mercury’s spirit; it’s impossible to take your eyes off him for over two hours. “Bohemian Rhapsody” isn’t going to win any awards for its originality; it hits all the standard music biopic notes: rise to stardom, drugs and alcohol, fall from grace, redemption. Music biopic screenwriting 101. But it does offer an electric lead performance and a standout ensemble, stunningly realized music sequences, and an emotional pull that I found strangely comforting. In the end, I was starstruck and film’s manipulations got me hook, line, and sinker. I loved every minute of it.

Rami Malek. I hope his charisma and equally introverted and extroverted vision of rocker Freddie Mercury will send him all the way to Oscar nomination glory. He’s transfixing; everything from his goofily over-sized teeth to his impressive moves, he becomes Mercury. It’s beyond just imitation. Sure he’s most lip syncing most of the time but it’s pretty seamless. His bandmates played by Joseph Mazzello (as John Deacon), Ben Hardy (as Roger Taylor), and Gwilym Lee (as Brian May) are all great and impressive doubles for their real-life counterparts. Lucy Boynton is good as the love the Mercury’s life Mary Austin.

The film is sort of a “best of” with plenty of well-staged music numbers featuring all the great Queen songs including a spectacular finale at their notoriously well-received appearance at the 1985 Live Aid concert. Sweeping camera moves and spectacular sound design make you feel like you’re there. Then of course is all the drama that comes with music biopics. This is obviosly not the film’s strongest element but it works well enough.

Originally conceived by Peter Morgan who gave us, ironically, “The Queen,” the film went through many iterations before settling on the work of screenwriter Anthony McCarten. The film doesn’t feel overly controversial in the portrayal of Mercury or his band mates which is probably because surviving members were involved in the production. For a big budget studio-baked production the film doesn’t shy away from the queerness factor. Mercury is portrayed as falling in love with a woman but it becomes obvious to her, him, and to us as the film progresses that he’s not being true to himself. The film handles it well enough. Maybe if the film had been more “indie” things would have been handled differently but the film doesn’t “straight wash” Mercury in the slightest. McCarten’s script even takes liberties with some of the real life events and the historic timeline for creative and dramatic purposes but this isn’t a documentary. I don’t even think a narrative film about a real life person even exists that is 100% accurate.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” was completely intoxicating from beginning to end. Maybe it doesn’t quite have the edge that many think is required to be completely honest about who Mercury was (the film’s PG-13 rating being proof of that) but did this film need dirty language and graphic sex just to seem more “realistic” or “true?” Hardly. It’s not as if it Disneyfies Mercury’s life. I found his outward struggles with fame and his inward struggles with himself relatable and ultimately moving. It’s even just impressive to have a studio backed film about such an iconic queer person. The film is solid entertainment, emotionally engaging, and unsurprisingly has a killer soundtrack that completely brings the house down. The extremely likable Rami Malek commands the screen and makes me want to listen to Queen nonstop until the end of time.  GRADE: B+