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GRAY MATTERS - My Review of AD ASTRA ( 3 1/2 Stars)
Over the past twenty-plus years, James Gray has established himself has a world class filmmaker with such titles as Little Odessa, Two Lovers, The Immigrant, and The Lost City of Z in which he has mastered what I like to call the calm, dreamy epic. His latest, Ad Astra, blends the slow, quiet pacing of 2001: A Space Odyssey with certain themes and plot points from Apocalypse Now and Contact, and a little Terrence Malick abstractness, yet remains a unique science fiction experience of its own.
Starring Brad Pitt as Major Roy McBride, the film, which was co-written by Ethan Gross, follows Roy on a journey through space to locate the source of a series of power surges which have threatened our planet in the not too distant future. It has been suspected that Roy's father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who has been presumed dead, is actually alive and has gone rogue, sending these surges to destroy the Earth so he can continue to search for signs of intelligent life in the universe.
The film uses a clever voiceover device in which Roy takes daily psychological oral exams to prove his worthiness for the mission. He can remain calm under the most dire of circumstances, such as in the thrilling, vertiginous opening sequence, keeping his heart rate low. He's the perfect person to find his father, since he's so disaffected. Damien Chazelle's First Man explored similar themes but left me cold, whereas Ad Astra, as lumbering and internal as it is, moved me.
We learn in flashbacks that Roy has a strained relationship with his wife, played by Liv Tyler. He can't connect or engage. His trip to the far reaches of Neptune includes stopovers on the Moon, which has been commercialized, and Mars, long stretches in which we experience Roy's isolation or watch him go through a series of tests to see if he can handle the ultimate showdown ahead. Were it not the for eerily evocative score by Max Richter, the clear beauty of Hoyte Van Hoytema's (Dunkirk, Let The Right One In) cinematography, or Brad Pitt's soulful stillness, I would have found the second act to be a huge bore. Sure it has its share of set pieces such as an exciting lunar chase sequence, a scary baboon attack, and a brief yet amusing cameo by Natasha Lyonne as a sort of Mars Walmart Greeter/harried bureaucrat, but it's mostly contemplative. The real story gets told on Pitt's face, a wellspring of emotions as he, like Willard, goes up a river of sorts to confront his own Colonel Kurtz. Basically, plotwise, you could jettison the entire second act and still have a coherent story, but then you'd miss out on a seductive, woozy film experience.
As the film moves along, it peels back the noise of its build-up to bring us a long-awaited confrontation with a Dad he hasn't seen in decades. I won't spoil what happens, but the film brings up issues of "Deadbeat Dads", the need to connect with others, or the narcissism which prevents that from ever happening. It takes a while, like space travel, but it arrives at something profound and human in the end.
Those expecting another Gravity will want a refund. It's definitely right on the edge of boring, but the craftsmanship and level of performance keeps it aloft. James Gray makes films about humans who want to push themselves to their limits to discover who they really are, and as such, he's a rarity. I'll follow his career to the moon and back…or even further. In this era of popcorn, slam bang overkill, it's refreshing to see a filmmaker and star take their time and give us something different.
Biopics have evolved in recent years favoring a specifically selected moment in their subjects' lives instead of going for the sprawling epic treatment. Consider the differences between The Last Emperor and Stan & Ollie as one example. What you lose in a comprehensive overview, you gain with more honed dramatic storytelling. The latest example, Judy, based on a play by Peter Quilter, written by Tom Edge and directed by Rupert Goold (True Story), concentrates mainly on a couple of months in 1968 as the legendary Judy Garland traveled to London for a series of sold out stage performances. Broke, addicted to drugs and alcohol, lonely and battered by a tough life, she would die six months later. Flashbacks to one of her biggest triumphs, The Wizard Of Oz, only serve to demonstrate the beginnings of her troubles.
I'm reminded of My Week With Marilyn and Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool, where the lead performance outshone everything else, and Judy certainly features an astounding turn by Renée Zellweger in what amounts to a small but heartbreaking character study. While she has the mannerisms down pat and sings well enough to bare her soul, Zellweger's achievement along with Goold's is to hone in on every minute emotion which flashes across her face. An early scene in which Judy fails to secure a hotel room for herself and her children because she has no money, proves devastating due to Zellweger's microexpressions. While unflappable with the desk clerk and putting on a brave face for her kids, she also conveys a deep-seated heartbreak, and it's an astonishing piece of acting. It's easy to see how he daughter Liza inherited her mother's smile-through-tears approach to life.
Gorgeously filmed, with a special mention to cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland (American Animals), Judy really excels during the musical numbers, where the camera work feels completely in sync with its subject. While tonally middle of the road and sometimes maudlin, the film, nonetheless, resonates for anyone who has ever felt abandoned or put out to pasture and just trying to tough it out. While Rufus Sewall and Finn Wittrock have their stern and delightful moments respectively as Judy's last two husbands, it's Jessie Buckley as Garland's London assistant and Andy Nyman as a gay fan who make true impressions in the shadow of Zellweger. Buckley, who in her young career has excelled at playing the wild child, tamps down her instincts for a much more still approach, and she succeeds in finding the empathetic core to a character in a tough situation. Nyman, as one half of a gay couple who befriend Garland for an evening, beautifully stands in for her legions of fans. In fact, their scenes together stand our more than anything else in the film, culminating in a tear-inducing climax you won't soon forget. No longer portrayed as the tragic diva, Garland gets her due as a funny, sweet, fun hangout kinda gal. Would she have been revered as much had she not lived such a troubled life? Would she have inspired the Stonewall Riots had she not died right before they occurred? We'll never know, but Judy, and Zellweger's monumental achievement, assures we'll continue to treasure this smart, talented woman.
As Maya Angelou famously said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Hustlers, the new film from writer/director Lorene Scafaria comes riddled with imperfections. It has too many montages, a few wafer-thin characterizations, plot strands which go nowhere, and some fairly low stakes drama, but man does it make you feel good. It also glamorizes fur and smoking, but it's the world of this story, so what are you gonna do? The whole is greater than the sum of its parts but this joyous ride has a couple killer performances, memorable lines, and a gorgeous pop candy look. Simply put, it's unforgettable and made me feel so, so good.
Up until now, Scafaria hasn't impressed me with Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World and The Meddler underwhelming me. With Hustlers, however, she has mastered the art of finding that sweet spot where lurid meets depth. Wildly entertaining yet with something to say about female power, it reminded me of such sensationalistic 90s films as Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Only this time out, the feminist female gaze stakes its claim on what's always been a boy's club movie.
Based on a true story, Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) stars as Destiny, a newbie exotic dancer at a Scores-like Manhattan club who gets mentored by Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), an experienced Mother Hen shortly before the 2008 financial crisis. Lopez, whose National Treasure status gets amped up to eleven here, stuns in her first big scene as she pole dances onstage. She follows this with an indelible rooftop pose in which she lies back like Faye Dunaway the day after her Oscar win (Google it. You're welcome!), takes a drag from her cigarette and invites Destiny to "Climb in my fur". Thus begins a fascinatingly complex relationship between these two women who try to make a living as the world around them crumbles.
When the market crashes and business dies at the club, Ramona can't stand the fact that these men will get away with stealing from everyone, so her revenge/survival scheme, however illegal, has a sound motive. In this pretty clever get-rich-quick scheme, one of her cohorts will befriend their mark, get him drunk, introduce him to her other friends, get a party going, drug him, and max out his credit cards. The day after, the mostly married men won't want to admit to their wives what they did, so our heroines have constructed a seemingly perfect crime. Framed by a reporter played by Julia Stiles, a retrospective interview she conducts with a hardened Destiny tells us things didn't quite go as planned.
Ramona and Destiny set this standard-issue plot apart by nature of their dynamic personalities and their touching back stories. Ramona has a daughter she adores whereas Destiny lovingly takes care of her grandmother. You really get to know these characters as layered humans and not just as sexual objects. I haven't seen this much loving detail put into a populist film since Saturday Night Fever. Wu surprises with her intense gaze and forthright line readings, revealing much more than her prior romantic comedy image. She's incredibly engaging, but Lopez dominates this film and gives the performance of her career. It's not that we're realizing Lopez is a star for the first time, but this film puts together everything we love about her - the glamour, the moves, the flawless makeup, the combination of delightful and steely, the strut, the Kardashian of it all - and delivers it with blazing power and heart. It's a great star performance.
Supporting characters, albeit fun, suffer by default. Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer, while both vibrant, get assigned one character trait apiece, the dancer who vomits and the dancer who has a husband in prison respectively. Mercedes Reuhl gets introduced as the club's Den Mother, but never develops beyond a few brush strokes. I would have loved a lot more of Madeline Brewer (The Handmaid's Tale) whose wildcard character kept me laughing and on my toes. Cardi B and Lizzo have cameos so small, they can barely pull focus away from Lopez and Wu, yet they bring a wild energy to the story. Cardi B especially makes good use of her limited screen time and gets the line of the movie when her lap dance tutorial contains instructions for Destiny to "work the clock, not the cock." Luckily, Scafaria's energetic script has tons more hilarious zingers where that came from and an epic, Scorsese feel. She's helped immeasurably by her talented cinematographer Todd Banhazl and editor Kayla Emter. Hustlers does not have the feel of your typical indie. It feels lush, generous, and despite a few too many montages, however bouncy and hilarious, it's a full meal.
Yes, the stakes could have been higher, but the soul of this film lies in the sisterhood and this powerful love between Ramona and Destiny. You root for these women even though they're doing some very bad things. The film culminates in a stunner of a line from Ramona, framing this somewhat slight but beautiful story as something more global, real and current. In the end, it's a depressing indictment of America, but when you have Jennifer Lopez giving us that message, somehow, it doesn't feel so bad.
Watch a movie closely enough and you'll notice the best filmmakers share a dialogue with the audience. Expectations get subverted. Winking nods are exchanged. A filmmaker needles, prods, pokes and manipulates. When done effectively, you may feel you've gained a new BFF. Although we've never met, I feel that way about Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich (who delivers a funny cameo here), and Billy Wilder. They speak to me.
