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+  

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

American Crime Story Hotel: Good Times to Be Had at “Bad Times at the El Royale”

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is one of the more original films to come out in a while. But it has more than its fair share of debt to pay to the noirish crime films that have come out before it. I’m thinking basically everything Quentin Tarantino has done in the past twenty five years. Maybe it’s not one of the most original films to come out in a while. Ok I’m not being fair. It’s a highly entertaining and engaging film. But I’m not sure if it’s quite as hip and cool as it thinks it is. The same goes for writer/director Drew Goddard’s previous effort “The Cabin in the Woods” which was more of an insult to horror fans than the tribute it thought it was. “Bad Times at the El Royale” is a stylish and weird neo-noir crime thriller with a killer 60s soundtrack, some standout performances, and a wacky script. But you won’t leave the film overly moved and you probably won’t be thinking about it days later. The film certainly knows how to entertain though.

Seven strangers at a hotel. That’s the premise. The El Royale used to be a swinging hot spot, sitting right on the line between Nevada and California. There’s a priest (Jeff Bridges), a lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo), a traveling salesman (Jon Hamm), a young woman (Dakota Johnson) with a girl tied up in her trunk (Cailee Spaeny), the concierge (Lewis Pullman), and the charismatic and perennially shirtless Chris Hemsworth. They all have reasons to be at this hotel at this particular moment, and while that feels forced and contrived, you really just have to go with it.

How much more can be said plot-wise without getting into spoiler territory? Pretty much nothing. Money is involved, two-way mirrors, and lots of great Motown songs. And that brings me to the standout here (don’t worry, Chris Hemsworth’s writhing abs who appear to be audition for Magic Mike 3 come in second) which is stage actress Cynthia Erivo in one of her first major film appearances. The only crime she commits is stealing the entire film with her performance and her amazing voice. She’s simply mesmerizing. If it were December we’d be talking Oscar. Everyone gets their moment actually. Johnson is miles away from that bland “Fifty Shades of Grey” nonsense and Lewis Pullman (son of Bill) is definitely a rising star. Veterans Hamm and Bridges do fine work as well.

Oh Drew Goddard why must we have such a difficult love-hate relationship? You’ve made a fun, fascinating film. But, like Frankenstein’s monster (hey it’s almost Halloween), it sort of feels cobbled together from bits and pieces of other great movies. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is actually pretty sensational and the clever editing and twists and turns keep me fully engaged. But you can help but a feel a slight sense of, we’ve sort of seen all of this before. Picture a "best of" Quentin Tarantino. It’s still leaps and bounds better than “The Cabin in the Woods.” While that movie attempted to deconstruct horror films it ended up insulting them instead; “Bad Times at the El Royale” feels way more of a tribute than a ripoff even if it doesn’t exactly break the mold. It’s at least worth checking in.  GRADE: B

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Moonlight: Damien Chazelle Makes Movie Magic Again With the Dazzling “First Man”

Americans are just as fascinated with space movies as they are with space itself. “The Right Stuff” told the story of the first men in space, “Apollo 13” was about the disastrous 1970s moon mission, “Hidden Figures” was about the unseen geniuses behind some of NASA’s successes, and “Gravity” turned space into an intense thriller with nary an alien in sight. And now we orbit around to the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong in “First Man.” The moving and intense film seems like an odd choice for director Damien Chazelle hot off his Oscar win for scrappy musical “La La Land;” so now we have a scrappy space drama. Featuring likable performances from its leads and a surprisingly gritty sense of realism, “First Man” is a fascinating look at the events leading up to Armstrong’s historic moon landing and just how grueling the journey truly was. And to think it was done fifty years ago is simply astonishing.

“First Man” isn’t going to change your life. It has no real social message; it’s a historical document that is meant to engage and entertain. It’s about the theatrical experience and about the importance of the journey since we already know the destination. (I think this is also why his “La La Land” faced such intense backlash, when compared to the simplicity and beauty of “Moonlight” which told a story rarely seen onscreen that could change lives rather than just entertain). Chazelle wipes away the color-infused look of “ La La Land” in favor of a muted palette and really nails the look and feel of something from the 60s in which the film is set. It goes without saying that the space sequences are intense, thrilling, and claustrophobic. When the IMAX screen’s aspect ratio opens up as Armstrong exits his spacecraft on the moon it’s as if we’re Dorothy taking her first look at Oz.

