Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Movie Review: Creed II

Creed II **** / *****
Directed by: Steven Caple Jr.
Written by: Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor and Cheo Hodari Coker and Sascha Penn based on characters created by Ryan Coogler.  
Starring: Michael B. Jordan (Adonis Johnson), Tessa Thompson (Bianca), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Dolph Lundgren (Ivan Drago), Florian Munteanu (Viktor Drago), Phylicia Rashad (Mary Anne Creed), Russell Hornsby (Buddy Marcelle), Wood Harris (Tony 'Little Duke' Burton), Michael Buffer (Michael Buffer), Andre Ward (Danny 'Stuntman' Wheeler), Christopher Mann (Dr. Ewell), Brian Gallagher (Jeff Shockley), Emmanuel Carter (RJ), Paris Michael Cunningham (Amara Creed). 
2015’s Creed, which was both the continuation of the Rocky franchise (it’s seventh film) and kicked off the Creed franchise, was a shockingly good movie. It should not have been too surprising, given that it was directed by Ryan Coogler – who had proven himself a fine filmmaker with Fruitvale Station – but what could have been an easy pay cheque movie turned into something deeper, while still being an entertaining piece of studio filmmaking, with great performances and real heart. It was the best Rocky film since the original – and announced some major new talent. Creed II is nowhere near as good as Creed was – and yet for a studio sequel, and a sports movie programmer, it is still a hell of a lot of fun, and a hell of a movie in its own right. No one is getting nominated for Oscars this time around (although, only Stallone got nominated last time) but in an era of constant sequels – most of which disappoint – perhaps its worthy celebrating a fun sequel like Creed II. As predictable and formula driven as this is, there is a reason why the Rocky formula has endured for more than 40 years now.
We pick up a few years after the original film, with Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) challenging for and winning the Heavyweight Champion of the World belt in a fight against the aging champ – a fight that no one much liked, because the outcome was a foregone conclusion. An enterprising boxing promoter, Buddy Marcelle (a underused Russell Hornsby) comes up with a plan for Adonis to fight Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) – the son of the infamous Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) – the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring in 1985, and then was beat by Rocky himself in Rocky IV (by the way, anyone else notice that this film tells us that Apollo died in 1985, and that his son is 28 years old?) Anyway, Ivan has raised his son with a single purpose in mind – to redeem his failure. He has been living in the Ukraine in shame for all the decades since – having been abandoned by everyone, including his wife (you will probably guess who plays her when she does show up, but in case you don’t, I won’t say anything). Viktor is big and mean and punches really, really hard. He is mostly an unknown, and has never really been tested – no one can last that long in the ring with him. The fight will be huge. Adonis wants to take it – but Rocky refuses to help him train for it, telling him he doesn’t need the fight. On the more personal side, Adonis is about to propose to Bianca (Tessa Thompson) – and that is before she finds out she is pregnant.
You can probably write the screenplay yourself with this setup, and you would most likely come up with something much like what happens in Creed II. It is a story of hubris, humbling and triumph and this movie hits all the beats you expect it to. Sure, this is a formula, but it works. It works because Michael B. Jordan is so good as Adonis, and carries the movie on his charming back, and because Stallone in particular adds a level of emotion that is needed here. His regret over what happened to Adonis’ father is palpable here, and does a lot of emotional heavy lifting – perhaps too much so. I would have liked to see Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad, as Adonis’ adopted mother, given more of that lifting – but it works with Stallone as well.
If there is a missed opportunity here, it is with Ivan and Viktor Drago. Both Lundgren and Munteanu are actually quite good in this movie – but they aren’t really given much to do other than glower and be stereotypical mean Russians. There is another version of this film, where their relationship more directly mirrors the relationships between Rocky and Adonis (they would not have had to do much, it’s pretty obvious) and made them into more than just stereotypical bad guys – it also would have helped to make that ending, which is already good, hit all the harder.
Coogler is back for this film as director – he was undoubtedly busy with Black Panther – and while the direction by Steven J. Caple is good here, it doesn’t reach the same level as Coogler’s film. It is slicker and shinier – with the rougher, tougher edges shaved off. Then again, the whole movie is slicker and shinier, so it works here. Creed II isn’t a legitimately great studio franchise film like Creed was – but it’s about as good as we can expect from an audience crowd pleaser – the eight entry in a 40+ year old franchise.  Yes, it’s more clichéd, but the clichés work.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Movie Review: Border

Border *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Ali Abbasi.
Written by: Ali Abbasi & Isabella Eklof & John Ajvide Lindqvist based on the short story by Lindqvist.
Starring: Eva Melander (Tina), Ero Milonoff (Vore), Jorgen Thorsson (Roland), Ann Petren (Agneta), Sten Ljunggren (Tina’s Father).
A warning before I start the review proper of Ali Abbasi’s Border – this is a very strange film, and one that will probably work best if you go into it completely cold. It works much better in the early scenes of the film, when you’re trying to figure out what the hell is going on, then it does later in the movie, when it explains everything. Quite frankly, the explanation of what is happening and why is ridiculous – but then again, it’s probably just about the only thing that could explain what leads up to it. It is an extremely odd film – and for that I admire it, despite my misgivings about where it seemingly ends up – which seem to be growing the more I think about the film. Okay, so you’ve been warned – and while I’ll try and stay away from spoilers, it’s hard to tell what exactly is a spoiler, and what isn’t in Border.
Anyway, the film stars Eva Melander as Tina – a woman who works as a border agent in Sweden, who has an uncanny ability to sniff out – literally – when people are hiding something. This isn’t just stuff like drugs – she isn’t a drug sniffing dog – but she can tell their emotional state, and when therefore, when they’re hiding just about anything. Her co-workers may admire her ability, but they’re still off put by her – the constant sniffing, her brusque manner, and quite frankly her looks. While she is clearly all there mentally – she looks, well, different, from everyone else. She doesn’t have much of a social life either – she lives with a man who raises dogs, but they are not romantic in any way. There are a few other, slightly more reserved friendships (that seem to be there basically for plot) – and an aging father in a retirement home, whose memory is fading. Then one day at her job she meets Vore (Ero Milonoff) – and can tell he is hiding something, although they cannot find it on him – even after going through, well, everything. He flirts with her – and, well, it’s clear that whatever Tina has that effects the way she looks, Vore has the same thing. It isn’t long before he has moved into her guest house, on her remote forest property – much to Roland’s chagrin. Her abilities also attract the attention of the police, who want her help to track down a child pornography ring.
Most of what happens aside from the relationship between Tina and Vore is a distraction though – and not really necessary ones. It’s clear from their first interaction that there is something between them – that the pair are drawn to each other. Tina senses, not incorrectly, that Vore knows things that she doesn’t – and she wants to find out what those things are. Whereas Tina is painfully shy and awkward, and takes every sideways glance, or half overheard comment to heart – Vore doesn’t seem to notice, or care, what people around him think.
The opening scenes in Border are the best – when director Ali Abbasi is detailing Tina’s regular life, and she and Vore are (almost literally) sniffing each other out. The makeup work done to the two lead actors is impressive – the type of work that gets a small foreign film like this an Oscar nomination for Best Makeup (Sweden also submitted the film – which won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes for Best Foreign Language Film – good luck with that one!). As the film moves along, it becomes both more of a fairytale of sorts, and a police procedural. You may very well wonder why Abbasi has decided to tell two entirely separate plots in the movie – but he has a point, and unfortunately, it’s more conventional than I would prefer.
Yet Border is such a strange film, and offers so much that is unconventional, that perhaps the more conventional ending and storytelling in the third act is too be expected. There is an even more daring, less conventional film, lurking somewhere in Border than this is – and that’s the film I would have loved to see. But perhaps, that would all just be too weird.