With It Chapter 2, Andy Muschietti clearly wants to have a chat with us. He knows how to creep us out, how to get inside your head, but it feels like he's that party guest who overshares until you need to excuse yourself to refresh your drink. Get too much of him and you're bound to say, "Hey, Andy, could you dial it back a notch? You don't have to say it all now." Still, he has enough in the plus column to keep him around for a while.
I enjoyed his first It, and although I had never read the book, had a general idea of what to expect with the sequel. Twenty-seven years later, our members of the Losers Club have grown up and mostly forgotten about their childhood traumas, but Pennywise, the Dancing Clown, has returned to Derry to once again feed off of the vulnerable. Can these friends join together once more to defeat this monster or will this horror haunt them forever?
From this description and the fantastic trailer, I had high expectations for a popcorn thriller filled with scary images. Each character will once again confront their worst fears, but with the difficulty of adulthood added to the mix. On that front, it delivers handily. What I didn't expect was a graphic early sequence of a brutal gay bashing. I understand it's in the book, but reading about it and watching it onscreen may just turn out to be two very different experiences. I don't have an issue with the depiction, but the execution took me by surprise for a big studio film. It doesn't help that the scene ends with the terrifying return of Pennywise, which takes the hopelessness to a whole new level. Muschietti truly understands film as a dreamscape with the unforgettable images of Pennywise reaching towards the water, slightly out of focus, and ready to strike. Needless to say, I put my popcorn down and dreaded the next two-plus hours.
Luckily, Muschietti has the ability to keep things zipping along as Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the only one of the gang to remain in Derry, gathers everyone back to fight Pennywise. All of the adults, Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Jay Ryan, and Andy Bean, prove great matches for their younger counterparts. Hader in particular has the most dynamic role as the adult Richie, all grown up and working as a popular standup comedian. When the group meets in a fun Chinese restaurant scene, we get a great vivid sense of their bond with the added bonus of terrifying creatures giving John Carpenter's The Thing a run for its money.
At best, this film succeeds in fits and starts, much like the first one. It seems to lurch from one character's fear sequence to the next, forcing me to count down how many scenes like this we have left. Fortunately, many of these scenes have great impact, especially and under-the-bleachers scene in which a young girl meets our highly manipulative villain. Muschietti and his cinematographer Checco Varese have created a treasure trove of memorable images, such as hundreds of those dreaded red balloons descending upon Derry in the gay bashing scene, a sewer pipe overflowing with water in a clever homage to The Shining, or Pennywise holding a bunch of balloons as he floats over a giant Paul Bunyan statue. He knows how to get you to wince, such as when one character tries to pull a balloon stuck under a bed, and seconds later, you'll scream. It's delicious trickery which carries over throughout the film. It doesn't
hurt to have Bill Skarsgård back with his one-of-a-kind, viscerally detailed Pennywise. His body language and creepy vocal nuances provide an endless series of delights.
With so many characters, however, the film struggles with forward momentum. We check in with each individual and ping-pong around to accommodate this large, unwieldy cast. Everyone does a pretty good job, but Hader walks away with the film as exactly the kind of person into which the swearing, motor-mouthed Finn Wolfhard would grow. Ransone also has a field day with his tightly wound Eddie. Pay close attention and you'll also notice a gay storyline, which, in light of the in-your-face opener, didn't really need to play things as coy as it does. Perhaps it's a misguided carryover from the source material, which set the adult portion in the 80s instead of the film's modern day portrayal, but after literally hitting us over the head at the start, the latter subtleties seem a little off.
In the final act, the filmmakers choose to go big with a gigantic, apocalyptic CGI sequence which proved exhausting. Skarsgård saves the day, however, with some highly memorable facial contortions. Again, Muschietti may not have the most streamlined story or script to work with, but he does know how to etch certain moments into your brain. Even when things turn into a mushy "Hallmark Card meets Nike Commercial" type of sentimentality in its final moments, I give this film credit for some fine horror moments. Next time, I hope Muschietti gets to talk to us on a much smaller scale. I'd love to know what a quiet conversation with him would look like.
ICE QUEEN - My Review of WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE (3 1/2 Stars)
Richard Linklater, one of the most humanistic filmmakers working today, has often explored such themes as time, aging, or the benchmarks in ones lives, such as the last day of High School (Dazed And Confused), a first date (Before Sunrise), or the entire breadth of a child's life (Boyhood). His films often feel unstructured, laid back and unforced. It's strange then to see him play in the James L. Brooks/Cameron Crowe sandbox with his adaptation of Maria Semple's epistolary novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, but that's not automatically a bad thing. Co-written with Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr., Linklater seems out of his element with this part-sitcom, part psycho-drama about a stifled genius. Still, he manages to deliver a moving experience helped immeasurably by Cate Blanchett's fantastic title performance.
Bernadette lives in a dilapidated Seattle mansion with her Microsoft tech genius husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) and their adorable teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson). As a reward to Bee for a successful report card, they agree to take her on a family trip to Antarctica. Trouble is, over the years, Bernadette, a once famous architect, has transformed into a shut-in who hates people, especially taking it out on her next door neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Deeply troubled, Bernadette spends most of her time barking orders at Manjula, her virtual assistant in India, who arranges for everything to come to her door in package after package. Getting her out of the house and to the most remote place on earth seems unlikely.
It takes quite a while for the themes to coalesce, with the first act focusing on her feud with Audrey. Wiig excels with her tightly wound Mean Girl character and works well with Blanchett. I wondered, however, what this had to do with Antarctica and why we were spending so much time on this wayward plot strand. The story, however, slowly reveals itself to be about what becomes of an artist who no longer creates. She acts out, makes bad decisions, and directs her anger at everyone.
For a while, you laugh along with Bernadette as she takes out some easy targets. It culminates in a great scene in which Bernadette and Bee gang up on Audrey to take her down a peg. A lesser film would have left it at that, leaving a bad taste in my mouth to see women hurting each other. It wisely chooses to move beyond that scene and give these three women more dimensions than presented at first. Crudup also impressed me with his long-suffering husband character. He could have easily played Elgie as an entitled husband who wants his wife to "behave", but instead he offers a soulful person who loves his wife yet can't figure out how to navigate her towards happiness. Emma Nelson also excels as the kind of incredibly cool daughter you'd want to hang with as friends, but who also clearly needs a more solid foundation in which to grow.
Unlike the somewhat goofy trailer, the film has a much more somber tone in keeping with its rainy, Pacific Northwest setting. Disappointingly, it's Linklater's least flashy directing job of his career. The closest film this resembles is Ben Stiller's The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, another story about a character drowning in self-loathing. Whereas Stiller went for intense visual flourishes, Linklater merely delivers coverage. Still, I felt something here, despite a certain flatness and a ridiculous series of events involving such disparate things as penguins, FBI investigations, mudslides, kayaks, online scams, and potential office affairs. It's a LOT to take in, but Blanchett anchors it with someone cold, nihilistic, yet relatable. It may all come off as champagne problems, ("Oh darn, should we go to Antarctica?" "Did I order too many vests from the catalogue?" "That flood ruined my expensive oak floors!") but Blanchett makes you care just the same.
BUDDY SLAM - My Review of THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON (3 1/2 Stars)
Sometimes, you can tell from the opening moments of a movie if a filmmaker has "it". The Peanut Butter Falcon begins with Zak, a young man with Down Syndrome, attempting to escape from an advanced age care facility in North Carolina. He conspires with an elderly woman, who pretends to choke on her pudding, to distract the security staff as he makes a run for it. Just outside the door, he gets tackled out of nowhere, and the film cuts to black. In this sequence alone, we learn so much about our main character and the filmmaking style tells us that Tyler Wilson and Michael Schwartz have made an auspicious feature debut.
Zak dreams of a better life for himself. Despite the loving care he receives from Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a case manager at the facility, he dreams of a career as a professional wrestler. He obsessively watches an old VHS cassette of his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), hoping to one day enroll in his Alabama wrestling school.
Played by the remarkable Zack Gottsagen, Zak eventually does escape, with the help of his roommate Carl (a terrific cameo by Bruce Dern) and stows away on a small boat. Meanwhile, Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a crab fisherman, has his own set of issues. With his brother recently killed, he struggles to make ends meet, commits robbery and arson against a couple of bullying rivals (John Hawkes as Duncan and Yelawolf as Ratboy), and plots his own escape to Florida via the same boat on which Zak hides. Their chance encounter leads to a Huckleberry Finn-style odyssey as they make their way through the Deep South and form a deep bond. With Eleanor charged with finding Zak and the bad guys hunting Tyler, we have a fairly propulsive storyline yet the film finds a gentle rhythm nonetheless.
The filmmakers, along with their extremely talented cinematographer Nigel Bluck, create one incredible image after another, giving us a perfect sense of time and place. I particularly loved when Tyler eludes the bad guys, a superbly suspenseful boat sequence which expertly lets us know where everyone is and uses silence and smart film editing to tell the story. Shots of our leads sitting on a dock or sweetly patting each other on the face go a long way toward seducing the audience with its laconic yet playful tone.
Gottsagen gives a commanding, nuanced performance, never allowing his disability to turn the storytelling into treacle. He has such surprising moments of humor, loneliness and frustration. All three of those come together when he stops an impatient Tyler from marching to shout at him, "I want you to know about me!" His presence clearly had an effect on his co-stars, as LaBeouf has never been better, more focused. He and Gottsagen have such a believable, natural chemistry, and it's almost completely devoid of the cheap sentimentality which tends to deify a person with a disability. Zak can be a total asshole sometimes, and I'm so grateful the film makes room for it. Johnson also seems looser, more at ease than I've ever seen before. She gives a warm, but appropriately prickly performance.