Ryan Gosling is fantastic as Neil Armstrong and Claire Foy is wonderful as his wife Janet. Foy transcends the traditional “concerned wife” type performance and makes it something truly compelling to watch. Armstrong’s journey to the moon wasn’t without tragedy, including a tragic death in the family and the watching some of his fellow astronaut colleagues succumb to their own tragic fates. Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer sort of takes the safe route with his script; there really isn’t that much here that hasn’t been seen or done before, but you have to admire a studio wanting to make a mid-budget spectacle about the race to the moon. This is an “adult drama” that feels like somewhat of a dying species.

Chazelle’s fascinating directorial choices is what really pushes “First Man” out into to orbit away from movie-of-the-week melodrama. His pal Justin Hurwitz’s music score is simply phenomenal and some pieces give the film an eerie quality that is catchy to the ear. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography nails the time period and is generally a technical wonder. Its no wonder all of these men walked away with Oscars for La La Land. And Chazelle’s amazing editor Tom Cross who won for his dizzying work on “Whiplash” works wonders here as well.

“First Man” is a wonderful technical achievement; it’s as close to actually landing on the moon as you or I will ever experience. The entire cast is fantastic and the film’s score, camerawork, and special effects are standouts. Chazelle, working in yet another new genre, makes something grand out of well-worn type of story. Will it change society or the world? Does it feel “important?” Not really. The film continues Hollywood’s obsessive fascination with exploring space and marks yet another marvelous technical achievement from Damien Chazelle who refuses to play things save in any of the gorgeous works of art he’s created. GRADE: A-

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Portrait of a Lady: The Electrifying “A Star is Born” Makes Lady Gaga a Movie Star

Does the world really need a fourth iteration of “A Star is Born?” Yes, because I watched clips of the three earlier films and they all looked god awful. Especially the one with Babs. Ok fine, the world doesn’t really need another cliched story about the hopes and dreams of an aspiring music star. But if you’re going to do it, at least do it right and Bradly Cooper’s brilliant directorial debut does just that. I sort of dreaded seeing Lady Gaga’s major feature film debut because even though I’m a fan, her acting on “American Horror Story” wasn’t great and her smaller film roles, like “Machete Kills,” gave her little room to make an actual impression. But she is simply sensational in “A Star is Born;” the film is an emotional roller coaster filled with fantastic performances, inspired music sequences, and an arresting sense of realism. The film's emotional pull is unobtrusive but relentless. 

Nothing in “A Star is Born” is truly groundbreaking. It’s sort of a well worn story about fame and stardom but it’s impeccably crafted. Lady Gaga is Ally who is a waitress by day and drag bar performer by night. Bradley Cooper is Jack, a drunken fictional rock star whose stardom appears to be fading fast. Fate bring him into Ally’s drag bar where he “discovers” her. They hang out, talk, sing a little and we witness the sparks of some of the most impressive onscreen chemistry I’ve ever seen in a film. The gruff Jack is smitten with the appealing young woman and before she knows it he’s dragging her onstage to sing a duet. This is one of the film’s most engaging scenes. I got extremely choked up watching Ally’s impressive debut and Gaga and Cooper’s rendition of the original song “Shallows” is emotionally fulfilling. You’re literally watching a star being born.

The film isn’t supposed to be the story of Lady Gaga’s life but it’s hard to not make comparisons to what we’ve seen and heard about the singer. The film’s script (by Eric Roth, Will Fetters and Cooper) takes the usual turns: Ally becomes a pop sensation while Jack continues to drown himself in booze. There’s not real shocking revelations or crazy turns but the film wins you over with its impressive performances from its leads and supporting players. Andrew Dice Clay has some really sweet moments as Ally’s single dad and Sam Elliott is affecting as Jack’s equally gruff older brother. The film’s original songs are also impressive and the leads' vocals are on point.