Movie Review: Blindspotting

Blindspotting **** / *****
Directed by: Carlos López Estrada.
Written by: Rafael Casal & Daveed Diggs.
Starring: Daveed Diggs (Collin), Rafael Casal (Miles), Janina Gavankar (Val), Jasmine Cephas Jones (Ashley), Ethan Embry (Officer Molina), Tisha Campbell-Martin (Mama Liz), Utkarsh Ambudkar (Rin), Kevin Carroll (James), Nyambi (Yorkie), Jon Chaffin (Dez), Wayne Knight (Patrick), Margo Hall (Nancy), Ziggy Baitinger (Sean 'Ziggy' Jones).

It’s hard to pin down Blindspotting – which is a wildly ambitious movie – in terms of what it is actually about. It is about race and gentrification and police violence – all in Oakland, a city that, like many, has changed so much over the years the long term residents barely recognize it anymore. It is also a film about language – the dialogue, written by its two stars, is so good because its poetic in a way we don’t often see in a movie, and leads to the films climax – which we expect will be action driven, and is instead, a long, rap infused monologue that shouldn’t work logically, but ends up working brilliantly. It’s a film that is entertaining and disturbing in equal measures – and while it leaves you asking questions more than providing answers, that is mostly a good thing.
In the film, Hamilton break-out Daveed Diggs stars as Collin – who has just gotten out of jail, and is in the waning days of his year-long probation, when he will hopefully be able to get his life back on track. His best friend is Miles (Rafael Casal) – who unlike Colin, is white, but compensates for that by wearing a grill, having a hair trigger temper, and basically, just trying to be the toughest guy on the block, even if it’s more of an act than he would like to admit. By contrast, Collin is the calm one – the one always trying to talk his friend down from the ledge. He’s also the one more likely to be stopped by the cops – something they both know, but don’t talk about (it may well be the reason why Collin went to jail, and Miles did not – when we finally hear the story of what happened).
Diggs and Casal co-wrote the movie together, and like their characters, are longtime friends from Oakland. The city has changed over the years – and the film represents this in the job the pair do together as moving me – constantly packing people up, and moving them out of the city they can no longer afford. To make matters worse, for Miles anyway, the tech bros who are moving in look a lot like he does – he even gets mistaken for a hipster more than once in the movie, which he takes great offense to, being Oakland born and bred.
Early in the film, Collin witnesses a shooting of an unarmed black man at the hands of the police. He doesn’t do anything with this – he has no proof, he was the only witness, and (probably rightly) assumes that if he, someone still on probation, were to make a fuss, he’d end up in back jail. But the incident haunts him just the same – in a series of nightmares – and it is what leads to the climax of the movie – which is the most unlikely climax of the year in many ways – but one that works.

Diggs and Casal’s screenplay here is excellent – both of them are lyricists of some kind or another, and their dialogue has a musicality to it even when it seems like they are just speaking to each other. They are doing so with heightened words. The pair play off each other brilliantly – probably nowhere better when all the things that haven’t been said between them, finally does get said – how Miles will never understand what it’s like to be black in America – something he knows, but feels shame for (he allows both Collin and his wife – who is also black – to call him something he would never call either of them). But then Miles responds – informing Collin that it isn’t easy being the only white kid on the block either – which is why he overcompensates. Collin is annoyed by the changing neighborhoods in his hometown – but Miles is apoplectic.
Blindspotting doesn’t really try and answer the questions it raises – at least not completely. The long monologue that acts as the climax does some of that, but not in a way that is preachy. You may well question the reality of that finale – and fair enough – but we’ve seen the more realistic ending of this story, and it’s not one I would prefer for this film. That ending wouldn’t being nearly as challenging as this one is. The film announces three major new talents to film – it proves Diggs is a versatile performer and writer, and gives us his equally talented co-star, Casal. And director Carlos López Estrada finds a way to mix all the tones and styles into one cohesive movie. Blindspotting sneaks up on you – and it delivers.

Movie Review: The Christmas Chronicles

The Christmas Chronicles ** / *****
Directed by: Clay Kaytis.
Written by: Matt Lieberman.
Starring: Kurt Russell (Santa Claus), Judah Lewis (Teddy Pierce), Darby Camp (Kate Pierce), Kimberly Williams-Paisley (Claire Pierce), Lamorne Morris (Officer Jameson), Martin Roach (Officer Povenda).