It's ultimately a tale about three lonely misfits who yearn to connect. We go on this journey with some well-realized montages and a strong sense of purpose. Although somewhat episodic in nature, you won't soon forget the scene on the dock where Tyler confronts a mean little kid, or the flustered store owner who tallies Tyler's bill. Is it just me, or does every good movie have a flustered store owner? I'm talking to you Paper Moon and No Country For Old Men! Even the name of the film thankfully comes from a smart, unpretentious place, but frankly it had me worried. Some indies go for ponderous, impenetrable titles. The Myth Of Fingerprints, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), or Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, anyone? Luckily, The Peanut Butter Falcon mostly stays on its sweet, simple course.
Unfortunately, the film gets a little rushed and sloppy in its final act, delivering on its wrestling premise but shortchanging some of the narrative threads which could have landed the film a little more smoothly. The straightforward, generous style gives way to blackouts and fakeouts which come across as stylistic distractions. It's a minor complaint for a film with such heart, spirit and refusal to go all sappy on us.
CLUELESS - My Review of READY OR NOT (2 1/2 Stars)
The poster for Ready Or Not led me to believe a corseted Margot Robbie had opted to star in a period thriller filled with ammo, murder and mayhem. While we do get the tightly-bound dress and bloody killings, the film stars Robbie lookalike Samara Weaving, niece to Hugo Weaving, and is set in modern day. Directed by horror veterans Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and written by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy (not that Ryan Murphy), Ready Or Not offers a fun, nearly non-stop splatterfest, but operates on such an off-putting level that its obvious satirical points grow tiresome and repetitive.
Weaving plays Grace, a nice, normal woman who has said "yes" to marry Alex Le Domas (Mark O'Brien), an heir to a vast family fortune built from success in selling games. Alex's eccentric clan, none of whom exhibit anything close to real human behavior, have an odd tradition of forcing newly wedded in-laws into playing a midnight game with them. Should she survive the night, she gains acceptance into the family. Sometimes the games are innocuous, but once in a while, through an odd selection process, they choose "Hide And Seek" in which the bride must hide from everyone until sunrise in order to win. If they fail to find her, they all die. Um, ok. Sign me up?
It seems the family wealth involved signing a deal with the devil with deadly games on the menu whether they like it or not. Clearly a satire about the 1% and the lengths they go to in order to retain their wealth, the film gets points for its unshakeable nerve and Weaving's performance, but the filmmakers make the same point over and over. It's still fun and filled with laughably violent set pieces, but I couldn't help but think I was watching Drunk History, Another Period and Clue have a three-way battle and spit out enough blood to fill three Shining elevators.
The filmmakers have assembled a talented, interesting cast as the Le Domas family, including Andy MacDowell, Adam Brody, Henry Czerny and Nicky Guadagni as spiky-haired Aunt Helene, who seems to have wandered in from some 80s Duran Duran music video gone horribly wrong. At least she knows what movie she's in, whereas the rest of the cast seems a bit lost amongst its arch, quasi fantastical tone. Aside from our protagonist, you won't care about anybody else since they operate as pieces on the writers' chessboard in order to prove to us that rich people suck.
Lucky for Weaving, she gets a showcase here, allowing our potential Final Girl to swear like a truck driver and pummel people into literal bloody pulp. She does so well I can't wait to see her next film. I was actually ready to see her next film DURING this one! In a final shot highly reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic one of Winona Ryder in Heathers, one character gets to smoke a cigarette in front of a burning building and have the last word. That one word, while clever and amusing, further illustrates the type of lazy satire we've experienced for the past 95 minutes.
I don't want to come down too hard on this film, since Ready Or Not has a sense of fun and hating wealthy people seems to be all the rage these days. One note, however exciting that note is, is still one note. Even satires have to make us care about the people or else they play like essays. The filmmakers have obvious talent, but I suggest an ammo reload and trying again.
EXTRADITION -My Review of FIDDLER: A MIRACLE OF MIRACLES (3 Stars)
I played Motel the Tailor in our 5th grade acappella version of Fiddler On The Roof. We were so young, we really didn't understand the gravity of this dark story about religious traditions and ethnic cleansing, choosing instead to smile our way through the final song in which a population of Russian Jews have been turned into refugees. I mean, what business did this story have being a musical? To us, "Anatevka" had a pretty melody and you could almost dance to it. My acting style consisted of lifting my right arm up and down while singing "Miracle Of Miracles". We were 10 year olds putting on an adult-themed musical. What did we know? Still, this show has always had a special place in my heart, so when I heard about Fiddler: A Miracle Of Miracles, a documentary by Max Lewkowicz, I had to go, right? Of course, right!
Since opening on Broadway in 1964, not a day has gone by where the musical has not been staged somewhere in the world. This documentary, which features a treasure trove of archival footage, including The Tempations singing "If I Were A rich Man", explores its far-reaching appeal despite initial terrible reviews. There really wasn't a lot of drama to report, so instead, Lewkowicz focuses instead on what Fiddler has meant to the people involved in its many productions. Sure, it's sycophantic, but it's also generous in its exploration of how people of all cultures have found a universal connection with this production.
From its earliest inception, where we see its creators trying out some eventually discarded lyrics, to its legendary Broadway run and Oscar winning 1971 film, Fiddler On The Roof has always appealed to the Jewish population. Surprisingly, however, when we see productions in Japan and Thailand or in the African American community, it's relatable to all. It's so wonderfully touching to hear one African American actor geek out over the show and how much she loves theater. I also loved how one scholar compares the ostracizing of the daughter Chava, who marries outside her faith, to that of a gay kid kicked out of their family home.
The filmmaker reached out to so many people involved, giving what is ultimately a documentary for fans a more expansive overview of how art affects people. Norman Jewison, who directed the feature, hilariously recounts how everyone assumed he was Jewish because of his name, but he's not. Topol, who starred in the film, still gets choked up remembering filming certain scenes. The most moving segments, however, show us unknown actors in various countries connecting with the material. I found it disarming how relevant the story is to our current global immigration and refugee crises.
Fiddler ends up a sweet keepsake for people who love the musical, nothing more nothing less. But then again, I'm extremely biased. To this day, I still have a wind-up figurine on my nightstand which plays "Sunrise/Sunset" (see below). Yeah, it's a serious situation. To paraphrase a famous Jewish quote, "You don't have to have adored the musical to enjoy Fiddler: A Miracle Of Miracles, but it wouldn't hurt!
WHO'S THE BOSS? - My Review of BLINDED BY THE LIGHT (3 Stars)
I was really into Bruce Springsteen in the 80s. I'd rip open the shrink wrap on every new vinyl record he made and pore over the lyrics even before listening to the songs. He wrote about ordinary people who had shallow pockets but deep souls. His music, which I called a "dive bar wall of sound", had an epic, cinematic quality to it while still retaining a classic meat and potatoes style. The world may have moved on from his type of music, but with Blinded By The Light, Gurinder Chadha, who gave us the delightful Bend It Like Beckham, has delivered a crowd-pleasing film about the love of writing. While it goes a little overboard in the fan service department, its Thatcher Era immigration tale provides for a touching, breezy experience.
Viveik Kalra plays Javed, a young student whose Pakistan born parents moved to small town 1987 England to provide a better life for their children. The family patriarch, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) maintains strict control over his long-suffering wife and children. Despite wanting Javed to pursue a more practical profession, he longs for a career as a writer. One day, fellow student Goops (a delightful Aaron Phagura) slips Javed a couple of Springsteen cassettes, thus beginning his instant fandom. Harassed by neighborhood bullies and crushed by his father's domineering parenting style, Javed finds solace in the Boss' songs about escaping his oppressive confines. Chadha, who co-wrote the screenplay with Paul Mayeda Berges and Sarfaz Manzoor, splashes the screen with Springsteen's lyrics for every musical sequence, bringing us seemingly inside Javed's head.
Encouraged by one of his college professors, Javed begins writing for the school newspaper while pursuing a sweet relationship with Eliza (Nell Williams), a like-minded young woman. He also has a best friend, Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman who played Tommen Baratheon in Game Of Thrones you guys!) who plays in a new wave synth band and rejects Springsteen as an irrelevant musician only their Dads should like. I could go on with all of the various plot lines, since, needless to say, we've entered kitchen sink territory. In fact, it's all a bit much except when our characters break out in song. Chadha finds the beating heart of her film in such sequences as "Born To Run", sending all of my feel-good squishy vibes through the stratosphere by simply having her leads run down streets and sing. It's simple yet effective filmmaking.
Eventually, however, I grew tired of Javed myopically worshipping Springsteen. Would it have killed him to put on a little Bangles or Blondie? It reminded me of my Ohio high school friends who blasted classic rock 24/7. I couldn't wait to move to Los Angeles just so I could listen to The Pretenders without fear of being called a traitor. Having said that, this film does have its heart in the right place. It explores racism, culture wars, and economic hardships and does so with a very pleasing cast. As an exploration of a writer finding his voice, it rings true. What the film does best, however, is in finding the tension between the traditions of Javed's parents with his own need to escape that world. Eventually, it all leads to a predictable speech on a stage, which I found extremely lazy, especially considering all of the creative ways Chadha has found to get us inside Javed's head. All told, Blinded By The Light scores points for getting people to dust off their old Springsteen records and consider his work from an immigrant perspective. It fits right into the current craze of celebrating music icons (Yesterday, Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman) yet retains a humble style reminiscent of English films from the era it's set in, such as My Beautiful Launderette. I most likely won't remember this film in the same way, but I'll probably stop and rewatch the musical sequences whenever it streams.
THE KIDS ARE ALL GREAT - My Review of GOOD BOYS (4 Stars)
Sometimes a movie comes out and you can easily imagine the pitch which took place to get it greenlit. With Good Boys, I would guess Seth Rogen walked into the conference room at Universal, which, let's face it, is enough to get a movie made anyhow, and said five words, "Superbad Meets Stand By Me". The suits applauded wildly, told him they're in the "Seth Rogen business" and let him leave with a handshake deal and his free bottle of water. To fall prey to this conjecture, however, takes away from the pure pleasure of experiencing this surprisingly unique film.
