Sunday, July 08, 2018

Sorry To Bother You

          The most original and outrageous film you will see this year. Written and directed by Boots Riley, this is a scathing satire of race, class, and capitalism.

           Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius "Cash" Green, a man living in a garage and struggling to find work. Cash ends up at a telemarketing company, where, on the advice of another African American sales rep (played by Danny Glover), he adopts a "white voice" on the phone and becomes an instant success.

          The film also stars Tessa Thompson as Cash's girlfriend, Detroit, Arnie Hammer as Steve Lift, a crazed CEO, Steven Yeun as Squeeze, another telemarketer looking to organize the workers, and Jermaine Fowler as Salvador, Cash's friend. David Cross and Patton Oswalt provide the "white" voices.

           This is a very funny comedy filled with social commentary that, more often than not, hits the mark. It does venture frequently into the surreal and may not be a film for everyone. Mr. Riley is an original voice and if you do pay attention, you'll realize the film speaks volumes.

Ant-Man and The Wasp

             It is rare when the sequel surpasses the original but returning director Peyton Reed, unencumbered by an origin story, makes the most out of the light hearted, fun script and gives us a great summer "popcorn" movie.

             It is refreshing to watch a superhero film without the threat of an alien invasion or having to save the world from some unseen danger. The stakes are still high but of a more personal nature and the film has plenty of action, warmth and humor with a great cast. Paul Rudd returns as Scott Lang, "Ant-Man" and his laid back charm and humor serve the story well. Evangeline Lilly also returns but now shares the spotlight as The Wasp and she is terrific. They make a great pair.

              Much of the the original cast also returns including a very funny Michael Pena, Michael Douglas, having a blast as Hank Pym, the original "Ant-Man", Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, Tip "TI" Harris and Randall Park. Joining for this go around is Michelle Pfeiffer, Walton Goggins, Laurence FIshburne and Hannah John-Kamen.

               The special effects are terrific, the comic timing impeccable, and the heart at the center of the story makes it truly endearing. The tone is lighter than most Marvel films with their grandiose gravitas and it reminded me of "Thor: Ragnarok" with its self aware playfulness. It's a lot of fun and if you have been paying attention to all the Marvel films (in particular "Avengers: Infinity War"), the ending will definitely produce a loud gasp.

Woman Walks Ahead

              The fact based story of Caroline Weldon, a portrait painter, who in 1890 traveled from New York to The Dakotas to paint a portrait of Chief Sitting Bull as well as become an advocate for Native American rights. While a small Indie film, in limited release, the cast is first rate. Ms. Weldon is played by Jessica Chastain and Sitting Bull is played by Michael Greyeyes. Other key co-stars include Sam Rockwell, Ciaran Hinds, and Bill Camp.

             Ms. Chastain, playing a naive Eastern woman of some wealth, still brings a fierceness to her role as she grows to know Sitting Bull and the true plight of the Lakota Indians. Mr. Greyeyes brings a realism and humanity to his portrayal of a still proud Chief who knows resistance to the White man's government has become futile.

              It is a timely subject as it deals with the period in our history when Native Americans were broken down and forced to relocate to smaller tribal lands. While they were allowed to vote on the ratification of the treaties, and even though they voted against it, the U.S. government enforced it anyway.

              The focus of the film is the relationship between Ms. Weldon and Sitting Bull and there is great chemistry between Ms. Chastain and Mr. Greyeyes. While a western, it is foremost a human drama that serves to remind us of an ugly period in our history that remains today in many parts of the world. 

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Leave No Trace

          From the writer/director of "Winter's Bone" comes another powerful film about the disenfranchised people who live on the edge of society. Debra Granik introduced the world to Jennifer Lawrence in that excellent film. Now, in this story of a father and his daughter living off the grid in the forests of Oregon, she introduces another fine young talented actress, Thomasin McKenzie. 

           Playing  the daughter of a war veteran suffering from PTSD, played by the amazing Ben Foster, is no easy task but Ms. McKenzie shines as Tom. Wise for her teenage years, she is torn between the love for her father and her longing to experience the world he has shielded her from for so long.  As the film begins, the two live quietly in the woods, venturing into town occasionally for supplies. Accidently discovered, they are forced to reenter society and adapt uneasily into new lives.