Most Christmas movies are bad. I think we all understand this, because after all, there isn’t all that much you can do with the formula. They are all a variation on A Christmas Carol or The Grinch, where someone needs to rediscover the true meaning of Christmas, which they do over a long Christmas Eve, with the snow gently falling, and Christmas music swelling in the background. And yet, we watch these films don’t we? We watch them again and again and again – sometimes because we have small children who like them, sometimes just to kill time while the weather outside is frightful, so it’s easier to make some hot chocolate and watch some cheesy Christmas movie. This year, Netflix has added generically titled The Christmas Chronicles to the list of Christmas movies – and you know where it’s going from the start, and it gets there in probably the least interesting way possible. Is it a bad movie? Undoubtedly. Did I still have fun watching it with my two kids as we all sipped hot chocolate? You know it.
This movie is centered on the Pierce family – who we witness through home movies at the start of the movie which ends at Christmas 2017, and we soon realize that this will be the first Christmas without the father of the family. The three surviving members aren’t handling things very well – but each in their own way. Mother Claire (Kimberly William-Paisley) is working too much to try and keep everything afloat – including picking up an extra shift on Christmas Eve. Teenager Teddy (Judah Lewis) has been hanging out with some nogoodnicks, and getting into trouble, and 10-year-old Kate (Darby Camp) is trying to keep everyone happy by trying way too hard. It isn’t working. But on those home movies, Kate thinks she sees a red sleeve – and that means Santa. So she comes up with an idea to get a better video of him this year. Needless to say, everything goes horribly wrong, and Santa (Kurt Russell) crashes his sleigh, and ends up enlisting the Pierce children in trying to get Christmas back on track.
This movie knows it cheesy, and it embraces it – no one more so than Russell, who seems to be having a lot of as Santa – especially when he gets to dispel the illusion that Santa says “Ho Ho Ho” all the time – by calling it fake news. There is also an Elvis inspired musical number in jail cell with Russell, because I guess why cast Russell as Santa unless you were going to have him do an Elvis inspired musical number in the first place?
Like many a kids Christmas movie before it, The Christmas Chronicles has a plot that is way too busy – moving from one place to another, one city to another, with lightning speed, but little charm. It also decides it needs to build the Christmas mythology from the ground up once again, and does so in confusing fashion – including some very strange elves, which I cannot figure out if they were cute or creepy (likely both).
So, no, the movie isn’t great. I don’t expect it to become a holiday tradition – like say The Santa Clause (which, admittedly, isn’t great either) or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or A Muppet Christmas Carol (the latter of which is the one I have watched every Christmas Eve since I met my wife 16 years ago). But, if you’re tired of all those – and just want to watch something different this time this certainly isn’t a horrible movie to watch – especially if you’re curled up on the couch with the kids, with hot chocolate (provided you’ve added something extra to yours). It isn’t very good – but it doesn’t really have to be.

Movie Review: Skate Kitchen

Skate Kitchen *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Crystal Moselle.
Written by: Crystal Moselle and Jen Silverman and Aslihan Unaldi.
Starring: Rachelle Vinberg (Camille), Jaden Smith (Devon), Ardelia Lovelace (Janay), Nina Moran (Kurt), Elizabeth Rodriguez (Mother).
It’s always a shame when a movie imposes artificial conflict and storylines on characters who do not need them – where the movie would be stronger if it didn’t feel the need to tell any sort of story at all. Such is the case with Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen – about a group of female teenage skaters, who spend their summer days on their boards, hanging out, sometimes getting high, sometimes flirting and dancing (or more) with the male skaters – and sometimes in direct conflict with those same skaters, who, of course, feel the need to prove how manly they are by making fun of the girls – and trying to belittle their skills. You could spend a whole movie just watching these kids interact with each other, and it would be time well spent. Where the movie is weakest though is when it tries to goose things along a little bit in terms of story – a conflict with an overprotective mother for instance, or a budding romance that threatens the entire groups cohesiveness. This movie doesn’t need those things, and it’s weaker because they’re there.
The film was directed by Crystal Moselle, whose breakout film was the documentary The Wolfpack – about a family of teenage boys, who apparently hadn’t left their New York apartment in years – they were home schooled by their mother, suffered with an abusive father, and stayed sane mainly by watching and re-watching their favorite movies over and over again – and then making their own versions of them. As good as that film was – and I did quite like it – I also felt that somehow, Moselle wasn’t asking some very basic questions about the how and they why that would have taken the movie to perhaps darker territory – but also more honest territory.
Skate Kitchen isn’t a documentary, although it’s one of the ever increasing number of films that blurs the line between docs and fiction films, in that all the actors in the film are non-professionals, playing a character not unlike themselves – with the notable exception of Jaden Smith, who seems to have been cast in hopes of making the film more commercial (hence his name being above the title on the poster). Smith fits in fine with the rest of the cast – although the storyline involving him is the most clichéd in the film.
The main character though is Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), an 18-year-old Long Island girl, who sees a group of female skaters from the city on Instagram, and decides to go over and try to make friends – despite her mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez – another pro, now that I realize it) and her objections. Camille is almost painfully shy when she first heads into the city and meets the girls – led by Janay (Ardelia Lovelace) and Kurt (Nina Moran) – but her skills are enough to win them over, and gradually, she will become one of the gang – and come out of her shell. She even moves in with Janay and her father, to get away from her mother for a while. It is her budding friendship, and maybe more, with Devon (Smith) – Janay’s ex, who she is still hung up – that threatens the group dynamics.
As I mentioned, I found much of what happens with the two pros – Rodriguez and Smith – to be among the weakest aspects of the movie – because it felt more like someone trying to impose a structure on the film, than something that happened naturally. Are there really mothers who would get that mad at their 18-year-old for skateboarding (I least bought Katherine Waterson’s rage in Mid90s – cause her kid looked to be 11). Would the nothing relationship between Camille and Devon bring about such immediate, and devastating results as it does here?
It’s a shame these plot points are here, because when the movie is more relaxed, it’s quietly wonderful. The performers have an ease with each, and are compelling individually, as well as part of the larger group. The skating scenes are terrific – you can tell no one is faking it – and the film has an easy charm to it. I mentioned Mid90s above, and that is a more typical film of this sort – focused on teenage boys, of course. This one goes a slightly different way with its focus on the girls – and it’s not like many movies that simply allows female characters to be as big of jackasses as its male characters – but sees in them something unique. I think Moselle was smart to do this instead of a doc on this group – imposing some structure would be necessary. But here, she goes a little too far, and turns a would-be great movie into just a good one.