On paper, it sounds like every other teen comedy, except the leads are tweens, so to hear them swearing constantly gives it that extra kick. It's your typical "boys lose a drone to two teenaged girls, must purchase drugs for the girls in order to get drone back, and do so in time for the big make-out party" kind of scenario. Nothing special about the plot, but director Gene Stupnitsky along with co-writer Lee Eisenberg (both writers on The Office) have given us a story about kids, who genuinely act like kids, finding their true voices. It would have been so easy to succumb to the obvious tropes inherent in the film's plot, but the filmmakers seem way more interested in capturing children way out of their league and not having the answers to everything. It proves incredibly refreshing, especially for a big studio comedy. Anybody can adhere to a strict template, but the filmmakers color outside those lines enough to deflect comparisons to any of its predecessors.
At the outset, we meet the "Bean Bag Boys", three best friends who like to ride their bikes around, play video games, and, yes, hang out on their bean bags. They talk a big game about sex, drugs and alcohol, but their youth spills out in a series of malapropisms and squeamish reactions. Their ostensible leader, Max, played by the very talented Jacob Tremblay (Room and Wonder), has a huge crush on a girl named Brixlee, and borrows his father's drone to capture footage of older kids making out so that he can learn to do the same at the big party. His pal Lucas (Keith L. Williams) has a moral compass which comprises of blurting out the truth at all costs. The third kid, Thor (Brady Noon) likes to brag about drinking beer and having had lots of sex, but at heart we know him to be a musical theatre prodigy and much more naive to the ways of the world than how he presents himself. As such, we're treated to a lot of scenes in which their bravado bumps up against their obvious inexperience. In a word, it's "delicious".
Whether they're buying drugs at a frat house or trying to cross a busy freeway, Stupnitsky stays focused on his characters. Yes, he has them scream and cry. Yes, he mines humor from anal beads and sex slings. Yes, he pings on so many teen comedy moments we've grown to love, but he always reminds us that these are very young kids. They may swear - a lot - like literally every five seconds - but they also cry, need their parents, and move on from some hard moments faster than their teen counterparts. It's through this approach where we get scenes of genuine feeling and warmth. It may teeter towards mushiness, but Stupnitsky never forgets he's making a laugh out loud comedy too.
With its shaggy plot, Good Boys feels like a hangout movie, but every scene seems to illustrate the challenge of acting older than you are, whether it's proving yourself in a beer sipping challenge or playing spin the bottle. These kids can't quite handle alcohol or even making eye contact with people they're attracted to, and these scenes prove to be gems because of such sly observations.
Much credit goes to the cast, with our three leads finding so much heart in their foul-mouthed characters. Noon, who sings beautifully, feels like a character who's coded as gay, but it's never explored outright. I half-expected a "10 Years Later" card to pop up at the end, showing us his new queer life, but, again, Stupnitsky stays true to the ages of his characters, refusing to let them seem more evolved than expected. Regardless, Noon wonderfully plays Thor as a cross between the Artful Dodger and a pre-teen version of Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind! Williams has such a wild, nerdy energy but finds real emotions in his scenes with his divorcing parents, played perfectly by Retta and Lil Rel Howery. Finally, Tremblay could have easily coasted as the ostensible romantic lead, but he displays a real gift for comedy with his wide-mouthed reactions and steady stream of "F*cks"! Put all three kids together and you have a completely believable trio of best friends. They'll outgrow each other for sure, maybe move on, but will undoubtedly grow into fantastic adults as a result of this friendship. Forget the original pitch. Good Boys seems destined to join the list of teen classic comedies as that movie that made you simultaneously do spit takes while saying, "Awwwwww".
I CAN'T STAND THE HEAT - My Review of THE KITCHEN (1 1/2 Stars)
Anybody can call themselves a film director. You yell "Action", shoot one actor over the shoulder of another, reverse it, and yell "Cut", right? It seems so easy. By that measure, Andrea Berloff is a director. By all other standards, she has no business behind the camera, proving it with her dismal directorial debut, The Kitchen. Fresh off an Oscar nomination for co-writing Straight Outta Compton, she has adapted a DC comic book series and has turned it into easily one of the worst films of 2019. This proves that just because you can direct a movie, doesn't mean you should. Ask Phylidda "Mamma Mia" Lloyd.
It all sounded promising enough. Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss as Farrah-haired, New York City 70s gangster wives who take over their for their jailed husbands and assert their street-strutting feminine power? Sign me up! The trailer looked edgy and kickass and I couldn't wait to Fleetwood Mac the hell out of this film. Then the film started. A concise and economical setup introduces our main characters fairly well. McCarthy plays Kathy, who sweetly loves her husband Jimmy (Brian d"Arcy James). Haddish's Ruby suffers stoically with a philandering husband (James Badge Dale) and a racist monster-in-law (the always solid Margo Martindale). Finally Moss' Claire has an abusive spouse (Jeremy Bobb from Russian Doll), as if the weekly suffering she experiences on The Handmaid's Tale isn't enough. Taste levels come into question immediately, however, when Berloff chooses to overlay the sequence with the overused song, "It's A Man's Man's Man's World". She may as well have thrown a #metoo chyron onto the screen, because, yes folks, subtlety and this movie won't be hanging out together.
From there, a flatness permeates every single scene. I can't blame the performances, as the actors try hard here. McCarthy wears the pain well of a dutiful wife who has sublimated her true feelings for years. She has a terrific moment where she schools her children on female beauty as just another weapon in her arsenal. Haddish eases well into drama, tamping down her wildest instincts and finding a compelling intensity, although she could dial back the glowering a notch or two. Moss finds an inner budding psychopath, easily making her the best character. Her journey from the victim of oppressive violence to stone cold killer could have existed as its own better movie. I can't blame the well-realized production design, the nicely detailed wardrobe, or even Berloff's script. Though dull and littered with holes, it's at least pinging on the highly relevant and current discussion about women finding their voices and fighting back against their oppressors. I also loved a really cool shot of someone at a phone booth getting murdered, the camera, for once, expressively booming down with him as he falls.
All of these efforts, however, suffer under Berloff's staggeringly unimaginative direction. I got the feeling she purchased a book, probably called, "How To Direct Terrible Television Procedurals From The 1980s", and only read half and said, "Let's do this thing!" Her idea of telling a story consists of center punching each actor or shooting over their shoulder, dollying alongside them, or occasionally tilting down towards an object on a table. Mostly, we watch two to three character scenes of people endlessly talking. When the trio rise up through the ranks via their protection money scheme, things of course turn violent, but Berloff either insisted on not showing much of it onscreen or she simply does not know how to shoot such action. It feels like she either watched Goodfellas once and thought she could wing it, or better still, it's quite possible she's never even seen a movie before at all. I won't call this film inept, but it's tacky, drab, and faceless.
It also squanders a fascinating premise. Our trio of female mobsters strong-arm their community and go on murderous rampages. They may treat people better than their predecessors, but they're still pretty awful nonetheless. Berloff, however, wants us to believe they're somehow good, which presents a disconnect. History has given us a slew of male film gangsters who wrestle with their terribleness, with The Godfather and Scarface leading the pack of conflicted antiheroes. In The Kitchen, our trio don't seem to question their basest instincts, giving us characters who exist as props for the larger message at hand. By the end, we're almost meant to think they're decent people who helped others with a classic pop soundtrack making it all go down so easily. What a missed opportunity to really delve into their flaws, which we merely experience in a quick moment or two.
Here and there, Berloff offers up a nice twist or surprise, and Domhnall Gleeson steals the film by literally dropping in to teach Moss a thing or two about corpse disposal. Again, it's not a terrible script and could have been decent with a director who knows about pacing, tone, editing and visceral impact. In fact, there's a really good film about mob wives who take over for their absent husbands. It has visual style to burn, complexity, and a director who has a unique cinematic voice. It's called Widows. Go see that instead.
CRIME AND PUNISHING - My Review of THE NIGHTINGALE (4 Stars)
I grew up in a feminist household. My mother, resenting the limitations of the housewife role, enrolled in college, and woke up to the manipulative and damaging effects of the patriarchy. As the youngest of eight children whose parents divvied up family chores according to strict gender lines, I saw right through the ridiculous role-playing exercises our society demanded of us. Boys would take out the garbage and mow the lawn while the girls would set the table and do the dishes. One day, one of my sisters turned to my father and said, "Dad, I wasn't born with a dishwashing gene." A light bulb went off in my seven-year-old head. She's right! My world has been turned upside down! Chores don't come with genitals! I consider myself so lucky to not have to struggle with this issue and to be able to see the world through this lens.
Jennifer Kent, who made a splash with her debut thriller, The Babadook, understands how to present feminism on film with her brutal, unblinking, unforgiving, follow-up, The Nightingale. She spares no details and never looks away in this excessively and rightfully violent revenge saga driven by female rage. Set in Tasmania, then called Van Diemen's Land, in 1825, the film drops us into the English colonization period where European prisoners were sent over into a life of indentured servitude. An Irish family, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), her sweet husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and their baby, live in service to Lieutenant Hawkins (a scarily convincing Sam Claflin), a sadistic, abusive man who refuses to keep his promise and set the family free. Forced to drudge work and occasionally trotted out in front of the troops to regale them with her beautiful singing voice, Clare begs for her freedom and suffers violently for it. Things get much worse when Aidan attempts to reason with the Lieutenant, leading Clare on a mission to seek revenge against Hawkins, who has fled North to gain a promotion.
Unable to find anyone to voluntarily help her on her quest, Clare hires Billy (first time natural Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal whose population has been enslaved or killed. The bulk of the film follows them as they risk their lives with every step through the Australian forests. Through them we experience their differing experiences of subjugation at the hands of white men. Her singing voice notwithstanding, Clare presents herself as a fierce, tight-jawed warrior throughout. Unafraid to point her gun at Billy, she orders him around in the manner so many of the oppressed have done historically. When there's someone lower in stature, humans naturally gravitate to overpower them. In this case, Clare does so for her survival. Despite their relationship growing closer as the story progresses, Clare disturbingly forces Billy at gunpoint to march in front of her when they cross paths with a group of white slaveholders. Either way, this pairing appropriately lacks even a hint of sentimentality, and the film excels because of it.