           The brilliant chemistry between Mr. Foster and Ms. McKenzie is remarkable. They carry the entire film and convey so much even with little dialogue. The cinematography too, is brilliant bringing us deep into the Oregon forest and the intimacy of their world. In smaller but meaningful roles are Jeff Korber and Dale Dickey.

                While we learn little of what drove Will and Tom into their situation in the first place, it is easy to think of this reality for many war veterans who have trouble assimilating into society once they return home.  Love, compassion and pain share every scene. For us, the audience, the film is a quiet but jarring shock to the system.

The Catcher Was a Spy

            This "based on a true story" Indie drama tells the little known story of Morris "Moe" Berg, a 15 year major league baseball catcher, who became a spy for the U.S. in the early days of World War Two.

            In an unusual dramatic turn, Mr. Berg is played by Paul Rudd. Mr. Rudd's quirky style serves him well as Moe was an odd and enigmatic character. A Jewish baseball player who spoke seven languages fluently and at least three more adequately, he earned extra money appearing on TV game shows putting his high intelligence to the test.  He was single his whole life and while there were rumors of homosexuality, Moe never publicly acknowledged it.

            There are a minimal amount of baseball scenes once Moe is recruited by the OSS (the organization that later became the CIA). The majority of the film focuses on his first mission, to learn if Germany was close to making an atomic bomb. Directed by Ben Lewin, the film races along, barely stopping to catch its breath. Clocking in at a bit more than 90 minutes, this is a rare case where less editing and more story would have really made a difference. Whether it's the script, direction or combination of both, we learn very little of this American hero. The story teases us with so many plot points that are never really explored.

             A terrific cast is wasted in barely more than cameos. Besides Mr. Rudd, the film also stars Jeff Daniels, Sienna Miller, Mark Strong, Guy Pearce, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, and in a rare appearance, Giancarlo Giannini.  

             Moe Berg was a fascinating character but unfortunately, the film doesn't do him justice and only leaves you wanting to learn more about the man.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

     Picking up right after the first "Jurassic World", Chris Pratt and Bryce Howard reprise their roles and try to save the remaining dinosaurs on Isla Nublar. This new film follows the "Jurassic formula" pretty closely but moves the action in the second half to a new location. Menacing dinos, heroic dinos, children in danger and evil greedy humans give us plenty of what we've all seen before. 

         By switching the action in the second half, the writers and director, J. A. Bayona try their best to infuse something new into the series but despite their best efforts (and there quite a few good moments), ultimately the film just rehashes it's formula. You can almost feel Steven Spielberg (who's an executive producer) sitting on Mr. Bayona's shoulder whispering "cool idea but let's not stray to far from what works".

         What really doesn't work is the music. Michael Giacchino's bombastic orchestral score envelopes and overpowers every scene. I found it extremely distracting and a typical "Spielberg" move. While I admire Mr. Spielberg very much, I have always found his music overpowering and manipulative and here, Mr. Bayona makes the same mistake.

          Visually the film is terrific. The dinosaurs, through CGI and puppetry, look amazing and truly appear real in every scene. Mr. Pratt and Ms. Howard act and react accordingly, although Mr. Pratt is less snarky here than the previous film. It's good to see Jeff Goldblum in a too brief cameo. Isabella Sermon is the requisite youngster who screams very well. Rafe Spall is appropriately oily and Ted Levine makes sadistic soldier of fortune look easy. 

           The first half of the film is exciting with it's own terrific climax. I found the second half silly and disappointing (save for those few good moments I alluded to earlier). The pace is fast and despite its faults, the film gives it's fan base what it wants, dinosaurs behaving badly. And of course, the ending lends itself to the inevitable third film in this planned trilogy. 

Thursday, June 21, 2018


          Writer/director Ari Aster evokes classic psychological horror films (like Rosemary's Baby or The Sixth Sense) with this tale of a haunted family slowly unraveling from the opening moments. Toni Collette and Gabriel Bryne are Annie and Steve Graham. They live in a beautiful home isolated in the Utah woods with their children, teenager Peter (Alex Wolff) and 13 year old Charlie (Milly Shapiro).