Movie Review: Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Jon M. Chu.
Written by: Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim based on the book by Kevin Kwan.
Starring: Constance Wu (Rachel Chu), Henry Golding (Nick Young), Michelle Yeoh (Eleanor Young), Gemma Chan (Astrid Young Teo), Lisa Lu (Ah Ma), Awkwafina (Peik Lin Goh), Harry Shum Jr. (Charlie Wu), Ken Jeong (Wye Mun Goh), Sonoya Mizuno (Araminta Lee), Chris Pang (Colin Khoo), Jimmy O. Yang (Bernard Tai), Ronny Chieng (Eddie Cheng), Remy Hii (Alistair Cheng), Nico Santos (Oliver T'sien), Jing Lusi (Amanda Ling), Carmen Soo (Francesca), Pierre Png (Michael Teo), Fiona Xie (Kitty Pong), Victoria Loke (Fiona Cheng), Janice Koh (Felicity Young), Amy Cheng (Jacqueline Ling), Chieng Mun Koh (Neenah Goh), Calvin Wong (P.T. Goh), Kheng Hua Tan (Kerry Chu), Constance Lau (Celine), Selena Tan (Alix Young). 
I hope that the wild success of Crazy Rich Asians at the summer box office this year will not be a one-off – that it won’t be another 25 years before a Hollywood studio makes a film with an all Asian cast (the last one was The Joy Luck Club in 1993). Specifically, I hope that because the film itself is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of Asian American culture, something that happens so infrequently gets examined in American movies (or TV). The film itself is highly processed junk food – the good kind – and is really entertaining in its celebration of outsize excess and wealth. There is an undercurrent of something more real beneath that surface of course – but that surface is fun in its way too.
The story revolves around an Econ professor at NYU, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a first generation American citizen, born to a single Chinese mother (Khung Hua Tan (Kerry Chu). She has been dating Nick (Henry Golding) for a year now in New York, and is finally going to travel to Singapore to meet his family. What she doesn’t know is that Nick is the heir to an immense real estate fortune – and is expected to take over the family business. His arrival with an” outsider” will not be looked upon kindly. Indeed, when she meets Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), you can sense the coldness coming from Eleanor’s stare. Rachel has now been thrown into a world she doesn’t understand – two, in fact, Singapore in general, and the ultra-rich as well, and kind of has to figure it out on her own. Luckily, she has a college friend, Peik Lin Goh (Awkafina) from the area – her family is rich, but it’s new money, not like the Young’s. Awkafina’s performance is essentially comic relief – and it’s probably the best in the film, since her every line lands.
Crazy Rich Asians is a very broad film in many ways – the humor especially, but also just in terms of its style. This film is an unironic celebration of the ultra-rich in a way that can be off-putting at times. But, the film is smart enough to show us the various ways the women in the film use that wealth as a show of independence – the opening scene with Yeoh as a flashback to Nick’s childhood for example, or how Nick’s cousin, Astrid (Gemma Chan) deals with her husband – who, like Rachel, also does not come from money, but unlike Rachel, cares greatly about that. I also liked how this is a romantic comedy, and yet it doesn’t make its female heroine into a mess like so many do. Rachel is smart and independent – she isn’t unfazed by Nick’s wealth, but doesn’t love him for it either. No matter what happens, Rachel will be fine – and she knows it. That doesn’t mean she’s going to let them get the best of her.
The film is stuffed to the gills – probably too stuffed to be properly contained in a two-hour movie, but it’s all good stuff – or at least entertaining stuff. And it is culturally specific in many ways that I appreciated. It’s about time we’ve seen some of this on the big screen.
In a perfect world, Crazy Rich Asians would be just one of many films about Asians Americans – to go along with many others about Latino Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, etc. In many ways, the expectations for this film – the pressure on it to live up to everyone’s expectations, to have an entire community’s hopes resting on it are too big for any movie to bare. Crazy Rich Asians is not a great movie – but the fact it was able to accomplish what it does is perhaps an ever rarer achievement than a great movie.

Movie Review: We the Animals

We the Animals *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Jeremiah Zagar   
Written by: Jeremiah Zagar and Daniel Kitrosser based on the novel by Justin Torres.
Starring: Sheila Vand (Ma), Raúl Castillo (Paps), Evan Rosado (Jonah), Josiah Gabriel (Joel), Isaiah Kristian (Manny). 
We the Animals is a film from the point-of-view of a 10-year boy, watching his parents’ volatile relationship play out in front of him. The 10-year-old is Jonah (Eva Rosado), and he is the youngest of three boys – who almost look like three different versions of the same kid a few years apart in age than brothers. They have the same haircut – shaved, not quite bald – are often walking around shirtless. Their father (Raul Castillo) is Puerto Rican, their mother (Sheila Vand) is Italian – the met when they both lived in Brooklyn, although now they live in Upstate New York. Over the course of a few months, these three boys – but especially Jonah – will go through some changes, some confusing times – some related to their parents, some more interior.
At first, things seem nice in the family. Paps can be fun and charming – he spends times with his kids, cooking breakfast, teaching them salsa dancing, etc. His relationship with Ma is still passionate to say the least – when things are good, they are all over each other. It comes then as a little bit of a shock when Paps lashing out violently at Ma – leaving her battered and bruised. He goes away for a while, but is then back – and all is forgiven. Only gradually do we realize that this is part of a long standing pattern – one we’ll see play out time and again throughout the course of the movie.
The two older boys never really developed in any meaningful way – except that Jonah views them as normal, and he isn’t. He is starting to have sexual feelings – but doesn’t really understand them. He pours those – and every other confused feeling he has – into his pencil crayon sketches, that occasionally the movie will bring to life in animated sequences. Jonah is likely gay – he certainly obsesses over an older boy with long blonde hair enough – but it’s never really clear if he really knows what that means.
The film was directed by Jeremiah Zager, making his feature debut after years of working in documentary films, as both a director and editor. His style here though brings to mind early David Gordon Green – think George Washington – and maybe even Terrence Malick. He certainly uses voiceover like Malick does, but not always in the best ways. The film is usually at its best the quieter that it is – when its observing these brothers, especially Jonah, and observing how they observe their parents. The movie, which was shot on film, is beautiful to look at and its best creates a dreamlike atmosphere. In many ways, this is a standard look back at childhood – it was based on Justin Torres’ semi-autobiographical novel – but it’s not one heavily tinted with nostalgia. The camera sees the abuse going on, even if Jonah has trouble articulating what he sees.
Which is one reason why the two performances by Castillo and Vand are so key to the movie working. They have a real chemistry together. Castillo understands how a guy like Paps operates – someone who can be a decent loving guy much of the time, but just has that angry, violent temper that makes him snap repeatedly. He’s a mean, scary guy – but his family cannot help but love him. Vand is quieter, but equally good, as Ma. She has shown up in several movies – movies that I’ve liked her in, like the lead in The Girl Walks Home Alone at Night for instance – and yet I didn’t realize it was her until the film ended. On one hand, she is very sympathetic of course – but she is far from a perfect parent either.
We the Animals is a film that shows that Zagar’s future should be in films like this – which is better than the documentary work of his I have seen. He has an eye for this type of filmmaking, and the film is sensitive, well-made and well-acted. Some things are laid on too thick – the score for instance – but for the most part, We the Animals is a very good, small movie.