Cooper’s direction here is pretty astonishing (as is his introverted, grizzled performance). The handheld camerawork never feels forced, the chemistry between the cast is dynamite, and the actors have never been better. I’m always flabbergasted by the performances that come out of a film directed by someone who is also an actor. It’s no surprise that I was all in on the story of Jack and Ally and the wrenching drama they both go through. The film doesn’t exactly have the happiest of endings but the film is filled with enough heart and humor that we don’t feel bogged down but the darker elements. I’ll admit, I went a little gaga for this one.  GRADE: A

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Strode Games: David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” is a Glorious Return to Slasher Form

When has a horror movie heroine ever had to return from the grave? Laurie Strode just did. At ten films in, the "Halloween" franchise seemed to be buried and gone after the travesty that was the truly bizarre and terrible “Halloween II.” Rob Zombie we thank you for your service but please go away. This new “Halloween," with its non numerical title, is actually a direct sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 classic. We’re supposed to pretend that parts 2-8 and 1 and 2 never existed, which I’m okay with because they DO still exist. I’m especially okay with it because this new Halloween, which marks the 40th anniversary of the original film, is a splendid return to form for this iconic if wacky horror franchise. Jamie Lee Curtis gives a fearless performance as final girl (final grandma?) Laurie Strode and director David Gordon Green imbues the film with a sense of dread and nostalgia that never distracts from the fact that we’re actually watching a fantastic story about how tragedy and loss has affected three generations of women. It’s the ultimate slasher flick of the #metoo era and it’s also pretty darned scary.

I promise not to spoil anything but the film begins with the idea that Michael Myers never escaped after his attack on Laurie and her friends and was actually captured and put away for forty years. And if these people have yet to learn anything it’s that transporting Michael Myers is always a terrible idea. A couple of podcast journalists (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) seek to understand the psychotic Myers’ silence. And a reclusive and borderline crazy Laurie Strode (Curtis), who was Myers original target after he escaped from a mental institution 40 years earlier, constantly warns her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) to be prepared for anything should Myers ever escape again. And he does. Would we even want to see a movie in which Michael Myers doesn’t escape from a mental institution?

“Halloween” is an impressive horror debut for Gordon Green who has a career filled will stoner comedies and indie dramas. His last film also featured themes of PTSD in his Boston bombing drama “Stronger.” In a way it almost makes sense. At least he’s made an atmospheric and scary film even if it can’t hold a candle to what Carpenter was able to accomplish in his original film. It is however, arguably the best film in the series since the 1978 film. Carpenter has returned to score the film giving a mix of new and returning themes. The script features strong characters though there may be too many characters to follow so sometimes it feels like some people are forgotten about. You’d almost expect Curtis’ role to be minor, almost cameo-like, but she really does carry most of the film. Her granddaughter Allyson and her friends give the film a sense of the teen vibe that these slasher films as known for. And lastly the film is way more graphic and the body count is way higher. That makes the film feel a tad disjointed from the 1978 film in terms of continuity since Michael Myers “only” killed five people back in the day but I guess 40 years of pent up rage will do that to a psychopath.

“Halloween” is a fun nostalgia trip (with plenty of fun nods and references to most of the other other films in the series) that is scary and atmospheric. The performances are very good considering the harsh criticisms this subgenre usually receives and it’s really difficult to find any major fault in the smart script (written by Gordon Green, Danny McBride, and Jeff Fradley). The folks at Blumhouse really know what they’re doing when it comes to producing quality horror films and it’s nice to know that Michael and Laurie have come home at last.  GRADE: A-

Monday, September 10, 2018

Sister Hacked: The Conjuring Universe’s “The Nun” is Disturbingly Unscary

Let’s begin with the positives. As weird as it may be, it’s cool that there’s even a “Conjuring Universe.” “The Nun” adds little to a series that has seen as many lows as highs. The film, the fifth in this shared cinematic universe, is arguably the weakest and most offensively the least scary and is a constant reminder at how well-made the main Conjuring films truly are. Taking place at a remote convent in Romania in the 1950s “The Nun” follows a young novitiate and a seasoned priest who investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding another nun’s suicide. After a somewhat silly but halfway decent opening, we’re left with uninteresting characters investigating an uninteresting case and wish that somehow Ed and Lorraine Warren will show up to make things more entertaining. Alas it’s not quite meant to be.

