AARDVARK (2018)

April 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The feature film debut from writer/director Brian Shoaf benefits from the talented cast he has assembled. I do wonder about his initial “pitch”. The film opens with barely-there lighting as we watch a zoo-based aardvark borough through his tunnels. We can only assume prospective producers were not clued into such an oddball opening scene. Of course as the film progresses, the tie-in becomes obvious – maybe too much so.

Zachary Quinto stars as Josh, a young man who tries to take ownership of his issues by scheduling sessions with Emily, a therapist played by Jenny Slade. See, Josh has a bad haircut, some type of undiagnosed psychosis, and to top it off, his very successful older brother is back in town – an event causing much consternation for Josh (and soon for Emily as well).

We are never really sure of Josh’s mental illness or affliction, but we do know he has visions and hallucinations. The most serious of these are when he imagines his brother has morphed into other beings/characters just to mess with him. Much of our time is spent trying to discern who is real and who Josh is imagining. When Craig, his polar opposite brother, actually appears, it turns out to be Jon Hamm. Emily then proves herself to be the world’s worst therapist as she begins sleeping with her patient’s brother – the source of his anxiety.

Emily admits to a history of man trouble and poor judgment in this area. It turns out she and Josh are both lonely souls, and charming actor-brother Craig may be the key for both of them. Along the way, Josh befriends Hannah (Sheila Vand from the terrific A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT) and they seem to bond (in spite of Josh being Josh). Of course, we are left to ponder if Hannah is real or not – at least until the film’s final scene.

There is a running gag here that Emily is not a doctor, but rather a licensed practitioner. It appears to be the only real attempt at humor outside of having one of the Sonic commercial guys bump into Emily on her morning jog. Mental illness and loneliness are subjects that require a deft touch, and though director Shoaf seems to be striving for quirky, his film desperately needed to push the envelope much further. This one comes off just a bit too simple and clean. The best line in the movie, “I miss the things that weren’t there”, also sums up the feeling most of us will have after watching this one.

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READY PLAYER ONE (2018)

April 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While there is a massive target audience for Steven Spielberg’s return to fantasy adventure filmmaking, I am most certainly not part of that esteemed group. Although I very much enjoy throwbacks and tributes, I haven’t touched a video game controller in 3 decades, and of course have not read Ernest Cline’s popular novel – the source material that inspired Mr. Spielberg to veer from his recent heavy dramas (the exception being THE BFG). Still, being a movie lover, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the project.

Seemingly a match made in Virtual Reality heaven, we get one of the premier fantasy filmmakers joining forces with a screenwriter (Zak Penn) who has had success with comic book adaptions, and a bestselling first novel from a geeky author. Fascinating to watch, the film plays like Mr. Spielberg’s $175 million personal toy box.

There is a story, though one could argue it exists solely for the purpose of pushing the visual FX envelope. A Steve Jobs-type guru named Halliday (Mark Rylance) designed a 3-part contest of skill and strategy with the grand prize being full control over OASIS – a virtual world that allows the players to be anyone or anything they desire. Since Halliday’s death, most people in this dystopian future of the year 2045 spend their waking hours immersed in OASIS. Some use it as an escape from their bleak lives, while others are attempting to solve the mysteries of the 3 keys.

Set in Columbus, Ohio, which we are informed is the fastest growing city in the world (why??), there are two factions vying for the grand prize: true gamers/gunters and megacorporation IOI being run by corporate villain Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). Tye Sheridan (MUD) stars as Wade Watts, whose avatar is Parzival, one of the more thoughtful characters. Olivia Cooke (THOROUGHBREDS) plays Ar3mis, a rebel gunter (egg hunter) out more for revenge than victory. They are part of a group of misfits who label themselves ‘High-Five’, even though Parzival gets left hanging every time.

Near non-stop action and relentless pacing result in a whirlwind of lights and colors and visuals that are mixed with more 1980’s pop culture references than anyone could possibly catch in one viewing. As a primer, you should brace yourself for a key role from THE IRON GIANT (1999), as well as various appearances and nods to TRON, BACK TO THE FUTURE, Freddie Krueger, Chucky from CHILD’S PLAY, the Holy hand grenade (Monty Python), the infamous Big Foot monster truck, a speeding DeLorean, the 1960’s era Batmobile, that hideous A-Team van, Christine from CHRISTINE (1983), John Hughes, King Kong, BEETLEJUICE, and a personal favorite, Buckaroo Bonzai. It’s also a kick to see the Rubik renamed Zemeckis Cube. The most stunning sequence for this old geezer was the virtual recreation of Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980), especially the focus on Room 237. It’s these kind of nostalgic injections that prevent it from coming across as an overblown CGI spectacle with VR goggles.

Others in the cast (more time as voices than real people) include Lena Waithe (“Master of None”), TJ Miller as a bounty hunter with some of the film’s best one-liners, Simon Pegg as Halliday’s former business partner, and Phillip Zhao as Sho. Surely you’ve figured out that this one isn’t about the cast. OASIS is where your imagination rules and Easter eggs are driving plot lines. Alan Silvestri takes over the music from usual Spielberg collaborator John Williams, and delivers one of my favorite references (and one of the oldest) in the film – WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971). Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski must have been exhausted by the time filming was complete, though we can’t always tell what was filmed and what was created in the lab. Spielberg is a master manipulator when it comes to nostalgia, though we can’t help but wonder if he is making a statement with this being the next evolution as our society becomes ever-more-involved with their phones and personal devices. At least maybe some kid will leave this film with a greater appreciation of research.

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FINAL PORTRAIT (2018)

April 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Geoffrey Rush is such a uniquely talented performer that I wouldn’t hesitate to walk into any of his projects with little hint as to the subject matter. He is simply that good at what he does. Here he plays renowned Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti, a man Rush seems destined to play given their quite similar physical appearances. It’s a 90 minute joy ride (though it’s not really joyful) for anyone who enjoys watching an artist work … or in this case, an artist working as an artist.

Writer-director Stanley Tucci is best known for his acting career, and he also has an eye for the camera and clearly admires Giacometti and his work. Set in 1964 Paris, most of the film takes place in Giacometti’s shabby little compound that includes his studio and a bedroom he sometimes shares with his wife Annette (Sylvie Testud). Occasional forays take us to his favorite café, or walks through the city by his latest portrait subject, the American art writer James Lord (Armie Hammer). In fact, the film is based on Mr. Lord’s memoir “A Giacometti Portrait”, which details his experience posing for the master … a task that was originally promised to last a couple of hours, and turned into 3 weeks.

Also appearing are Tony Shalhoub as Diego, the artist’s brother and assistant, and Clemence Poesy (IN BRUGES) as Caroline, a local prostitute who also serves as Giacometti’s muse. It’s a fine and talented cast, but this just as easily could have been a one-actor play. Rush plays the lead as a typical artist in shambles – one who cares as little for relationships as he does about money, clothes and appearances. He’s perpetually rumpled with mussed hair and a dangling cigarette being his sole accessory.

He is both charming and miserable, sometimes in the same breath – unwittingly pitting his forlorn wife against his more pampered muse … never more obvious than when comparing gifts of a new dress versus a new BMW. Much of the time on screen is spent in the daily ritual: adjusting the chair just so, Lord sitting down and assuming the pose, an artistic gaze cast, followed by the careful selection of a particular brush. More often than not, Giacometti mutters an “Ahh F***”, and proceeds to start over (and over and over). An honored yet frustrated Mr. Lord is forced into numerous flight reschedules, as time means nothing to an artist.

Director Tucci shoots through the smudged window panes more than once, and when Giacometti tells Lord, “I’ll never be able to paint you as I see you”, it really captures the tortured madness and brilliance of such an amazing artist. He doesn’t see the world the way most of us do, and that’s what sets his art apart. Of course the personal toll on the man and those around him is quite high … Giacometti passed away less than two years after the Lord portrait.

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BLOCKERS (2018)

April 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Teen sex comedies exploring new boundaries are a Hollywood tradition. ANIMAL HOUSE (1978), PORKY’S (1981), AMERICAN PIE (1999), and SUPERBAD (2007) all pushed the limits of decency for their era, and provided varying levels of laughter while doing so. In her directorial debut, Tina Fey protégé Kay Cannon (“30 Rock”, PITCH PERFECT franchise), offers up what has been called the first “Feminist teen comedy”, and the risqué humor is far more extreme than that of its predecessors noted above.

We have become quite accustomed to the all-too-common male-centric perspective in these types of movies, so kudos to director Cannon for taking a look from the other side: a Female-centric teen sex comedy. Co-writers Brian and Jim Kehoe unfortunately try to cram too much into what should mostly be a laugh-a-thon. We get the #SexPact2018 from 3 high school senior best friends who agree to lose their virginity on prom night. We get the far-too-involved parents trying to prevent that from happening. We get those same parents dealing with the pending empty nest syndrome, while those three friends are immersed in drugs, alcohol and sex talk. If that’s not quite enough, there is also a sexual identity awakening and a hotel party more extreme than you would find in Las Vegas.

Leslie Mann plays Lisa, the helicopter single mom to Julie (Kathryn Newton). WWE star John Cena is Mitchell, the overprotective dad and life coach to Kayla (an outstanding Geraldine Viswanathan); and comedian Ike Barinholtz (“The Mindy Project”) is Hunter, the estranged/absentee/banished dad to Sam (Gideon Adlon). Julie envisions the perfect romantic encounter, while Kayla just wants to be done with it, and Sam is still trying to figure out why she isn’t so attracted to boys.