Movie Review: The Third Murder

The Third Murder ** / *****
Directed by: Hirokazu Koreeda.
Written by: Hirokazu Koreeda.
Starring: Masaharu Fukuyama (Shigemori), Kôji Yakusho (Misumi), Shinnosuke Mitsushima (Kawashima Akira), Mikako Ichikawa (Sasabara Itsuki), Izumi Matsuoka (Hattori Akiko), Isao Hashizume (Shigemori Akihisa), Suzu Hirose (Sakie), Hajime Inoue (Ono Minoru), Aju Makita (Shigemori Yuka), Yuki Saitô (Yamanaka Mitsue), Kôtarô Yoshida (Settsu Daisuke).
Hirokazu Koreeda is a legitimately great filmmaker – his latest film, Shoplifters, just won the Palme D’or earlier this year (it remains unseen by me at this time) – and he has a string of strong films stretching back 20 years on his resume. For the most part though, his talents lie in documenting the everyday activity of his subjects – they are often in very dramatic situations – the abandoned, homeless kids of Nobody Knows, the switched at birth families in Like Father, Like Son for instance – but Koreeda has never really felt the need to goose up the drama just for the sake of drama. His films take their time, but earn that time with the rewards the reap.
All of this is a way to say that the film he made between the wonderful After the Storm and before the Palme winning Shoplifters, called The Third Murder is easily the worst film of his I have seen. Here, Koreeda tries his hand at a courtroom thriller, but for some reason decides to keep everything paced at his normal, but slower pace. This makes the film deadly dull for most of its runtime – and it cannot be saved even with a few strong performances, and a scene late in the film that is striking for the way it shoots the two main characters literally face to face.
The movie opens with a murder – where we see Misumi (Kôji Yakusho) bash in the head of his boss with a wrench, and later we’ll learn he burned the body as well. By the time his lawyer, Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) gets the case, it already seems like a lost cause – Misumi has already confessed, and that’s about that. But the question of motive really does become important in the film – Misumi first says he did it for money, but then changes his story. And this matters a great deal here – because a murder for money is viewed much more harshly than if it was a murder for some reason in the Japanese system. The question of why could literally be the difference between life and death.
All of this could have made for a fascinating film – and does, up to the point. The first hour, which basically focuses on Shigemori trying to unravel what happened, and why, is much more interesting than the second half – which is full of courtroom drama, but is also overly repetitive and basically grinds the film to a halt.
Koreeda is a legitimately great filmmaker – he is one of the filmmakers who most makes me think of Roger Ebert, who was an early champion of Koreeda for the film Maborsi – and liked many of his films until his death. Whenever I see one of his films, I wonder what Ebert would have made of it. But here, Koreeda tries to do something he normally doesn’t do – and while for certain filmmakers, that could lead to exciting, unexpected results, here it leads to a rather dull life, that has an interesting subject, but feels like its running on half steam the whole time. Still cannot wait to see Shoplifters though.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Movie Review: Roma

Roma **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron.
Written by: Alfonso Cuaron.
Starring: Yalitza Aparicio (Cleo), Marina de Tavira (Sra. Sofía), Diego Cortina Autrey (Toño), Carlos Peralta (Paco), Marco Graf (Pepe), Daniela Demesa (Sofi), Nancy García (Adela), Verónica García (Sra. Teresa), Andy Cortés (Ignacio), Fernando Grediaga (Sr. Antonio), Jorge Antonio Guerrero (Fermín), José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza (Ramón), Latin Lover (Profesor Zovek), Zarela Lizbeth Chinolla Arellano (Dra. Velez), José Luis López Gómez (Pediatra), Edwin Mendoza Ramírez (Médico Residente), Clementina Guadarrama (Benita), Enoc Leaño (Político), Nicolás Peréz Taylor Félix (Beto Pardo), Kjartan Halvorsen (Ove Larsen), Felix Gomez (Transeunte). 
Many filmmakers get to a point in their career (some start there) where they want to look back at their childhood – which is why we get so many sentimental, nostalgic films for the years gone past (we’re stuck in a wave of ‘80s nostalgia right now, probably because the people who were teenagers then are in control of things now). In some ways Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma is another one of these films – as it is clearly set in the time of Cuaron’s own childhood, and yet he has not made a hazy, nostalgic film at all. And he hasn’t even made a film about a young Alfonso Cuaron. Instead, he has made a film as a tribute to the women who raised him and formed him – most specifically, a film about Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the maid and nanny for an upper middle class family, seen through own chaotic year of her life in the early 1970s. The film is very aware of the world around Cleo and this family – it shows it us often (mostly, in the background), but it remains a personal story.
We get to know Cleo slowly during the course of the film. The style Cuaron has chosen for the film is mainly made up of master shots – taking in the entirety of a scene, that he then let’s play out. There aren’t a lot of close-ups in the film, the editing allows shots to play out at length. He shot the film himself in beautiful black and white images, and doesn’t feature any score at all. And yet, while this may make Roma sound like “slow” cinema – this is hardly Bela Tarr territory here. The film feels alive, in large part because the sound design seems so intricately constructed. The film will call to mind the early (perhaps later) films of Federico Fellini (the movie does share a title with a Fellini movie from 1972, also based on the director’s life). But make no mistake, this is an intensely personal film for Cuaron.
Cleo does seem fairly happy in her life – for the most part, the family treats her nicely, almost like one of the family (not quite, she has more riles to follow – some of them very petty), and the four children she helps to raise really do love her – and she loves them. But will follow for the next year plunges the family and Cleo into personal chaos – first when the patriarch leaves the family for his mistress (but they don’t tell the children – they think he’s away doing “research)) and second when Cleo finds herself pregnant after a brief relationship with a young man, who takes off literally the minute she tells him (they’re watching a movie – and he says he needs to do to the bathroom). She is worried about her job – but the family is supportive, taking her to the doctor, taking her to buy a crib for the child, etc. She is still worried about how she is going to raise the child on her own. Meanwhile, the wife and mother of the family tries to keep everything together after she herself is abandoned – and money stops coming in, apparently because the father says he has none – although he has enough to take up scuba diving with his new girlfriend.
Roma is the rare film that is both very episodic, and yet feels like a whole coherent picture, rather than just snapshots of a life. The style helps a lot, because it remains the through line of the film. As does Yalitza Aparicio’s wonderful, subtle, quiet performance as Cleo – someone who mostly keeps her thoughts to herself. The movie does build to two large emotional payoffs in the final minutes – and they do not feel like cheating. They feel earned – as did the tears I shed during them.
The film will be released mainly on Netflix worldwide – with a few screenings in theaters. If you are lucky enough to see it on a big screen (like I did at TIFF), run don’t walk. Yes, the images are beautiful – and deserve to be seen on the biggest screen possible. But the sound design is perhaps even more intricate – and more deserving of the theatrical experience. I’m not blaming Netflix here – they have their business model, and it’s good they finance films like this. Yet, I do wish more people outside of festivals or big cities could this remarkably beautiful film on the big screen – as it so clearly demands to be seen.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Movie Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.
Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Starring – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: Tim Blake Nelson (Buster Scruggs), David Krumholtz (Frenchman in Saloon), Clancy Brown (Curly Joe), Harry Melling (Harrison), Jesse Luken (Drover), Jefferson Mays (Gilbert Longabaugh), Danny McCarthy (Ike).
Starring – Near Algodones: James Franco (Cowboy), Stephen Root (Teller), Ralph Ineson (The Man In Black).
Starring – Meal Ticket: Liam Neeson (Impresario), Harry Melling (Orator), Paul Rae (Impressario), Jiji Hise (The Bawd).
Starring – All Gold Canyon: Tom Waits (Prospector), Sam Dillon (Young Man).
Starring – The Gal Who Got Rattled: Zoe Kazan (Alice Longabaugh), Bill Heck (Billy Knapp), Grainger Hines (Mr. Arthur), Billy Lockwood (Father), Ethan Dubin (Matt). 
Starring – The Mortal Remains: Brendan Gleeson (Irishman), Tyne Daly (Lady), Saul Rubinek (Frenchman), Chelcie Ross (Trapper), Jonjo O'Neill (Thigpen).
I have seen every Coen brothers film multiple times, and its fair to say that I am a devoted fan of their work – the pair has wriggled into my upper pantheon of directors like Scorsese, Kubrick and Hitchcock over the years. One of the reasons why that is the case is because they never stop surprising me in their work, and yet it’s all very clearly their own work. Yes, the tones of just their last two films – the morbid Inside Llewyn Davis and the screwball comedy Hail, Caesar couldn’t be more different – but they are clearly the work of the same people, who have a dark, absurd sense of humor, and delight in punishing their characters, and pushing the buttons of those in the audience. Their latest film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is a Western anthology – six stories – that was originally meant to be a short TV series for Netflix, before the brothers made (what I think is the right call) and just turned it into a movie, telling dark, absurd, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, always violent stories of the old West. The film is, in many ways, genre pastiche – and you’ll recognize elements from famed films, directors and stars littered throughout the six stories, and yet they’re all Coen brothers.
The first story is about a singing cowboy – Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) – who we see riding on his course, strumming a guitar, and crooning like he’s Roy Rogers, before he directly addresses the camera to introduce himself. He seems like such a nice guy – but then he holds up a Wanted Poster – for himself – which describes him as a misanthrope (an insult, not coincidentally, that is often leveled at the brothers themselves), which he thinks is absurd. When he arrives in a small town, and wants to sit down and play poker, it starts an absurdly violent and over the top series of bloody gunfights.
From there, the Coens move onto a story of a would be bank robber (James Franco), who finds himself in one near death experience that would seem to be impossible to escape from after another after another, until even he starts to think the whole thing is little more than a sick joke. The third story goes incredibly dark, and stars Liam Neeson as a man who runs a travelling show – in which an armless, legless man delivers a long monologue of greatest hits from other writers, before an ever decreasing number of people – leading to a ruthless, if logical, business decision on Neeson’s behalf. Then there is Tom Waits (a perfect Coen brother’s actor) as an old prospector, who digs and digs and digs, convinced that Mr. Pocket is hiding out there somewhere – and paranoid someone else may stumble on him first.
The longest of the stories is the next to last one about a Wagon Train headed to a new territory. A quiet, shy woman, Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) is travelling with her brother, who dies early in the trip, which leaves her with no money. One of the two men running the Wagon Train (Bill Heck) takes a shine to her – but when wanders away from the path, it is the other, older man (Grainger Hines), who follows with tragic consequences. The last story is the most surreal – and has five people sitting on a stage coach together, all heading towards a rooming house of some sort, all discussing their various thoughts and outlooks on life and death – their being a weird circular logic that brings it all back to the beginning in a strange way.
The decision to do an anthology of these stories makes a lot of sense – by themselves, there isn’t enough to fill in a whole feature in any of the stories, and really, I’m not sure any could have even filled out the hour that Netflix would have wanted for standalone TV episodes. But there’s more to it than that – as the films gradually build on each other, each telling an ugly tale of greed, arrogance, stupidity or weakness. The Coen’s view of humanity has always been bleak – the universe often seems to be stacked against their characters, who nevertheless, also author their own fates, and such is the case here – all these characters are doomed from the start, and still, do more to make themselves suffer. It’s telling that the Coens have never ventured outside of America to tell their stories – and often use the most American of genres to tell their stories. Here, they are making a Western and are fully embracing the clichés of the old West in many ways (I’m sure there will be some who don’t like the brother’s depiction of Native Americans in this film – which is understandable, because they are one note savages, but not understandable, as that is clearly the point and not meant to be taken literally). It’s a revisionist Western, but not in the way we have come to expect revisionist Western to be.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t going to win the Coen’s any new fans – if you think the brothers are smug and superior misanthropes, nothing here is going to change your mind. But it is a film that surprises in all the different ways it is able to depict America greed, violence, stupidity and self-delusion. It is a film that is very much a period piece – and very much not a period piece. While it isn’t good that the film is being released almost exclusively on Netflix – denying us a chance to see the film on a big screen, which it deserves – it is good that it’s on Netflix so we can begin watching it again and again and again right from the start. I cannot wait to revisit it.

Movie Review: Green Book

Green Book *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Peter Farrelly.
Written by: Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie and Peter Farrelly.
Starring: Viggo Mortensen (Tony Lip), Mahershala Ali (Don Shirley), Linda Cardellini (Dolores), Sebastian Maniscalco (Johnny Venere), Brian Stepanek (Graham Kindell), Iqbal Theba (Amit), Tom Virtue (Morgan Anderson), Joe Cortese (Joey Loscudo), Dimiter D. Marinov (Oleg).
I knew as I watched Green Book at TIFF this September – before the movie was even over – that this was a film that was going to be ripped to shreds by think pieces when it came out in November. This isn’t to say that I don’t think that the movie doesn’t deserve to be examined and taken to task for its view of race relations – this is a film that takes place in the 1960s, and it probably could have been made almost frame for frame in that decade, and people would still see it as old fashioned, in much the same way some at the time viewed Stanley Kramer’s Oscar winning Guess Whose Coming to Dinner? As phony and retrograde. It’s a film that functions as a kind of Driving Miss Daisy (1989) with the races switched – and hasn’t much updated the racial politics from that time either – and many even then pointed out the irony of the Oscars giving Driving Miss Daisy the Best Picture Oscar for its kind and gentle view of race relations in the same year they almost completely ignored Spike Lee’s incendiary Do the Right Thing – still the best film ever made about race in America. Some of the same complaints will be leveled at Green Book – and not without reason. In a year that has already seen films like Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman and Steve McQueen’s Widows – and soon to get Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk – it will be interesting to say the least if the Academy embraces the retro vibe of Green Book, which does nothing if not comfort its white viewers, while those other films defiantly do not.
I know all of this, and still, I have to admit that I enjoyed Green Book a great deal.  Part of that may well be seeing the film at TIFF, before too many of those think pieces were published (I assume, I’m writing this the week after TIFF, and already the criticism has heated up following Green Book’s win for the People’s Choice Award). Seeing it with a couple of thousands of people at the Princess of Wales – most of whom were likely Green Book’s ideal audience (mostly white, mostly affluent, most liberal leaning, etc.) the film played like gangbusters – each joke landing perfectly, and each subtle plea for tolerance reaching a sympathetic audience. And the two lead performances by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are so good that for two hours or so, I was able to overlook the obvious flaws in the movie, and just enjoy it. I’d be being dishonest if I didn’t cop to that.
The movie takes place in 1962, and focuses on Tony Lip (Mortensen), an Italian-American from the Bronx (THE prototypical Italian American from the Bronx), who works as a bouncer at the Copa. He knows gangsters – is perhaps even friends with them – but he doesn’t want to become one. He’s an honest guy, despite the fact that he’s proud of being a bullshitter. The Copa is closing for renovations for a few months, and he needs a job. Someone recommends him as a driver – so he shows up for an interview. Whatever he was expecting, it certainly wasn’t Don Shirley (Ali)- a highly educated, well-spoken, refined black man. Shirley is a musician, and he’s about to embark on a two-month tour of the Deep South. He needs a driver – someone who will get him to all gigs on time, and can handle any problems along the way. Despite the fact that Tony is racist – we see him in an early scene throw out the two glasses his wife serves two black repairmen lemonade in – he takes the job. It’s good money. These two couldn’t possibly be more different. You know what will happen from there.
Green Book doesn’t deviate in any way from what you expect it to do. The two start off hating each other, but as the days and weeks go by, and they spend more and more time in each other’s company, they get to know each other as people – and they start to respect each other, as they see what they have to go through. The film is directed by Peter Farrelly – one half of the Farrelly brothers, perhaps sensing that he and brothers once brilliant touch with gross out comedies has been lost (he hasn’t made a film since 2014’s Dumb and Dumber To, hasn’t made a good film since 2011’s Hall Pass, and hasn’t made one of the Farrelly classics since 2003’ Stuck on You). He brings a light touch of the proceedings here – and that is what is required. The film is basically a comedy, with some heavier moments exposing the racism of the South thrown in.
What makes the film work is the two lead performances. There is no way Mortensen should be as good as Tony Lip as he is – the character as written if basically one step above the Pizza Guy on The Simpsons in terms of being an Italian American stereotype. But he makes him sweet and lovable – even when he’s throwing out those glasses, you don’t much sense any real hate in him. He knows who he is, and is comfortable with that. Ali is even better as Shirley. It’s not the type of role I would expect Ali to play, but he does it to the hilt. If Mortensen gives the stereotype he’s playing sweetness, Ali gives the stereotype he’s playing depth – he walks into the movie, and you think you know everything about him – and you don’t. This may not be a deep role, but Ali brings it anyway.
Yes, you can complain that Green Book lets its audience off the hook – by setting the film in the past, in the South, it lets its target audience feel superior to the racist hicks on display, and lets you think that things have gotten better all because Tony Lip learns to give up his prejudices. I’m not going to argue that isn’t the case here. What I will say though is that the film is sweet and funny and deeply humane, with two great performances. I would have liked to see more depth then there is here, but taken for what it is, Green Book is an entertaining movie – the very definition of a crowd-pleaser.

