KAJILLIONAIRE (2020)

September 24, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. A single month with new releases from both Charlie Kaufman (I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS) and Miranda July, is almost enough to make this movie lover forget for a moment that we are suffering through a global pandemic, raging forest fires, and the most obscene presidential campaign of my lifetime. Ms. July is an absurdly talented writer and filmmaker, and it’s her first feature length film since THE FUTURE (2011). Prior to that, she served up ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW (2005), and has a unique way of displaying her strange life observations. She and Kaufman are masters of quirk, and excel in twisting our minds.

Evan Rachel Wood stars as Old Dolio Dyne, daughter of Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (an unrecognizable Debra Winger). This is an oddball family of petty crime con artists who live in a run down, unused office next to the Bubbles, Inc. factory. And yes, they make bubbles in the factory … bubbles that seep through the walls into the office where this family sleeps. One of their scams is on the landlord (a surreal character himself) who has to explain to an always-negotiating Robert that “rent is an installment”.

The first part of the film allows us to get to know the family members. We see them pull off stealing mail from a neighboring post office box, and returning stolen goods for the reward. Ms. Wood stays attired in an oversized green track suit jacket, and has lowered her speaking voice by an octave, adding impact to her monotone liners. She’s socially awkward, and likely on the spectrum as she seems to be the smartest of the bunch. Daddy Robert is a control freak and has an emotional disability in regards to California earthquake tremors. He and Theresa show no signs of affection towards each other or Old Dolio.

An airline baggage scam results in the family meeting Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), an eager to join the grifters woman, whom Old Dolio sees as her replacement as both a daughter and partner. Jealousy ensues. Melanie is contrasted to Old Dolio by her bubbly personality, and by a wardrobe that is significantly more revealing than a tattered track suit. Old Dolio watches uneasily as Melanie is soon receiving the attention from Robert and Theresa that their own daughter craves.

The second half evolves into a film not so much about cons or heists (the film admits it’s no OCEANS 11), as about family dynamics. The twists and turns find Melanie helping Old Dolio break free of parental over-control in order to experience independence … and pancakes. Learning about warmth and affection from “normal” families is eye-opening for her, and sometimes a little confusing for us to follow.  Who is scamming whom, and when are they telling the truth?

Miranda July has created a crime-drama-comedy (dark comedy), with plenty of space to let the characters and dialogue breathe. “I’m Mr. Lonely” by Bobby Vinton kicks in periodically, and the score from Emile Mosseri (THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO) complements it well. On the heels of last year’s team of family scamsters in PARASITE, this shaggy group has never met a swindle they wouldn’t try. And they never expected it to backfire with their own daughter. The divide between those who like the film and those who don’t was pretty clear after Sundance, and Miranda July will likely never be one to appeal to the masses. But for those of us who connect with her oddball way of seeing life, we appreciate the focus on what makes a family of outsiders click … especially when a superb performance from Evan Rachel Wood drives the film.

watch the trailer:


MISS BALA (2019)

January 31, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. One of the reasons I so enjoy movies is that I can usually find some positive to latch onto, even if most of the project fails to connect or generate much interest. Such is the case with this latest from director Catherine Hardwicke (the excellent THIRTEEN, 2003). Actress Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”, ANNIHILATION) is a joy to behold as she navigates her way through one perilous situation after another.

Ms. Rodriguez plays Gloria, a southern California resident whose particular set up of skills are utilized in her work as a makeup artist. Gloria drives across the border to Tijuana in support of her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) who is competing in the Miss Baja pageant. Their fun evening at the nightclub goes horribly wrong as evil-doers storm the club attempting to assassinate the director of the pageant. During the mayhem, Suzu gets kidnapped and Gloria proves for the first time (of many to come) that the film should have more accurately been titled “Miss Antibalas”. No matter the size of the shootout – and there are many – there are no bullets for Miss Bullet (Bala being Spanish for bullet).

Of course that’s not a spoiler because even in the trailer, it’s quite obvious that this remake of director Geraldo Naranjo’s 2011 Mexican movie sets out to become yet another action franchise. As a PG-13 film, it softens the edges from the original and seems to target younger viewers, possibly an attempt to empower teenage girls. It’s a worthy mission despite the disappointing execution of the first feature film screenplay from Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer.

Gloria’s attempts to rescue Suzu find her caught in a tug-of-war between Mexican crime lord Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova, “Ray Donovan”) and the DEA task force led by Matt Lauria playing an incompetent agent. Given today’s political climate, bad guy Lino is presented as half-American and half-Mexican to quell any cries of racial stereotyping. Also appearing are Aislinn Derbez (daughter of Mexican movie star Eugenio Derbez) as Isabel, another woman caught up in Lino’s web; and Anthony Mackie in an all-too brief two scenes that seem to play into the previously mentioned franchise hopes.

Corruption, drug smuggling and human trafficking are rampant throughout. I have no personal knowledge of whether Tijuana is the lawless frontier presented here, but the focus is really on one woman’s ability to find her backbone – her inner strength – in a never-ending stream of dangerous situations. Despite the material, Ms. Rodriguez manages to hold her own and flash star quality. She is likeable and tough. On the other hand, Ms. Hardwicke’s choices beg for second-guessing – from the cheesy shootouts to the lame and too-obvious musical choices (especially at the film’s conclusion). She has certainly proven herself capable of better as a filmmaker, and will undoubtedly do so again.

watch the trailer: