A KID LIKE JAKE (2018)

May 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Hot societal topics often become fodder for new movies, and this usually results in a slew of similar stories – some good, others not so good. Currently, discussions of gender identity is second only to Trump-bashing in terms of media attention, and so we can expect Hollywood to rush-to-production in order to capitalize. This latest from director Silas Howard had a timing advantage as it was adapted by writer Daniel Pearle from his own play.

The titular Jake is a 4 year old (his 5th birthday party plays a role) who enjoys fairy tales and dressing like a princess. His stay-at-home mom (Claire Danes as Alex Wheeler) and psychologist father (Jim Parsons as Greg Wheeler) are aware of Jake’s preferences, but as with most things in their marriage, what minimal conversation occurs is of the over-the-top arguing type. The “issue” is painfully and awkwardly brought to the forefront as the parenting couple subject themselves to the Private Pre-School application process.

The challenges of parenthood, including judgmental friends and relatives, and the competitive nature of comparisons, are beyond obvious in most every scene of Act 1. Even Alex’s (probably not coincidental that her name is gender-neutral) mother (Ann Dowd) is passive-aggressive in her judgments of Alex quitting her job as a lawyer to stay home with her son. Octavia Spencer co-stars as Jake’s teacher and counselor to the Wheelers during the application process, and even her role has a twist designed to elicit more judgment and discrimination.

There is really nothing convincing throughout the film. It’s barely Lifetime Channel material, with a simplified emphasis on the difficulties of raising a non-conforming child. The incessant arguing amongst parents, family members, and friends makes each successive scene more annoying than the previous. The film should have been entitled “Parents Like Jake’s” because Jake has almost no screen time, while Ms. Danes flashes her “Carrie cry-face” (for “Homeland” fans) incessantly.

Certainly the topic of gender identity and non-conformity is worthy of discussion and analysis, as it has entered mainstream conscience in less than one generation. Anxiety and confusion exists, and even well-meaning conversation can take a wrong turn quickly. We just need – and deserve – better guidance than this film provides.

watch the trailer:

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THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

December 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Recent release JUSTICE LEAGUE is filled with superheroes, but filmmaker-extraordinaire Guillermo del Toro finds his league of misfits and outcasts to be much more interesting – as do I. The numerous possible descriptions of this movie are all accurate, yet alone, each falls short: a fairy tale, fable, monster movie, unconventional romance, sci-fi, cold war saga, and commentary on societal misfits. What is also true is that it’s a gorgeous film with terrific performances, and it pays lovely tribute to the classics.

A government research facility in 1962 Baltimore is the setting, and “The Asset” being secured and studied is an amphibian man that was captured in South America by a sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and his electric cattle prod. Now the military, and a 5-star General played by Nick Searcy, is in charge. The lead scientist played by Michael Stuhlbarg certainly has a different agenda than the military, whose focus seems to be more on preventing the Russians (closer than you think) from stealing the asset than in actually seizing the rare scientific opportunity for advancement.

While all the ominous and clandestine government operations are being conducted, a member of the nighttime cleaning crew – a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) – makes a very personal connection with the fish man through nutritious snacks, Big Band music and sign language. This is the enchanting portion of the story and is admittedly (by del Toro) inspired by the 1954 classic CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (a personal favorite of mine). Elisa and the amphibian man experience a romantic courtship not unlike what we have seen in many other love stories … that is, if you overlook the amphibious being that makes up half of this couple. In fact, “going with” the story is crucial to one’s enjoyment. Sit back and let the magic and wonder and fantastical nature of del Toro’s imagination sweep you away – just as it has done for Elisa.

There are many elements of the film worth exploring, and it’s likely to take another viewing to capture many of them. The band of misfits is comprised of the fish man (Doug Jones), Elisa (Ms. Hawkins), Elisa’s wise and wise-cracking co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Elisa’s neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay graphics design artist. These are the nice folks/beings who make up the world that seems to be run by bullies and predators (sound familiar?). There is even a religious debate here as it’s mentioned that the creature was treated by a God in his natural environment, and a brief discussion is had over what might a God look like. All of the actors are superb, and Miss Hawkins delivers her second knockout performance of the year (the other being MAUDIE).

“The future” is a central theme of the story, though Elisa is most focused on now – how to find some happiness in a world that has been so challenging. Elisa realizes she and the creature are more similar than not, and she feels his pain each time the power-hungry Strickland (Shannon) pops him with the electric cattle prod. There is an ethereal beauty (and yes, sensuality) to the scenes with Elisa and the amphibian man, and it even leads to a terrific song (“You’ll Never Know” by Renee Fleming) and dance dream sequence. In addition, you’ll notice many nods and tributes to classics such as Mr. Ed, Dobie Gillis, Betty Grable, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple, and Carmen Miranda singing “Chica Chica Boom Chic”. It’s also no accident that the apartments of Elisa and Giles are located directly above a palatial old movie theatre that is struggling to make ends meet. All of these pieces are tied together as Mr. del Toro honors the art forms he so adores.

For those who enjoy such detail, it should be noted that the color green plays a huge role throughout the film … the water, the creature, the uniforms, the furniture, the walls – even the Jello, the pie and Strickland’s (teal) Cadillac. The use of color ties in the ever-present mythology, and the theme of meanness and power versus kindness and love.

Cinematographer Dan Laustsen adds to the magical feel with his camera work and lighting that perfectly complements the characters and tone. Oscar winning composer Alexandre Desplat delivers yet another spot on score that not only syncs with story, but also the numerous classic songs included. Guillermo del Toro is one of the most creative and inventive contemporary filmmakers, and though this one may fall a tick below his masterpiece PAN’S LABRYNTH, it is sure to dazzle and mesmerize those who give it a chance … and let’s hope there are many who do!

watch the trailer:


GIFTED (2017)

April 6, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The “right” choice isn’t always obvious. Things get more complicated when even the “best” choice isn’t clear. Place a young child at the heart of that decision tree, and the result may yield emotional turmoil and an abundance of moral high ground and judgment. Such best intentions are at the core of this latest from director Marc Webb (his first feature since 500 Days of Summer) and writer Tom Flynn.

Frank (Chris Evans) is raising his 10 year old child prodigy niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) in low-key small town Florida. The circumstances that brought the two of them together aren’t initially known, but are explained in a poignant moment later in the film. Frank has been home-schooling Mary and now believes it’s time she transitions to public school for the socialization aspect … “try being a kid for once” he urges. Of course, Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate, Obvious Child) immediately realizes Mary is special, and just like that, the wheels of the educational system are in motion to explain to Frank why they know what’s best for Mary … a high-fallutin private school where she can be all she can be.

There is a really nice and enjoyable story here of Uncle Frank dedicated to doing what he thinks is best for bright and charming and spirited young Mary, but it all comes crashing down when the bureaucrats, and ultimately Frank’s mother (Lindsay Duncan), get involved. When the adults can’t agree on the best route for Mary, a courtroom battle ensues. Ms. Duncan gets a witness scene reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, and her overall performance stands in effective stark contrast to the warm fuzzies of Mr. Evans.

The supporting cast contributes nicely, though Octavia Spencer’s role as kindly neighbor Roberta is more limited than it should be, and the love connection between Evans and Ms. Slate could have easily been omitted – but she is so pleasant on screen, that we don’t mind at all. Glenn Plummer and John Finn are the attorneys who go to war, and Fred the one-eyed cat also gets plenty of screen time. But there is little doubt that the movie really belongs to the effervescent Miss Grace. She nails the back and forth between kid and genius, and we never doubt her sincerity.

Child prodigies have been explored through other fine movies such as Little Man Tate, Searching for Bobby Fischer, and Shine, and while this one may run a bit heavier on melodrama, but it’s worthy of that group. The best discussions after this movie would revolve around what’s best for the child. Should she be deprived of “higher” education in order to live within a more “normal” social environment? Are any of the adults more interested in their own ego than in what’s in the child’s best interest? Home school vs public school vs private school is always good for some fireworks, and everyone has their own thoughts. So how do we decide who gets to decide? Does a parent get the final say on their child – even if their motivations may be in doubt? Should every kid be pushed to their academic – or artistic – or athletic – limits? The questions are many and the answers are complicated. There is a great line in the film that itself is worthy of conversation: “You got on the bad side of a small-minded person with authority”. Yikes. Even Cat Stevens’ great song “The Wind” can’t soften that.

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HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)

December 21, 2016

hidden-figures Greetings again from the darkness. The space program has created many iconic images over the years: rhesus monkeys in space suits, the Mercury 7 Astronauts press conference, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin erecting a flag on the moon, and numerous Space Shuttle missions – some successful, others quite tragic. We’ve even been privy to cameras inside the space station and the NASA control center. Despite all of that, director Theodore Melfi’s (St Vincent, 2014) latest film uncovers a part of history of which most of us knew nothing.

Adapted from the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film stuns us with the story of the “Colored Computers” … the African-American female mathematicians who manually checked and cross-checked the endless calculations, formulas and theories required to launch a rocket into space and bring it (and the astronaut) back home. It’s a crowd-pleasing history lesson and an overdue tribute to, and celebration of, three intelligent women of color who played crucial roles in the success of the American space program

We first meet a young Katherine Johnson as a child math prodigy whose school can’t provide her the challenge she needs. Next we see her as a bespectacled adult (Taraji P Henson) on the side of the road beside a broken down car with her friends and co-workers Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (musician Janelle Monea). They are on their way to work at Langley in the computing department. Dorothy is the ad hoc supervisor of the group and is in a non-stop battle for the title and increased pay that comes with the job. Mary is the razor-tongued one who is striving to overcome all of the obstacles on her way to becoming the first female African American Engineer at NASA. These are good friends and smart women caught up in the racism and sexism of the times and of the organization for which they work.

Soon, Katherine is promoted to the Space Task Group run by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). This is a group of true rocket scientists, and Katherine is charged with checking and confirming their work … a thankless job for anyone, but especially for a black woman in the early 1960’s. Her supervisor (Jim Parsons) refuses to give her the necessary security clearance – huge portions of the work are redacted, making it increasingly difficult for Katherine to run the numbers. This is a seemingly accurate and grounded portrayal of racism in the workplace. At the time, racism and sexism were mostly woven into the fabric of society … it’s “just the way things are”. It’s almost a passive-aggressive environment with separate coffee pots and restrooms clear across campus.

There are numerous sub-plots – probably too many. We even get an underdeveloped romance between Katherine and a soldier named Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, so great in this year’s Moonlight). We follow Mary as she goes to court in pursuit of the right to take the engineering courses required for her certification. We see Dorothy with her kids, as well as her ongoing head-butting with her condescending supervisor (Kristen Dunst), who claims to have nothing against ‘you people’. Dorothy’s response is clever, crowd-pleasing and a reminder that this is an air-brushed version of reality … but also a view that we rarely see. As the Mercury Project progresses, we note how Harrison (Costner) is so focused on getting the job done, that he is oblivious to the extra challenges faced by Katherine – that is until her emotions erupt in a scene that will have Henson under Oscar consideration.

The slow implementation of the first IBM mainframe is important not just to NASA, but also to Dorothy and her team. They see the future and immediately start self-training on Fortran so that they are positioned for the new world, rather than being left behind. Eye-opening sequences like this are contrasted with slick mainstream aspects like no slide-rules (not very camera friendly, I guess), stylish and expensive clothing for the underpaid women, and a steady parade of sparkling classic cars in vibrant colors – no mud or dents in sight. Sure, these are minor qualms, but it’s these types of details that distract from the important stories and messages.

The film does a nice job of capturing the national pride inspired by the Mercury project, and astronauts such as John Glenn (played here by Glen Powell, Everybody Wants Some!!). It even deploys some actual clips and captures the pressure brought on by the race to space versus the Russians. There is an interesting blend of Hans Zimmer’s score and the music of Pharrell Williams that gives the film a somewhat contemporary feel despite being firmly planted in the 60’s. This mostly unknown story of these women is clearly about heroes fighting the daily battles while maintaining exemplary self-control. It offers a positive, upbeat and inspirational message … believe in yourself, and don’t pre-judge others. Don’t miss the photos over the closing credits, and don’t hesitate to take the family to the theatre over the holidays.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


SNOWPIERCER (2014)

July 5, 2014

snowpiercer Greetings again from the darkness. It’s easy to understand how frequent movie goers develop an affinity for certain directors, however, it’s important to not blindly praise based on a name. Korean auteur director Joon-ho Bong has previously delivered a couple of artistic and interesting genre movies with The Host and Mother. His first (mostly) English language film is a sci-fi, politically-oriented action thriller that is based on a French graphic novel, and utilizes well known actors from the U.S. and U.K. This is definitely “world cinema”.

The basic premise is that a man-made experiment to “fix” severe global warming change goes bad, leaving the earth as an uninhabitable frozen tundra … even worse than Green Bay. The only survivors are those aboard a perpetual motion train that circles the earth year after year. Onboard is a class-segregation system (ala The Hunger Games) with the richest 1% at the front (first class) of the train and the 99% lower class bringing up the rear (steerage). This case of haves vs have-nots leads to the expected rebellion by the oppressed lower class.

As the rebels make their way towards the front of the train, each car brings new obstacles … in fact, each car plays like a new level in a video game – each different and more challenging than the previous. In between are a wide variety of creative fight scenes that allow the director to show off his visual acumen in close-quarter battles – some quite violent.

Comic relief is provided by a near clown-like Tilda Swinton. Her appearance and delivery are hilarious and seem better fit for a Wes Anderson movie … well, if not for the fact that I found the entire movie works better as a comedy than the political commentary it’s meant to be. Each of the main characters provide a bit of interest on their own: Chris Evans as the main rabble-rouser, Jamie Bell as his right-hand man, John Hurt as the old-timer and Octavia Spencer as the wronged-mother. Actually the best story line involves Nam and Yono (Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung respectively) as a father-daughter team with skills integral to the rebellion, as well as their own agenda.

While the fight scenes were well-staged, I couldn’t help but think of beer commercials every time the camera provided an exterior shot of the train. Luckily these shots and the abundance of posturing and lame dialogue kept me chuckling enough that it overshadowed the high number of ridiculous sequences … not the least of which is the final introduction to the Wizard of Oz-like train engineer in the front car.

Director Joon-ho Bong continues his technical advancements in visual and action effects, but he will need to deliver much tighter stories to capture a large U.S. audience. In fact, more drama was delivered by his real-life “final cut” battles with Harvey Weinstein than the on screen uprising.

***NOTE: I think having Ed Harris wear his beret from The Truman Show would have been a nice effect.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a true “world cinema” production featuring talent from Korea, France, the United States and the United Kingdom.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe class warfare (even with a stop off at a sushi bar) is a topic best suited for real life

watch the trailer:

 


FRUITVALE STATION (2013)

July 13, 2013

fruitvale1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not politically correct to criticize this movie, yet it seems only fair to treat it as I do every other movie on which I comment. If that sounds like a bashing is coming, you are mistaken. In fact, this is an emotionally-charged, well written and exceptionally well-acted movie that provides much anticipation for the future projects of its first time director Ryan Coogler. However, in my opinion, it is also flawed in its “Based on a True Story” placard that is then followed by much manipulation (3 Oprah references), some of which could even be considered misleading.

If you are unfamiliar with the tragic story, 22 year old Oscar Grant was inexplicably shot and killed (while subdued and face down) by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) cop after watching New Year’s Eve fireworks with his girlfriend and buddies. An altercation/fight occurred on the train and the officers pulled Grant aside to detain/arrest. Much of this was caught on cell phone video by train passengers, and the aftermath brought protests in the city. The officer was tried and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years. He claimed he mistook his gun for his Taser.

fruitvale4 No one can argue that this was anything but a senseless tragedy. Director Coogler even begins his movie with actual cell phone footage of the incident. The ending is known and seared in the viewer’s mind before the story even begins. Whether the senseless shooting was racially driven is a topic for debate, but the current media focus on the George Zimmerman trial, and his killing of Trayvon Martin, makes the timing of this movie quite compelling.

Coogler certainly points out that Grant (adeptly played by Michael B Jordan) was no angel. We learn about his prison stints, his drug dealing, his unfaithfulness to his girlfriend (the mother of his daughter), his lack of responsibility (losing his job due to chronic absence), his string of lies, and most glaringly … his terrifyingly quick and violent temper. My issue with the film is the seemingly inordinate amount of time Coogler spends on the flip side — the focus on Oscar’s desire to get his life back on track. So fruitvale2much effort and so many scenes are written to exhibit how Oscar is a charming guy with a big heart. He helps out a white lady in the grocery store, he takes a big step towards leaving the drug dealing life, he plans his mother’s birthday party, heck … he even cradles a poor dog that was hit by a car. This inequity in storytelling apparently has only one purpose … to create another symbol of racial injustice. We are not left to ponder if the real Oscar is the one who inspires his daughter to brush her teeth or the one who bows up to a foul-mouthed convict, rather than ignore him. Instead, Coogler wants us to believe that Oscar was now a good guy who had put his past behind him … all in the 24 hours leading up to his death.

The fact is, there are two sides of Oscar, just like everyone has multiple facets to their personality. Most of us learn to control the sides that don’t mesh well with society … others really struggle to do so. Michael B Jordan delivers a powerful performance as Oscar, and he and Octavia Spencer (who plays his mom) will both garner awards attention. Other supporting work is provided by Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend, Ariana Neal as his precious daughter, Ahna O’Reilly as the shopper, and Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray as the BART cops.

fruitvale3 This film was the hit of both Sundance and Cannes, and was produced by Forest Whitaker. A major tip of the cap to BART for allowing the filmmakers to work on location at the actual Fruitvale station, for a level of authenticity. Coogler chooses one last bit of manipulation with his closing video of Oscar’s daughter Tatiana at a recent memorial outside of Fruitvale station … followed by on screen text of the officer’s two year sentence. We get no details on the trial, only the assumption that the sentence does not deliver justice, but rather another example of racial bias.