At nearly 2 1/2 hours, the film seems to drag on forever, but Kent's pacing feels intentional. She wants us to understand how hard it was/is to live as an "other" in this world. Clare's gender has left her destined to a life of violent assault whereas the color of Billy's skin has put him on the outside looking in at his own homeland, his entire culture decimated. Although careful not to equivocate the pairs' experiences, together, they form an inspiring, anger-fueled resistance. By the end, in a perfect final moment, you feel the effects of the connection they forged. Franciosi has a fierce, fearless Jennifer Lawrence quality to her acting. She's powerful, focused, unexpected and intense throughout. It's a perfect marriage of actor, director and theme, all united to convey the step-by-step agony of living in a white man's world. Ganambarr's performance feels timeless, even current as he laments the life he's lost and the beautiful society he helped create.
I didn't love The Babadook. I admired the performances and the directing, but I felt the horror elements came across a little undercooked. I wanted much bigger set pieces. Still, Kent knows how to build a sense of dread and despair with her fluid, gripping sense of style. With her new film, she abandons almost everything we've seen from her to serve this particular story. The Nightingale feels like it was made in the time period presented. With minimal camera movement and a square aspect ratio, Kent, using her cinematographer Radek Ladczuk once again, keeps things very, very simple. It works so effectively in forcing the audience to feel every moment. The violence in the film, and yes, it's horrific, goes on much longer than an audience may feel comfortable, and that's the point. Rape is no joke. Murder isn't entertaining. The sounds of a baby crying or a woman screaming or a husband pleading for his wife's life must be heard for what they are, and Kent won't let her audience off the hook. A short fantasy sequence gives us echoes of her prior film's haunting style, but for the most part, Kent employs bold, simple technique. She wants nothing to dull the impact. With these two films, Kent has established herself as a genre tweaker.
By the end, I felt assaulted, wrung out, yet still filled with a sense of hope. Despite references to The Searchers, Kent has her own unique take on a Western style story. She doesn't deconstruct them like Clint Eastwood did with Unforgiven, but she has something to say. Those in power will always try to divide and conquer. The oppressed can only overcome if they unite. We can do much better in a world not ruled solely by white men. If this sounds highly relevant to the here and now, it's no accident. The Nightingale will haunt your dreams and the waking nightmare we're all currently experiencing.
HANKS FOR SHARON - My Review of ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD (4 Stars)
As a movie lover, I've always been a little averse to writer/directors who only seem to reference other films in their work. I prefer to learn how they view things through the prism of their life experiences, not cinematic ones. Quentin Tarantino has certainly come across as a movie encyclopedia throughout his career, yet in his case, films so clearly ARE his life. He finds joy from a breathtaking set piece, a surprising turn of phrase, or that perfect marriage of visuals and music. I can easily imagine how thrilled he must have been when watching the kinetic opening sequence to Trainspotting. You can almost see him filing away a great line like, "All I want out of life is a 30 share and a 20 rating" from Network and desperately wanting to make his own mark some day. He obviously has done so, but time marches on, and while he still has a singular voice, he has publicly questioned his own desires to continue making films. With that in mind, he seems to have poured all of his angst into Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, one of the most problematic yet entertaining films I've seen in a long time on the topics of aging and relevancy.
Set gloriously in 1969 Los Angeles, the film follows alcoholic, fading star, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they try to stay afloat in an industry that has discarded them to make room for the new shiny pennies. As embodied by rising stars Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) who move in next door, Rick knows he's just one small fence and a pool party away from scoring a role in the hot director's next film. His reality, however, sees him relegated to playing bad guys in TV Westerns. Cliff, even lower on the totem pole, acts more like Rick's personal assistant than as a stuntman these days. An early scene with an old school agent (Al Pacino, overdoing the Jewish stereotype to cartoonish effect) leaves him with the option of escaping to Italy to make Spaghetti Westerns. Pacino calls them "pictures" and I'd like to propose we resuscitate that amazing term! Rick will do anything to stay in the game. Simultaneously, we intercut Rick and Cliff's adventures with that of their neighbors as Sharon and Roman drive fast, dance at parties, and generally live that charmed life where everything is still possible. I mean, wouldn't you have loved to have gone to the Playboy Mansion and get whisked away by Mama Cass or get ogled by Steve McQueen? Also, lurking in the background, we see the Manson Family ambling through the fringes of society. History, of course, tells us where all of this is headed, but Tarantino is less interested in that, staying focused on his fictional characters' dying hopes and dreams.
The story takes its good, sweet time getting anywhere. Shaggy and rambling, it reminded me of Inherent Vice in that stoner/hangout way, but Tarantino knows film structure, and what seemed random feels intentional and necessary in retrospect. Yes, had he cut out half of the shots of characters driving around to an endless array of 60s pop songs, the film would have been 30 minutes shorter, but Tarantino has gone for a fully immersive experience here. He wants you to know exactly what Los Angeles felt like at the time. We get the inky blacks of the Ventura freeway, the neon overkill of Hollywood Boulevard, and the sunny casualness of Westwood Village, and I wanted to live inside legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson's beautiful frames. Besides, we would have been robbed of a great sequence in which Cliff speeds from Rick's house to his trailer behind a drive-in theatre. He greets his precious pitbull Brandy for a long, slow, viscerally engaging dinner scene. Brandy waits patiently as Cliff plops kibble and canned food into a giant bowl. It's all so casual until you later realize everything has a purpose.
Same goes for a fantastic set piece in which Cliff picks a fight with Bruce Lee (scene stealer Mike Moh) or an extended sequence on the set of a pilot where Rick meets his match in the body of an 8-year-old co-star (the wonderfully self-possessed Julia Butters). Fosse/Verdon Emmy nominee Margaret Qualley as one of Manson's followers also makes a great impression as she continually crosses paths with Pitt's character. The highlight for me, though, gave us Sharon Tate talking her way into the Bruin Theatre in Westwood to watch herself on screen in The Wrecking Crew. I loved her innocence and pride as the audience laughed and applauded her performance. When entering the theatre, she poses for a picture with all of the goofy charm our current selfie culture lacks. In fact, I found it so refreshing that the photographer snapped the pic of Sharon alone instead of posing with her. Tarantino, in this moment, gives Sharon back to us, reframing her as a promising talent instead of as a murder victim. Robbie, despite having very little dialogue, brings a magical presence to the film. It feels like an unexpected gift.
Tarantino overstuffs the movie with tons of cameos. Some work better than others. Kurt Russell gets some laughs as a Stunt Coordinator who absolutely does not want to hire Cliff, and Dakota Fanning creeped me out as Squeaky Fromme. Many of the lesser known cast members, however, made a much bigger impression. Austin Butler gives Manson's henchman, Tex, a chilling edge, while Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich from The Sound Of Music, you guys!) perfectly captures the phoniness and transparent negotiation skills a director needs in order to get what he wants out of his actors. Talented actors like Lena Dunham, Damian Lewis and the late Luke Perry feel plopped in simply because they wanted to be in a Tarantino film. It's a lot to absorb but doesn't ruin it.
None of this would work quite as well as it does, however, without DiCaprio and Pitt's great chemistry and committed performances. DiCaprio proved in The Wolf Of Wall Street he had a gift for an over-the-top style of acting, but he outdoes himself here. Insecure and short-fused, he taps into Rick's rage and despondency yet never forgets to entertain the audience. It's a very showy piece of acting, but also surprisingly moving. Pitt adopts a more laconic style, the better to conceal his astute observations, whether it be of Rick himself or of the dangerous cult which grows insidiously closer to him. Moreover, he knows exactly how to make his scenes with his dog sing. Both DiCaprio and Pitt walk that fine line between broad comedy and genuine pathos, and do so to perfection.
With its extended length, there's plenty of time to reflect on where Tarantino's headed. The cumulative effect of all this casualness slowly reveals his central thesis, which I found disturbingly conservative yet intensely relevant. Those in power won't give up so easily. Rick and Cliff aren't going to let the young upstarts and the hippies get in their way. They intend to fight for old Hollywood, for a time when films had a classic sheen, before the 70s gave us antiheroes and grittiness, before life got messy with Vietnam, Watergate, assassinations, and yes, the Manson murders. They want to make America great again. God help us all. He may employ an overused method of his to make his point in the shockingly graphic, insane final half hour, but it still works like gangbusters and all comes together in the end. The final shot of the movie packs a quiet, lovely, heartbreakingly emotional punch.
Tarantino takes a flamethrower to the influx of the counterculture yet disguises it with a wistful nostalgia. He's tapping into a similar feeling which gave rise to our current political "leadership", yet finds something sweet at its center. Problematic messaging? Sure, but not as pointless as it first appears. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, like its title suggests, embraces a fairytale quality to make some scabrous observations about ego, about aging, and about the thirst for a seat at the table with all the newbies out there ready to take your place.
GAY PRIDE – My Review of THE LION KING (3 ½ Stars)
Ready for a hot take? I don't always love animated films. Give me the crappy cut-out look of South Park or the gloriously fluid old school Looney Tunes shorts, but otherwise, I sometimes feel like my eyes are bleeding. I don't mean to take anything away from the incredibly talented artisans who have brought so much joy and wonder to the world. It's an eyeball thing. Speaking of which, I also don't like the eyeballs on Disney characters. They're so big and round and sweet. I think I know one person in the world with eyes like that and everyone calls him Aladdin, but it's not really a compliment. Everyone else I know squints and looks dead inside. Maybe I need new friends, or maybe I'm just cranky.
All of this is to say that despite the cries that Hollywood operates at a bankrupt creative standstill, that cash grabs represent the new normal filled with remakes and reboots, and that cynical decisions only occur on days that end in "Y", I don't necessarily hate that Disney has decided to churn out "live action" versions of their classic animated films. As much as I loved the original 1994 The Lion King, a CGI, photorealistic update sounded like something I could watch without experiencing a cavalcade of onion tears. I may be alone with this strange affliction of mine, but audiences have sure turned up to see something they've pretty much seen before.
I enjoyed director Jon Favreau's update on The Jungle Book, but my expectations were truly low for this one. Using Hamlet as its template, the original film beautifully told the tale of Simba, a young lion who when banished from his pride by his evil Uncle Scar, goes on a journey to discover the importance of standing firm for those you love and realizing your destiny. The Elton John/Tim Rice songs, while sappy as hell at times, could not be more memorable, and who can resist that commanding drum beat and cut to the title card at the very end of "The Circle Of Life"? When that baboon holds Simba up to his adoring animal kingdom, it's one of the greatest cinematic moments of all time.
Yet there I sat, expecting the worst. Had I hated the film I was going to title my review, "The Circle Of Lifelessness". I expected a pointless remake with expressionless creatures moving their lips to dialogue, but what I experienced instead, while problematic in terms of pacing issues and one particularly not great vocal performance, truly entertained and delighted me. The Lion King 2.0: No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) not only provided me with a more palatable way to view the same story, but it updated it just enough to make it a little more relevant and a whole lot gayer.
Ok, if you're one of those millions of moms who don't have a gay child, or don't know anyone with a gay child, or you're just a closed-minded, out of touch gorgon, you need to calm down. The new film isn't outwardly gay, but much like placing Paul Lynde dead center on Hollywood Squares or Charles Nelson Reilly in the top right tier on Match Game, The Lion King has traded in a perfectly wonderful and gay Nathan Lane as Timon the Meerkat for the truly hilarious, scene-stealing and equally gay Billy Eichner. It's the equivalent of going from Will & Grace's Jack to Bianca Del Rio of Rupaul's Drag Race fame. The quips feel way more 2019 -more biting, nihilistic, dystopian, the world is ending, in a Years And Years is so dead-on kind of way! And yes, even though Timon and his BFF warthog friend Pumbaa (a perfect Seth Rogen) aren't technically a ‘shipworthy couple we would call Timbaa, make no mistake, Timon is a gay homosexual and Eichner gives one of the best vocal performances I've heard in ages. Evidently, he improvised many of his lines, including my favorite as he arrives at a Pride Rock which has been left barren by Scar and his pack of hyenas, "Talk about a fixer-upper. I think you went heavy on the carcass." I think Queer Eye's Bobby Berk should start taking notes! All of this is to say that Eichner elevates what could have been the draggy second act of the film and sends it into the comedy stratosphere.
The pacing, at times, does suffer. Without the benefit of jaunty animation, watching animals traversing the savanna gets a little cumbersome, and the facial expressions of the characters don't carry emotions in the same way. I actually preferred the new version. I had no problems deciphering their feelings, and, in fact, I found their edgier looks a better match for our current mood. It's as if the animals, no longer living in a pre-9/11, pre-Trump world, know we humans have messed everything up and they're deadly serious and seriously pissed off. Welcome to The Lion King 2.0: The Larry David Version!
As for the performances, Eichner and Rogen aside, we also get a strong turn from John Oliver as Zazu, the flittering hornbill. Chiwetel Ejiofor, while no Jeremy Irons, makes Scar a terrifying Iago, although his famous, "You have no idea" moment doesn't work as well here since the original was a callback to Irons' unforgettable line in his Oscar winning Reversal Of Fortune. James Earl Jones returns as Mufasa, because nobody can ever replace him. Do you hear me, Morgan Freeman? Nobody! Not even you! And you're the Voice of God! Beyonce acquits herself quite well as Nala, as does Shahadi Wright Joseph as the younger version. Young Simba couldn't be more adorable and heart-melting. Try not to go "Awww" when he attempts his first roar. JD MCrary exudes utter cuteness here, especially during his number, "I Just Can't Wait To Be King", but then, unfortunately the movie flatlines when Donald Glover takes over as his grown-up counterpart. He sounds half asleep and fairly bland in the big duet, "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" or whenever reciting lines. I'm suspecting it's an actor's choice to internalize the guilt and shame Simba experienced as a toddler and turn into a self-serious, lumbering bore, but it's not enough to sink a film with such fantastic moments as "Hakuna Matata" or the on-the-beat stomping we revel in during "The Lion Sleeps Tonight".
Technically, the photorealism may resemble a National Geographic special, but with better lip-syncing, yet I did find myself missing the darker qualities of the glowing-eyed hyenas and the elephant graveyard from the original. The wildebeest stampede looks real, which somehow isn't half as scary as a hand-drawn interpretation. We get more daylight in the new film, making me yearn for the inky blacks of animation. In either version, however, we enter quasi-religious Aslan territory when Simba speaks to his dead father in the clouds. That kind of corniness doesn't quite land the way it did in the early 90s.
Despite its flaws, it's a stirring, impressive film. It may not have the most urgent reason for existing in that it pretty much trades in one kind of beauty for another, but Billy Eichner is worth the price of admission alone. Timon may ping on the same old gay best friend character tropes we've known for so long, but it's still a fresh take. He may yell a lot, but he infuses it with kindness and some genuine affection for his big, dopey friend Pumbaa. We could all use a little more Billy in our lives right now.
FINE CHINA - My Review of THE FAREWELL (3 1/2 Stars)
The first thing you see in Lulu Wang's touching, entertaining The Farewell is a card that reads, "Based On An Actual Lie". Some of my favorite films and shows have explored the cost of lies, including All The President's Men, Election, and the recent HBO miniseries Chernobyl. Wang's film, while firmly in the popular entertainment camp, explores death and a conspiracy of lies. Still, it remains a comedic drama despite its somewhat dark premise.
Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians) stars as Billi, a Chinese-American writer who lives a lonely, broke existence in New York. Her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin) live nearby but seem worlds apart from their struggling daughter. Billi seems closest to her Grandmother called Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), who lives in China and doesn't know she's due to die from lung cancer in a few months. The family agrees that it's better that she remains ignorant of her prognosis. Instead, they cook up a premature wedding of a cousin as an excuse to gather in China to say their goodbyes. Nobody wants Billi to come, however, because she's much less capable of hiding her emotions than the rest, thus potentially blowing their ruse.
It's a fine setup for a comedy of errors, but Wang, who based the film on her own experiences, digs deeper. She's interested in family dynamics, cultural differences, and that intangible quality which brings people together. Filmed mostly in Wang's hometown of Changchun, a sprawling industrial metropolis of over 7million people in Northeastern China, we enter the city through Billi's eyes as her cab takes her past one giant Communist bloc apartment building after another. Despite the drab exteriors, life bustles inside Nai Nai's home filled with her sister, Little Nai Nai (a very funny Hong Lu), her self-involved partner, and may others. Something always seems to be cooking on the stove and Nai Nai keeps active by attending medical appointments, chatting lovingly on the phone with her granddaughter, climbing her apartment stairs, or loudly practicing Tai Chi.
When Billi arrives unannounced, the rest of the family, including her parents, brace themselves for their planned coverup to go awry. Clearly saddened by the impending death, Billi blames it on jet lag and checks into a nearby hotel. It's here where we meet a bellhop who can't stop asking Billi about life in America. Insisting it's different, not better or worse, the film's themes crystallize here, showing a culture that sees the value in lies. They get us through our tough days. They sometimes make things easier, or make people feel good. We're not so different in the West, especially nowadays. A standout scene between Billi and her Uncle features him hammering home the need for her to keep up the deception, the repetition of their back and forth creating a wonderfully absurdist tone. An earlier joke about bracing someone for a fall pays dividends throughout as well.
The plot of the film remains quite simple. Everything leads up to the wedding, a terrific, extended 2nd Act set piece in which many drink away their problems, leaving the audience concerned if anyone will spill the beans. While moodier, more textured, and with something new to say, The Farewell sits firmly in the My Big Fat Greek Wedding camp. It resists political commentary, keeping its focus on a crowd-pleasing sensibility.
Awkwafina, in her first leading role, brings a loose charm and a surprising amount of warmth to the film. I've often felt that comedians make great dramatic actors since their humor usually comes from trauma. Awkwafina certainly has the goods and made me care about her predicament. Shuzhen Zhao works beautifully with her, giving us a Grandmother full of life, opinions, and an unpredictability. Many think of life in China as an Orwellian existence, yet she shows us a vibrant, exciting side to it. I think I'd like to hang with Nai Nai for as long as possible. This duo makes us believe in the power of such relationships. Nai Nai passes something along to her Billi, which gives us its literally breathtaking final moment. The Farewell won't change cinematic language, but by opening us up to a clash of cultures we don't often get to see and by showing us the beauty of a lie, it just may change you.
THE WALKING DEADPAN - My Review of THE DEAD DON'T DIE (3 Stars)
Right from the very beginning, writer/director Jim Jarmusch quickly established himself as the voice of deader than deadpan comedy. So what better genre for him to tackle this time out than an all-out zombie flick? Unfortunately, after years and years of undead stories, The Dead Don't Die comes off as an amusing trifle at best, and too little too late at worst. Although patently unmemorable and tonally odd, I had a great time watching it.
By assembling a huge cast, most of whom have appeared in his earlier films, Jarmusch gets to coast a little knowing that his actors already understand his style. There's the added bonus of including a young pop star into the mix, causing me to marvel, "Wow, Selena Gomez gets major points for liking Jim Jarmusch films!" Now, despite having very little to do, she can add street cred to her list. In fact, this film is the cinematic embodiment of street cred.
In the small American town of Centerville, Police Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) notice a series of strange occurrences, such as watches stopping, the sun not setting, and their local vagrant, Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) starts shooting at them from his lair in the woods. The film's title song, a catchy country ditty by Sturgill Simpson, seems to come on the radio whenever anyone turns it on. Ronnie even refers to it as the theme song for the movie we're watching. These odd events and meta-references can only mean one thing…it's the zombie apocalypse!
Soon, the Officers meet up with fellow cop Officer Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny) and investigate an increasing number of gore-filled attacks. Peterson clocks it right away upon seeing two half-eaten corpses. It's the work of zombies, or "ghouls", as he calls them, giving us the best pronunciation of a word in movies in 2019. Into the fray comes Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton), who wields a katana sword on a level with The Bride from Kill Bill and Michonne from The Walking Dead. I'll leave her purpose unspoiled, but once again, Swinton brings her otherworldly talents to a film, and we're all grateful.
The film feels like a bunch of set pieces strung together and lacks any real momentum as far as its plot is concerned. What elevates this tried and true material is Jarmusch's deadpan approach to every single moment. Prior zombie films, dating back to George Romero, have already explored the idea that the living, blinded by our own narcissism, our consumer culture, or our stupidity, are the real undead, so Jarmusch really only brings his distinctive style. Luckily, he's great at it, and has Murray and Driver especially well-equipped for the job. They know exactly what movie they're in with every delicious pause and laconic line reading.
Much of the fun also comes from the stuffed cast, providing us with Love Boat/Poseidon Adventure flashbacks every time we spot another face like Carol Kane, RZA, Iggy Pop (who already looks like a zombie before all the special effects makeup), Rosie Perez, Steve Buscemi (who has cornered the market on playing distinctive jerks), Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, and my favorite sighting, Eszter Balint, the star of Stranger Than Paradise, as, what else, a sassy waitress named Fern. Another Jarmusch stalwart, Sara Driver, delivers some fantastic body language as a coffee loving, post-punk zombie. I could have done without the frequent references to the fact that the characters know they're in a movie and discuss the process, but I still laughed nonetheless. Sometimes a cheap joke is still funny.
Technically, the film feels appropriately low key. Expect more blank stares than bloodshed, and that's the point. His longtime cinematographer, Fred Elmes (Paterson, Broken Flowers), keeps things basic, and gets to make something silly for a change. This film doesn't contain the indelible images he's given us over his great career, but it shows he, and everyone else, can also relax and just give us a fun, dorky movie.
Jarmusch, for his part, seems more interested in how humans react to a crumbling society than in any action sequence, which are all fairly modest. He's speaking to the sleeping giant we've become, anesthetized to the overload of trauma we experience on a daily basis anymore. We're all a little dead inside, and if we don't start chopping things off at the head, we'll never survive.
CHUCK IT - My Review of CHILD'S PLAY (2 Stars)
On paper, Aubrey Plaza in a reboot of a 1988 horror classic sounds like a match made in that forbidding recess of hell I'd love to visit. Who's darker? The deadpan goth chick or the murderous doll? I don't know, but I couldn't wait to find out…and then I saw the movie. Child's Play gets a perfunctory update just so the storyline can include things like apps and drones, but at its core, it wishes so hard that it was actually made in the 80s that it ends up feeling redundant. It should have just stayed in the box.
Things start offensively enough when a disgruntled Vietnamese factory worker, furious that he's just been fired, deactivates the filters on one of the Buddi dolls, taking away his filters which prevent him from swearing and, oh yeah, murdering people. In the original, a psychopath dies and takes over the soul of an innocent toy, but, hey, it's 2019 Trump's America, so why not go the whole xenophobic route and blame the ills of mankind on an Asian person? Still, I'm willing to go with this concept under the guise that the movie aims to be worldly instead of racist…which is a stretch but there's still 88 minutes left of this dumb film, so I gotta hang my hat on something.
Of course, our Buddi doll ends up in the hands of a consumer who returns her defective present to Karen (Plaza), who works behind the counter at a Target-esque superstore. Karen, the single mother of young Andy (Gabriel Bateman), wants to make her son happy but doesn't have enough money to buy him much of anything, so she blackmails her terrible boss into letting her take Buddi home. Andy, of course, renames him Chucky, who, through the use of modern computer technology, collects massive amounts of data on anyone or anything around him. Cue a series of red-eyed, knife-wielding, bloody killings…repeat until you can't take it anymore, and you pretty much know the rest.
Director Lars Klevberg and writer Tyler Burton Smith clearly have an affinity for the 80s aesthetic of the original, so much that they seemingly repeat most of its tropes, including a lighting scheme composed of colorful filters, a sequence in which our hero "locks and loads" his ammo in preparation for battle, a damsel in distress, and an animatronic doll who gets busy with a knife and a limited series of maniacal facial expressions.
Our leads do well enough with their underwritten roles, although maternal instincts don't quite sit well on the hilariously nihilistic Plaza, creating an emotional void in the story. I think she enjoys the campy aspects, but she tends to make the capable Bateman do most of the heavy lifting while she seemingly and silently judges the bad movie in which she stars. Bateman possesses more than a whiff of Henry Thomas's E.T. energy, but it's in the service of fairly pedestrian set pieces. Amidst all the slicing and dicing, the filmmakers give the audience one genuinely funny, splatter moment involving a kid, making me wish it had the balls to lean more heavily in that direction. Instead, we get some ho-hum mother/son dynamics and a lazy satire of consumerism gone bad.
Although Mark Hamill has a great time as the voice of Chucky, I didn't like the look of the new doll. With his too-smooth mullet and glassy-eyed expressions, he didn't scare me as much as the original did. Gabby Gabby and her ventriloquist dummies from Toy Story 4 still win the chillingly creepy award, leaving all the Chucky's and Annabelle's in the dust. Child's Play doesn't so much feel like a reboot as much as the same boot. If you love 80s nostalgia, and the success of Stranger Things tells me many do, then go watch the tons of fun things actually made in the 80s. We're living once again in a "What's old is new" era, but in this case, what's new feels old. I'd like to exchange it for the original, please.
MARVEL'S EUROPEAN VACATION - My Review of SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (3 Stars)
One of the advantages of hating all things superhero is that I don't have to take part in those "bro-ey" discussions that usually begin with, "Dude, did you see what Thanos did to civilization? I can't wait for the next 40 installments!" I tend to go blank when I'm with a gaggle of gays who think movies begin and end with all things Marvel. Isn't there one other gay who seeks out the works of Pawel PawIikowski and Michael Haneke? Please! Slide into my DMs!!
I totally understand that studios need their big tentpoles to prop up the rest of the industry, but I just can't with the dense lore, the Halloween costumes, the CGI third act destruction, the lack of nuance, and the fact that I can never remember anything I see from these films. Can't we just reserve fantasy and fighting for the bedroom where it belongs? I do, however, have a soft spot for Spider-Man. He's just a kid, standing on top of a spire, telling us he loves saving the world. I thoroughly enjoyed Sam Raimi's original, which did such a fantastic job of letting us feel Peter Parker's fear and excitement when he discovers his powers. I loved last year's animated Into The Spider -Verse, thinking that this style was the perfect fit for the genre. I thought Spider-Man: Homecoming from 2017 had fun with its John Hughes-style teen comedy disguised as a comic book movie. Tom Holland, Zendaya, and national treasure, Marisa Tomei, all brought a lively comic energy to their characters, and the film wasn't just a giant spectacle or quip machine.
So I can't say I approached the new one, Spider-Man: Far From Home with any sense of dread, but I also only went because a friend from breakfast asked me along. The film, directed by Jon Watts, and written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, has a lot of laughs, a lot of fun, and yes, a painful third act in which things blow up real good. It does, however, have an up-to-the-minute ending which pings on the fake news era in which we currently reside, and any film series which ends for the second time with a main character shouting, "What the f*ck?!!" before smash cutting to black gets a few bonus points. It's their signature line and I'm here for it.
Since I don't regularly travel through Marvel's Universe, my friend kindly caught me up on some blip which occurred which wiped out half of civilization only to return them five years later. Couldn't they just have ditched the whole superhero thing and made this about Peter Parker's very confused, very mixed-age Senior Class? Give me Spider-Man: Back From The Future now, please! Anyhow, Peter and company take off for a whirlwind trip to Europe, with Peter trying to leave his costume behind so he can just relax in places like Paris and London and make googly eyes with MJ. I enjoyed all of the high school comedy elements, with Jacob Batalon returning as Peter's BFF, Ned, who finds instant love with Betty Brant (Angourie Rice, all grown up from The Nice Guys and Tracy Flick-ing the hell out of her uptight co-ed role). My big question was, where the hell is Josie Totah (formerly J.J. Totah from Other People and Champions) from Homecoming? Always a welcome presence, I missed her "get it gurrlll" sass in this one.
Of course, the good vs. evil has to rear its ugly head in Venice when this giant, swooshy thing destroys gondoliers and canals, only to be destroyed by a laser-y, scuba helmet-wearing superhero named Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal). Welcomed into the fold, he befriends Peter, who has been given EDITH, the late Tony Stark's powerful sunglasses, which have untold powers. Imagine if SIRI had anti-glare capabilities and you'll get the gist. Together they try to stop further destruction and mayhem, and…this is when I stopped caring. It doesn't help that Gyllenhaal and superhero movies aren't quite a good fit. He looks spectacularly uncomfortable in his garb and the script stiffens up this usually loose, limber actor.
Still, this film has its pleasures. Samuel L. Jackson, as usual, gets the best lines as the irascible Nick Fury. Martin Starr (Silicon Valley) and J.B. Smoove (Curb Your Enthusiasm) do HBO proud as the adult chaperones on this adventure, and, you guys, Peter Billingsly (Ralphie from A Christmas Story) is a grown-assed man and is worth keeping an eye on here. Zendaya, in full Aubrey Plaza deadpan mode, won me over, especially when she unwillingly takes a shaky-cam ride through the city with Spider-Man. Stick around for the usual 6 endings buried in the final credits, because these moments feature a welcome cameo and what I'm gathering is a game-changing reveal. Hell, the proper ending to the film changes everything without all those hidden scenes.
Tom Holland, so earnest and fast-talking, keeps things grounded in a way that sits with me better than the non-stop meta-comedy of the Deadpool and Guardians of The Galaxy films. He's playing a real character here, and I especially loved his heroic actions in the sequence where he doesn't don the costume. He comes across like a mix between James Bond and Marty McFly. More costume-free antics, Marvel!! In fact, in my head, I've erased the mind-numbing action scenes and reformatted this into Sixteen Candles: That Time Across The Pond.
HOW SWEDE IT IS - My Review of MIDSOMMAR (4 Stars)
Getting dumped sucks. Sometimes you feel it coming on like a slow moving train, unable to stop it, and when it hits you, you experience a long, drawn out kick to the gut. The world feels incomprehensible, nothing makes sense, and you feel like it never will again. You can't avoid the pain, and you may not even want to anyhow. It's like watching a horror movie where you don't want the protagonist to go in that basement, but you have a stronger urge to see what's down there. Ari Aster, who made his startling debut last year with Hereditary, understands that the best horror plays with real human fears, be it disease, abandonment, or loss of control. Reportedly based on a painful breakup of his own, his MIDSOMMAR uses folk horror as the spine on which to lay down his thoughts on a dying relationship, and it's a delicious, morbidly funny, gore-filled, visually stunning, gorgeously designed, perfectly indulgent 2 hours and 20 minutes of sun-dappled, rainbow colored dread.
Dani (the captivating Florence Pugh) experiences a tragic loss at the outset of the film, and her paralyzing grief wears down her emotionally incapable boyfriend Christian (Jack Raynor, whose schlubby stoner look from Sing Street has morphed into an almost Chris Pratt level of matinee idol looks). Encouraged to cut ties with his needy girlfriend by his fellow grad students, Christian and his friends plan a summer getaway to Sweden to attend a once in a lifetime cultural festival. His friends include Mark, a quip machine played to deadpan perfection by Will Poulter (Detroit), Josh (William Jackson Harper of The Good Place), an anthropological scholar intent on writing his thesis about European folk culture, and the gentle, soft spoken Pele (Vilhelm Blomgren), who invites everyone to his village commune for their once-every-ninety-years activities. Unable to cut ties with Dani because of her trauma, he half-heartedly invites her along, and to his surprise, she says yes.
This first act perfectly captures a pair in their death throes, where questions seem like accusations, and pauses reveal underlying truths. Aster borrows heavily from Roman Polanski, as he did with his debut film, by allowing negative and offscreen space and holding onto shots longer than normal, to create elastic tensions. It's so refreshing to watch a filmmaker, who creates strong, classic frames with his cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, take his time, avoiding the rushed cutting style of his contemporaries. He also really thinks through his transitions, creating an unforgettable one where Dani, in an overhead shot, rushes into an apartment bathroom, only to reveal that she's now on an airplane headed for Scandinavia. I also savored the delightfully disorienting upside-down shots of the road as the group drives toward their destiny.
Now most filmmakers, at this point would want to get to the gore and bloodletting, but Aster wants us to live with that sinking feeling for as along as possible. So before our doomed Americans arrive at the proper camp, they stop just outside of it for an extended interlude where they imbibe hallucinogenic mushrooms. This allows Dani, a bundle of uptight, frayed nerves to perhaps chill out, but it has the opposite effect. She has scars, and Pugh takes us on a master class of expressions. Is she crazy or is she simply with a guy incapable of giving her what she needs? Ahh, relationships can suck, even in a seemingly perfect environment where the sun barely sets and the villagers offer up the perfect embodiment of an ABBA tune. Most horror films take place in the dark and freak us out with their jump scares. This film operates in bright sunlight and terrifies with very few shock tactics. Sometimes a misunderstanding can haunt your dreams more than someone shouting, "Boo!" Here we get a Swedish death cult that looks like a lot of ridiculous fun.
Obviously this experience has far more to offer than maypole dances and giant feasts. Henrik Svensson, making his feature debut as a Production Designer, has created the weirdest, most ominous storybook environment with an endless array of folk paintings lining the walls of his interiors. They look cute until you take a harder look at the terrifying and carnal tales they depict. Same goes for everything going on in the background of most shots. The pleasant folk dress in white, classically Swedish garb, almost sprinkling fairy dust wherever they go, but look off in the distance and you'll spy couples doing inexplicable things. The genius of these scenes is that these people, called the Hårga, always appear to be kind and caring. From their point of view, they never do anything wrong. Bobby Krlic, who goes by the name The Haxan Clock, adds immeasurably to the tone of this film with his rich, evocative score.
Aster mines most of this folk horror from the fact that we have a clash of cultures who don't understand each other and often nod their heads to pretend that they do. When something unexpected, something insanely disturbing and gory, happens, it had me questioning our American norms versus those in other parts of the world.
At this point, many may feel the film stretches credibility, that our protagonists would get the hell out of this place right away. But due to Pele's sweet persuasiveness and maybe in small part to those drugs they keep imbibing in every cup of that mysterious tea, they stay. Besides, we get an audience surrogate of sorts with an English couple who go crazy when the pagan rituals start to have a body count. While many characters meet their doom, we're on Dani's journey, who travels from grief towards her own method of coping. Aster may have a great time staging the bizarre rites of this cult, but he's more interested in finding a catharsis for his heroine. Where he ends up, in that perfect final second, proved thrilling and strangely real. The violence, the crazy shots of throbbing, undulating meats, the Hannibal level of murder dioramas, however, will also stick in your head.
While this film pings on the may themes found in Rosemary's Baby, such as not really knowing your partner, suspecting an evil undercurrent lies beneath the people around you, and, yes, even drinking strange liquids, Aster reverses the roles at times and has a more avenging spirit. This film would make a great triple bill with that film along with the recent remake of Suspiria. The latter really felt similar when things go absolutely bonkers in the third act. With copious amounts of nudity, sex, and bloodshed, both films use giggle-inducing absurdity to create its own form of horror. You won't soon forget what one character does to another's butt, and I'll just leave it at that.
Many will lose their patience with this film, or find it more silly than scary. I, however, loved every drawn-out minute of it It challenges how we view death. It allows for the possibility that it's sometimes ok to be alone. It makes you wonder if our own customs make any sense, and it may make you think twice about judging the basket case who seems to suck all the energy out of a relationship. In the end, that person may be the only sane person in the room. And isn't that terrifying?
GABBY GABBY HEY - My Review of TOY STORY 4 (4 Stars)
Sometimes a film concept reeks of studio development people sitting around a room using such industry lingo as "What are the stakes?" or "We really need to lean into the diversity aspects of this story". With Toy Story 4, directed by Josh Cooley, who co-wrote Inside Out, you can almost hear the suits asking, "This time, could the toys have more agency?" Well, despite my having an instinct for how the sausage was made, this film is as wonderful and joyous as its predecessors, and it's also hauntingly scary at times.
When we meet up with Woody (national treasure Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and company, little Bonnie keeps all the toys in her room as she prepares for her first day at school. Woody hardly gets played with anymore, but he only wishes to please his owner, who one day comes home from class with a spork she rigged with pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks and eyeballs to form a toy named Forky (Veep's Tony Hale). Forky, however, thinks he's trash and quicker than you can say existential crisis, he constantly hurls himself into garbage pales. Bonnie's parents decide to take everyone on a road trip, which goes haywire when Forky jumps out the RV window to say, "Goodbye cruel world!" Forky makes a great nihilistic anarchist!
Sidetracked, Woody chases Forky down in an antique shop, which leads to a series of adventures for our toys and causes them to question their place in the world. In the past, they lived for their children, but after three films, it's time to change things up and give the toys the aforementioned "agency". In the store, Woody reunites with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who leaves the nest at the beginning of the film. It's here they encounter some of the best creations I've seen in this franchise with Gabby Gabby (eerily and perfectly voiced by Christina Hendricks) leading the pack. She's an old fashioned classic doll straight out of the 1950s, and her good cheer and kind round eyes belie something altogether sinister. She's pushed around in her baby carriage by a series of ventriloquist dummies whose frightening stare and noteworthy shuffle will give me nightmares for years to come. Let's just say that Annabelle has nothing on this group. Gabby Gabby wants something from Woody, and it becomes increasingly clear that she always gets her way.
I won't spoil the rest of the story, because it's so much fun to get caught up in and enjoy. I loved the new characters such as a Canadian daredevil named Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), as well as Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key), a hilarious pair of carnival toys who can't wait to escape their fate of hanging on a game board wall. I also loved Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki), who has a loud voice for such a tiny package. Some of the returning characters, unfortunately, get a little lost in the shuffle, such as Joan Cusack's beloved Jessie. Bo Peep seems to dominate in the strong woman department here, and it's a shame, because, like Tom Hanks, I consider Cusack to be a national treasure too! Buzz doesn't truly emerge until about the halfway point, but his inner voices storyline proves delightful and on theme with this story's desire to give the toys a bigger role in their own fates.
Unlike the epic Toy Story 3, this installment harkens back to the first one with its much simpler structure and humble narrative. It gets frenetic in the last act, which seems par for the course for any studio film, but it retains its heart and purity throughout. I'll admit to crying towards the end, which I've done with the other three, because these films act as Boomer/Gen X Nostalgia Generators. We watch these films with fond memories of toys with pull string voice boxes and revel in their simple beauty. The shine on the porcelain doll faces alone gave me the feels. The animation here thrills. I've always loved the concept of toys coming to life when their owners aren't present and falling limp when they are. The original trilogy felt like a complete set, exploring a world of subservient toys. Toy Story 4, thankfully, doesn't phone it in and actually has a reason to exist. Many of the toys make tough choices and play a role in choosing their own adventures. If it ended here, it would complete an immensely satisfying series, but I'd be kidding myself if I said I wouldn't want to see Gabby Gabby and her dummies in a children's horror spinoff!