Movie Review: The Front Runner

The Front Runner *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Jason Reitman.
Written by: Matt Bai & Jay Carson & Jason Reitman based on the book by Bai.
Starring: Hugh Jackman (Gary Hart), Vera Farmiga (Lee Hart), Molly Ephraim (Irene Kelly), Kaitlyn Dever (Andrea Hart), Jenna Kanell (Ginny Terzano), Sara Paxton (Donna Rice), J.K. Simmons (Bill Dixon), Courtney Ford (Lynn Armandt), Ari Graynor (Ann Devroy), Bill Burr (George McGovern), Alfred Molina (Ben Bradlee), Chris Coy (Kevin Sweeney), Kevin Pollak (Bob Martindale), Toby Huss (Billy Broadhurst), John Bedford Lloyd (David Broder), Mike Judge (Jim Savage), Tommy Dewey (John Emerson), Josh Brener (Doug Wilson), Jennifer Landon (Ann McDaniel), Mark O'Brien (Billy Shore), Oliver Cooper  (Joe Trippi), Mamoudou Athie (A.J. Parker), Spencer Garrett (Bob Woodward), Alex Karpovsky (Mike Stratton), Joe Chrest (Ira Wyman), Evan Castelloe (John Hart), Jonny Pasvolsky (Steve Dunleavy), Randy Havens (Alan Weinberg), Steve Zissis (Tom Fiedler), Steve Coulter (Bob Kaiser), Nyasha Hatendi (Roy Valentine).
Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner is about the brief Presidential campaign by Gary Hart in 1988. When he entered the race, he was the presumptive Democratic nominee, and was polling 12 points ahead of Vice President George Bush for the victory. Three weeks later, his campaign was over – brought down by a scandal because Hart couldn’t keep his dick in his pants. Reitman’s film argues that this was the beginning of the end for Presidential politics – the moment when the media started acting like the tabloids did for celebrities, but this time for politicians. In previous generations, no one in the media would even think to report on a politician having an affair – but from then on, they all would. The Front Runner tries very hard to be fair and balanced – not really arguing whether or this is, or really anything in the film, is a good or bad thing. It allows all the different characters to air their viewpoints, and essentially throws it all back at the viewer to sort out. This approach has its pluses and its minuses – the biggest of the latter is probably that even after watching the movie, I have no real idea who Gary Hart was, or what he stood for. Was a he principled guy, brought down by a zealous media, or was he a cynical politician, hiding behind principles to try and deflect from his own failings. Both?
In the film, Hart is played by Hugh Jackman, who does a good job at playing the public face of Hart – the man capable of delivering good speeches, firing back at his opponents in debates, and looking and sounding like someone you would want to be President. The film doesn’t really give Jackman a chance to do anything else though – and I think this is by design. Even though we see him aboard the boat in Miami – the Monkey Business – where he’ll meet the “girl” that would be his downfall, Reitman cuts the sound out of their conversation out before it gets going. The film isn’t interested in Hart as a person – it’s much more interested in how everything came crashing down.
The film then, is really an ensemble piece – it wants to be something akin to The Candidate (1972) or Primary Colors (1998), as directed by Robert Altman – going so far as to try and capture Altman’s trademarked overlapping dialogue in the large scenes where staffers – either campaign or newspaper – are arguing with each other. After a brief prologue in 1984 – where Hart came in second for the nomination – the movie thrusts us into 1988, just as Hart is announcing his run. By his side is his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga) – although their relationship is clearly strained (this will not be his first affair). His campaign manager is Bill Dixon (JK Simmons), a profane, old school manager who is gifted at wrangling his young staff behind Hart – but also smart enough to see what’s going to happen to Hart before he does.
The scandal gets started with an anonymous tip to the Miami Herald – that says they know someone who is flying up to Washington that weekend, because they’re having an affair with Hart. A couple of reporters for the paper decide to stake out Hart’s Washington brownstone to try and get the dirt. What they get may not be the slam dunk they hoped for, but it’s more than enough to get the ball rolling. Even the venerable Washington Post eventually gets sucked in – much to the young Post reporter’s assigned to the job chagrin.
I do think The Front Runner does several very smart things. You can tell that this is a movie made in the #MeToo era, as the film (rightfully) doesn’t just jettisoned “the girl”, Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) aside as an afterthought like happens so often in stories like this. She is portrayed as a smart, if naïve, young woman who didn’t intend for any of this to happen, but is now caught up in it anyway. One of the harshest scenes in the movie is when the Hart staffer who has befriended Donna, for the purpose of keeping her quiet, essentially throws her to the wolves at the Miami airport – knowing precisely what will happen to her, even as she assured her things would be okay. Another scene as the Post reporter assigned to Hart complaining about being a tabloid to a female co-worker, who makes the case of precisely why it does matter to the American people what Hart did – that he is a man with power, and with that power comes responsibility, and it matter if he uses that power to sleep with younger women.
And the film is, overall, very entertaining. You’d be hard pressed to find a more talented ensemble cast than the one Reitman has gathered for the film – and while many (if not most) of the cast is underutilized, it still helps to make all their scenes work as well as they do. The film runs just under two hours, and to be honest, feels a little too rushed. Ultimately, this may be a film that would have benefitted by be turned into an 8 hours’ miniseries, to better capture the ins and outs of what happened, and to flesh out the characters – especially Hart. As played by Jackman, he remains an interesting enigma. You want to know why, when the Presidency was within his grasp, he would essentially throw it all away for an affair. How someone so gifted at certain aspects of being a politician, could be so blind to what was going to happen. I don’t really know if Hart’s campaign really was the one that changed American politics forever – or whether it was just another signpost on the road to hell. But it is a fascinating story – and while The Front Runner is a decent movie, I think there’s a great one to be made here. Reitman and company just didn’t quite find it.