Riffing off of the “one wild and crazy night” theme, prom night is chosen by the three amigas, and what follows is outrageous and periodically hilarious. Most of the humor comes courtesy of the parents on the ill-fated ‘blocking’ mission. The story bounces from heartfelt emotions of parents to ‘butt-chugging’ at a party. There is also a car explosion, felony breaking and entering, and projectile vomiting. Perhaps there is an overuse of hulking John Cena crying, but that’s less cringe-inducing than the role-playing of Gary Cole and Gina Gershon (parents of one of the girl’s dates).

Setting the story in Chicago allows the filmmakers to take on the conservative Midwestern attitudes toward sex, while also providing a teenager with the “I’m getting as far away as possible” (UCLA) comeback. It makes sense that SUPERBAD co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are Producers, as this film often feels like the female cousin to that 2007 film. Hannibal Buress has a small memorable role, as does Jimmy Bellinger, as fedora wearing Chad. The real standouts here are relative newcomer Geraldine Viswanathan, and John Cena, who previously has excelled with less screen time (DADDYS HOME 2, TRAINWRECK). Many will be offended on numerous occasions, and certainly most parents will be uncomfortable with the drug use and sexcapades of teenagers. However, the theater was often filled with boisterous laughter, proving that this is what constitutes contemporary cinematic comedy. Only you can decide if you are OK with that.

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BIG FISH & BEGONIA (Dayu haitang, China, 2018)

April 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Animated films from Asia will likely always draw comparisons to the films of Oscar winner Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese master storyteller behind Studio Ghibli and such animated classics as SPIRITED AWAY, PRINCESS MONOKE, and THE WIND RISES. Some may find it curious to mention Miyazaki when discussing a project from two first time Chinese filmmakers, but their work here is so impressive, the comparison is justified. Not only that, it’s quite clear Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang have studied the master’s work and are believers in his style.

As with any animated film, success can only be had when both the look and the story hold our attention. Supposedly the film took 12 years to complete, and with its intricate weaving of Chinese culture and tradition, and the dreamy visuals, we understand why. While I don’t begin to understand the many references to Chinese mythologies and legends, and most of the classic Chinese literary characters are new to me, the movie has a spellbinding effect that draws us in and leaves us fascinated.

On her 16th birthday, Chun partakes in a rite of passage that involves spending 7 days in the land of humans. See, Chun is from a magical parallel world where “the others” control the human world seasons and tides. And we all know that if one is going to have control over another world, it only makes sense to have a basic understanding of that world and its inhabitants!  Chun is transformed into a red dolphin and shoots through a portal into the land of humans. It’s there that she is saved by a boy, whose courageous act costs him his own life when he is caught in a vortex. Chun is determined to deliver his life back to him … remember, she is from a magical world.

The story really takes off from here and becomes an adventure filled with love and sacrifice. We are told “Some fish aren’t meant to be caged, because they are meant for the sky”, and it’s not until the conclusion that we fully understand. Chun’s mission has her crossing paths with both the Keeper of Good Souls who lives with more cats than anyone should, and a creepy Rat Lady who is the Keeper of less fortunate souls and commands an army of rats for her dirty work. This game of cat and mouse between the two factions of soul-keepers is but one of the many webs of intrigue presented in the story.

As you would expect, these two parallel worlds collide and Chun, her friend Qui, and the hero human who is resurrected as a small fish named Kun are all at the center. Chun must protect Kun for his soul to survive, and this puts her in conflict with her own family who prefer the tradition of keeping the two worlds separate.

“Without happiness, what’s the meaning of longevity?” This quote is at the heart of Chun’s passion, and in fact, also drives her friend Qui to go above and beyond. A debt to be paid sprinkled with love and attraction adds a personal touch to the otherwise fantastical proceedings. Though the visuals are splendid and enough to keep us engaged, it’s the convergence of sky and sea – and Begonia flower power – that move this from a fancy cartoon into a story with depth and meaning. Remarkably, it’s the first film for these two filmmakers, though I do hope we mustn’t wait a dozen years for their next.

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ISLE OF DOGS (2018)

March 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s referred to (sometimes affectionately, sometimes not) as Wes World. Many directors have their own style, though few are as immediately recognizable as a film by Wes Anderson. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, MOONRISE KINGDOM, FANTASTIC MR FOX, THE ROYAL TENNEBAUMS, and RUSHMORE all share a tone and style … a cinematic personality, if you will, that places them squarely in Wes World. Beyond the similarities, there is also a level of innovation and creativity in each of his projects. He consistently delivers a “Wow” factor, or in the case of his latest, a “bow-wow” factor (my one and only pun, I promise).