In “The Conjuring 2” we learn about an evil demon known as Valak who takes the form of a creepy nun. This figures heavily into the film’s plot so of course it seemed obvious to be next secondary character to receive the spinoff treatment. However, nothing about this creepy nun is ever as effective or scary in “The Nun.” In an admittedly clever bit of casting, Taissa Farmiga (The Conjuring’s Vera Farmiga’s younger sister) plays Sister Irene and she’s fine in the thankless role. Demian Bichir is Father Burke who accompanies the young woman to help solve the mystery of the suicidal nun. Then there’s the farm hand/delivery guy who discovered the dead nun “Frenchie” (Jonas Bloquet) who seems to be in a different film altogether. Desperate to add a bit of humor to the dire, too serious film, Bloquet is charming but even his baby blues can’t save this turkey.

Things go bump in the night. There are weird visions. Father Burke ends up buried alive. Frenchie is attacked by a demonic entity. It’s all dull and boring until “the blood of Jesus Christ” figures into the plot and then it’s just ridiculous. The only remotely scary part in the entire movie was much scarier in the theatrical trailer. There’s actually nothing particularly awful about Corin Hardy’s film it’s just that it’s resoundingly forgettable and unexciting. The script, unsurprisingly comes from Gary Dauberman who also wrote "Annabelle" and "Annabelle: Creation" which are both fine in their own ways, but highly flawed. His surprising credit on “It” is comforted by the fact that two others are credited on that one.

It’s a fact that the main Conjuring films are where it really counts in this “cinematic universe.” Less seasoned horror enthusiasts might jump here and there but “The Nun” offers very little to hardcore fans of the genre or anyone else who is familiar with films about things that go bump in the night. The only real benefit of the “The Nun” was having the idea to watch “Sister Act” upon my arrival at home.  GRADE: C

Friday, August 17, 2018

Fight the Power: Spike Lee Proves He Still Got Game With the Humorous and Compelling “BlacKkKlansman”

There is no arguing that Spike Lee is one of the most provocative and inventive directors to come out of the late 80s/early 90s indie film scene. Sure some of his films are “controversial” but he’s making more than sheer entertainment. He has a distinct voice and I appreciate that. The latter half of his career hasn’t been as successful as some of his great early works but he’s back with the fantastic “BlacKkKlansman.” Only Spike Lee could get away with having KKK in his movie title. And only Spike Lee could tell the outrageous true story of a Black police officer successfully infiltrating a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s the type of story that can only be based on fact otherwise no one would ever buy it. This brilliant filmmaker has returned to his provocateur roots and has fashioned a heartbreaking, but humorous look at racism in small town 70s America and the implications that it has on modern society.

America was and continues to be a racist nation. We’re a country that was founded on racist ideals. Sure our Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal” but that has been a fallacy for centuries. To this day certain groups of people are still trying to get the rights and privileges of others. And this is extremely relevant to the movie-going experience that “BlacKkKlansman” provides.

Set in the early 1970s, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first Black man hired to the Colorado Springs Police Department. He goes undercover at Black Student Union rally where he meets a riled up local woman named Patrice (Laura Harrier). Ron finds a recruiting ad for the KKK and decides to call them up. He pretends to be white and arranges to meet Walter (Ryan Eggold) the head of the group. Ron sends his white, Jewish co-worker Flip (Adam Driver) to pose as Ron and meet the group. As you could imagine, these people are the epitome of evil hatred. You will hear racial slurs up the wazoo and at some point you’ll literally become numb to them. Eventually Flip and Ron suspect the group may be planning some kind of attack.

To say the film is enthralling is an understatement. First of all, from a filmmaking perspective, the film has a delightfully grungy 70s vibe. The music from Spike regular Terrance Blanchard is bluesy and fun. Lee employs some of his fun camera trickery that was so groundbreaking early in his career and remains a significant part of his oeuvre. The film’s script is arguably much more “commercial” than many of Lee’s previous films. It feels like a film that those unfamiliar with the auteur could easily climb on board with. That’s probably because the film started from a spec script from Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz. And then Spike put his fingerprint all over it. So the film works as a thrilling police procedural and a provoking statement about American racism and hate. In other words, it’s a fascinating thriller with something important to say.