           The film begins with the obituary of Annie's mother Ellen and quickly moves to the funeral and its aftermath. Mr. Aster creates a sense of growing dread from those opening scenes and never lets up.

            Unexpected further tragedy occurs, in an absolutely horrific scene, and the family's descent into madness truly begins with Annie and Peter affected the most. Ms. Shapiro plays Charlie as a very creepy little girl but as things progress, it's Annie and Peter that really start to go off the deep end. There are flashes of genuine terror that Mr. Aster reveals slowly in subtle but terrifying ways. The score and camerawork brilliantly help raise audience goosebumps throughout culminating in an insane final act that you will either accept or find completely ridiculous.

            Ms. Collette is just fantastic as her character realistically unravels under the weight of her circumstances. Mr. Wolff is also terrific for the same reason. Only Mr. Byrne, a wonderful actor, is wasted as the character of Steve is so underwritten, it could have been played by a tree.  Co-star Anne Dowd is effectively creepy as Joan, a woman Annie meets at a grief support group.

               Mr. Aster shows great promise with this effective first effort. He keeps the violence and gore to a minimum using using the effects very strategically. Instead, he relies on atmosphere, music and strong acting to grab his audience and never let go. 

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Incredibles 2

             If you are a fan of "The Incredibles", then a 14 year wait was worth the time for the next chapter. Written and directed by Brad Bird, this sequel is that rare breed that surpasses the original. The script is stronger as well as the character development.

             Featuring all the returning vocal talents including Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Vowell, and Huck Milner, the film also introduces new characters played vocally by Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener. Jonathan Banks takes over the role of Rick Dicker. Everyone is perfectly matched to their animated character.

             The film turns the animation up quite a notch from 14 years ago. The colors pop and all the visuals are outstanding. It's a fun film with many adult themes that may go right past the kids but won't be lost on the adults in the audience. Of course there is plenty of action to keep everyone stimulated and baby "Jack Jack", discovering his powers, steals the film. His fight with a racoon would border on animal cruelty if this wasn't an animated film.

                 There is a lovely animated short before the film which has become a Pixar signature and also a quick nod from the lead actors thanking the fans for being so patient.

                 Score another big hit for Pixar.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Ocean's 8

        Capitalizing on a successful franchise and adding an all female cast, this heist comedy is high gloss,  superficial summer fun.

        Co-written and directed by Gary Ross, this is high concept at its most glamorous. It lacks the edge of it's male predecessors but the winning heist movie formula and cast chemistry will keep you entertained. The film stars Sandra Bullock as Debbie Ocean, who sets things in motion the second she is released from prison. The team she puts together include Cate Blanchett, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Rhianna, Awkwafina, and Helena Bonham Carter (yes, I realize that's seven total but the eighth is a surprise I won't spoil). The film also co-stars Anne Hathaway, James Corden, and Richard Armitage.

          Robbing a valuable diamond necklace at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's annual Gala is the plan and that gives the film plenty of opportunities for celebrity cameos and fabulous clothing. Watching the film is like taking a visual tour through Glamour or Vogue magazine. It's very pretty to look at but easy to remember it's not the "real" world. Pulling off this heist so many improbable things come together that you need no reminder this is purely escapist entertainment, light and enjoyable like a colorful, summer cocktail. 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

             Morgan Neville directs this new documentary about Fred Rogers, the pioneer of children's television in the '60s. On and off camera, Fred Rogers was a remarkable man who could relate to children like no other adult. The film does a great job capturing the life and philosophy of Mr. Rogers.

              Using archival footage, on and off camera, interviews with family, friends, and coworkers we get an intimate look at the television personality, who as one person says, was truly radical for his time. The one missing element was an earlier look at Fred Rogers and how he grew into a one of a kind human being. We learn little of his childhood, except that his parents were wealthy and that he was a fat child. Beyond that, the film focuses on his early years in television and how he came to reshape children's programming.

               There are candid moments, rare footage, including a wonderful segment with Koko the gorilla, and even outtakes. It's the feel good movie of the year. You can't help but leave the theater with a smile on your face and Mr. Roger's universal message ringing in your ears. Love is the answer.