Expanding on the stop-action animation he used in FANTASTIC MR. FOX, director Anderson also plays homage to Japanese filmmaking – especially the animation of Hayao Miyazaki and the cinematic legend Akira Kurosawa. The film’s prologue, “The Boy Samurai” is a Japanese fable and sets the stage for a futuristic Japan where the Mayor of Megasaki, Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), has decreed that all dogs should be banned from society due to dog flu, snout fever and canine saturation. Kobayashi (an embittered politician who looks eerily similar to Japanese acting legend Toshiro Mifune) even ships off his nephew’s beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber) to Trash Island. In Part 1 “The Little Pilot”, that nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin) crash lands his plane on Trash Island while attempting to rescue Spots.

Part 2 (“The Search for Spots”), Part 3 (“The Rendez-Vous”), and Part 4 (“Atari’s Lantern”) break the story into segments, but the real fun here is in the visual effects and the banter amongst the dogs. The five main dogs we follow are Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Chief is a stray dog who is the group skeptic and doesn’t hesitate in greeting most anyone with “I bite”. We know this because director Anderson explains “Barks are rendered in English”.

While assisting Atari with his search, the five dogs alternate between gossiping and decision-making by committee … spouting one-liners that are consistently funny and incisive. Anderson co-wrote the script with Roman Coppola and his frequent collaborator Jason Schwartzman. Kunichi Nomura provided expertise to ensure the Japanese segments were accurately portrayed. The usual Wes-style droll humor is evident throughout, though viewers must make sure their hearing is fined tuned to catch some of the wise-cracks that almost seem like background noise at times.

In addition to the humor, political corruption and conspiracies are at the core of what could be described as an animated rescue adventure comedy. Narrator Courtney B Vance ensures we are following along with the story, although the artistic beauty of Trash Island – a garbage strewn wasteland – is enough to hold our interest. Keeping track of the homages is challenging enough, but we also get Haikus, Puppy Snaps, and Yoko Ono as a scientist. Greta Gerwig voices Tracy, an idealistic Foreign Exchange student who recognizes a corrupt politician when she sees one, and there are a couple of brilliant noirish scenes between Chief and Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson). A recurring visual of dogfights in a cloud of dust harken back to the days of classic cartoons and the unbridled violence that we’ve always found so comical in animation.

It’s a dystopian tale … well it is if you happen to be a dog. Cat lovers probably view this as paradise. An all-star cast of voice actors keeps us interested even when the story bogs down at times, although the look of the film always seems to be priority one. It’s such an easy movie to respect, however, one that’s a bit more difficult to speak passionately about. This review doesn’t address the ever-present complaints from those looking to create a race or nationality based scandal. To me, the film is creative and appears to be against unkindness and discrimination and corruption. Perhaps that message overrides some easily ruffled feathers.

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BIRTHMARKED (2018)

March 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Billed as a comedy, the movie will leave most viewers wondering wherefore art the laughs. Filmmaker Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais and his co-writer Marc Tulin aim high with a grown-up level look at the trials and tribulations of parenting – complicated here by a science experiment gone awry.

Matthew Goode plays Ben, the son of a long line of renowned scientists, and Toni Collette plays Catherine, the daughter of two noted physicists. The two nerds (a term of admiration) meet in graduate school, fall in love, and hatch a plan to conduct a revolutionary sociological scientific experiment. In 1977 they convince an arrogant and glory-seeking rich guy named Gertz (Michael Smiley) to fund an experiment with a premise that boils down to their intention of settling the nature vs. nurture debate once and for all.

Ben and Catherine plan to take their biological son Luke and turn him into an artist, while at the same time raising two adopted kids contrary to their genetic heritage. Maya, born into a family of “nitwits” will be raised as a Brainiac, while Maurice, born into a violent household, will be developed as a pacifist. It’s an interesting set-up that also includes Russian athlete Samsonov (Andreas Apergis) as their live-in caregiver/nanny, and Mrs. Tridek (Fionnula Flanagan) as Gertz’s well-meaning assistant.

The story jumps ahead to 1989 when Gertz arrives for the 12 year check-up and evaluation. When he deems the children to be “average”, Ben and Catherine are devastated. Gertz threatens them with bankruptcy if the experiment isn’t successfully expedited so he can publish the desired results. Mrs. Tridek also functions as the narrator who fills in the gaps with some details that might ordinarily leave us a bit confused.

Predictability rears its ugly head in the final act, and the film slips into more traditional cinematic story-telling and characterizations. Emotions and greed are the natural responses to the deception that has occurred, and while the adults leave us disappointed, it’s at this point where the story finally shifts to the kids and we get to see the winner in the nature vs. nurture battle. Where the film works best is in its look at just how powerful and overwhelming parenting can be, regardless of the brain power and intentions one brings to the situation. Toss in some greed and the power of biology, and the final analysis can’t be shocking, even if the film itself doesn’t quite live up to its premise.

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