Everything is masterful in “BlacKkKlansman” including the amazing performances. If I didn’t know any better I would of thought Spike found real white supremacists to play themselves. These characters are truly vile and disgusting and he rightfully portrays them that way because they are. The actors really make them feel like real people especially Jasper Pääkkönen who creates one of the year’s truly scariest villains.

“BlacKkKlansman” is a transcendent film. It’s important, it’s entertaining, it’s incendiary. It makes you sad about where this country came from and ends in a way that makes the film shocking relevant today. It will make you laugh and it will break your heart. The entire cast is outstanding and Spike Lee has truly made something special that will be remembered for quite some time. It’s a truly rewarding and visceral experience.  GRADE: A

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Girlhood: The Funny and Truthful “Eighth Grade” is Head of the Class

Somehow comedian/filmmaker Bo Burnham, in his feature film directorial debut, has managed to put his audience in the shoes of a 13 year-old girl. It’s equal parts uncomfortable and relatable and is a testament to the power of great filmmaking. Employing a surprisingly fun visual style, interesting music choices including an offbeat score, the contemporary “Eighth Grade” manages to be one of the most fascinating films of the year about the mundanity of life and the repugnance of adolescence. Elsie Fisher gives a fearless performance in the central role of an introverted girl trying to get through the final days of eighth grade while dealing with her social awkwardness. The film takes an interesting look at the role of social media and finds unconventional ways to turn ordinary situations into gripping drama and uncomfortable comedy.

Kayla (Fisher) is an average, quiet 14th year old. Though like kids today, they have to grow up in the presensce of practically being connected to the internet all day long. As an adult it’s convenient. As a child enter ting adolescence I’d have to imagine it would horrible. Sure it’s nice to be able to stick your nose into your phone, play games and music at the touch of a button but kids can be cruel. Thankfully, the film doesn’t go the route of “kids are assholes online” and finds other ways to make clever use of smart devices and social media. Kayla makes online videos where she gives advice on how to be confidence and be cool. These short videos sort of set up how Kayla rarely follows her own advice and puts out a personal she really only wishes she could have.

So how exactly is a film about a 13 year-old girl making YouTube videos all that special? Burnham makes some fascinating, almos avant-garde directorial choices. The way his camera moves, what it selects to show, etc really helps to sell that we’re seeing things fom Kayla’s point-of-view. At several moments in the film the camera dares to slowly gaze Kayla’s crush Aiden (Luke Prael) and we’re forced to literally identify with our main character. When Kayla gets invited to a popular girl’s pool party because the girl’s mother forced her to, Burbham shoots the sequence as if we’re watching a thriller. You can literally feel the anxiety and tension. And Anna Meredith’s synthesized music score is an unconventional knockout that heightens everything.

The film certainly isn’t the first film to tell the story of a young person or the anxieties of growing up, but “Eighth Grade” feels extremely modern and of its time. Todd Solondz has made several colorful movies about the terror of adolescence but his films are almost always a bit wacky. Then there’s something like “Boyhood” which was a different kind of experiment, and this film isn’t dissimilar, though “Boyhood” relied too heavily on young actors who felt a bit amateurish. The performances in “Eighth Grade” are sublime and realistic. Josh Hamilton, easily the most recognizable person in the cast, is perfect as Kayla’s awkward single dad who tries everything to communicate with his quiet daughter.

“Eighth Grade” will certainly take you back to a certain age. I gather for most people it’ll most likely bring up BAD memories but the movie has plenty of humor to help balance the terrors many faced as middle school ended. Bo Burnham and his leading lady are really great finds and this will hopefully lead to even more extraordinary work. I’m truly in awe how everyone involved took such a simple, seemingly insignificant story, for what I assume was made rather cheaply, look and feel so innovative. The film doesn’t judge it’s young characters; they’re people too even if they spend most of their time “plugged-in.” It’s a truly rewarding experience; “Eighth Grade” passes with flying colors.  GRADE: A