Lastly I’ll say that the decision to make a dramatization rather than a documentary was interesting. This allowed the director to focus on Oscar the good guy. A documentary would have required facts from the trial, a better perspective of the train disturbance and probably fewer Oprah references. The dramatization makes the movie more emotionally charged and more effective at inspiring outrage, rather than debate. Despite all of that, this is extraordinary filmmaking from a first time director, and I will certainly look forward to Ryan Coogler’s next project.

**NOTE: An interesting take on the real life events that led Oscar to this moment, could have been an analysis of the many decisions he made in his short life. Parents are always trying make their kids understand that every decision and every choice has a consequence. What if Oscar had never dealt drugs or gone to prison?  The altercation on the train would not have occurred and the tragedy would have been avoided.  I am by no means blaming Oscar for what happened that night, it’s just another example of how even the smallest decisions add up to impact our life.

***WARNING***

Rather than post the trailer to the film, I have elected instead to post a 1:42 YouTube video of the actual incident,  The video is short but contains very harsh language and you can hear the gun shot.  It is not easy to watch and certainly not appropriate for kids

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0P8TSP2YJU&oref=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DS0P8TSP2YJU&has_verified=1

 

 


THE HELP

August 13, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The film is based on the controversial best selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. It was controversial because it is the story of Jim Crow-era maids written by a white woman. Yes, the book is actually the fictionalized story of a white woman getting black maids to discuss their lives as maids for white folks. Rather than get into some politically correct dissertation on the book, movie or story, I will only comment on the film itself … this very entertaining movie that also manages to deliver a timeless message.  I would call it this year’s The Blind Side, only I like this one more.

 Let me first start by saying that this movie is incredibly well acted. It is quite rare to have so many developed characters in one movie. There are some characters we immediately connect with, while others draw our ire each time their face appears or their mouth opens to speak. The script and these fine actresses utilize humor to point out the shameful behavior of those who saw themselves as superior. The humor doesn’t soften the ignorance or abuse, but it does make the film infinitely more watchable and entertaining. Please know this is not a documentary.

Ms. Stockett’s novel has a very loyal following in addition to the naysayers. A two hour film must, of course, take short cuts and trim story lines. Still the key elements are present. Based in Jackson, Mississippi during Governor Ross Barnett’s term, we see the social shark, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), in her full glory of ignorance, entitlement and superiority. We see her minions and followers emulating her moves while trying to gain her approval.

 The story takes off when Skeeter (Emma Stone) graduates from Ole Miss, returns home and takes a job at the local newspaper. Possessing observation skills and humanity that her lifelong friends can’t comprehend, Skeeter desperately wants to tell a story from the perspective of the maids. As expected, the maids are hesitant, but Aibileen (Viola Davis) finally relents. The stories begin to flow and soon the robust Minny (Octavia Spencer) joins in. Others soon follow their lead and Skeeter’s education goes to an entirely new level.

 That’s really all of the story I care to discuss. The brilliance of this one is actually in the details … individual scenes and moments of acting genius by most of the cast. In addition to those mentioned above, Jessica Chastain plays Celia, the “white trash” outcast who so desperately wants to be allowed back into the girls’ club. Ms. Chastain was seen a few weeks ago in the fabulous Tree of Life in quite a different role … I would venture to say no actress will have two roles of such variance this year. Also, Allison Janney plays Skeeter’s cancer-stricken mother, and Sissy Spacek is Hilly’s mother who gets tossed aside before she is ready to go! The great Cicely Tyson makes a brief appearance as Constantine, Skeeter’s childhood maid who was done so wrong after 29 years of service. Mary Steenburgen has a couple of scenes as a big NYC book publisher.

 As I said, this is pure acting heaven, but I must single out Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Viola is so powerful at the beginning and end of the film, and Ms. Spencer is a force of nature during the middle. This movie is really their story and these two ladies make it fascinating, painful and a joy to behold. They both deserve recognition at Oscar time.

There are so many fantastic details to the film. At times, it is like watching a classic car show … the late 50’s and early 60’s models are works of art. The wardrobe, hair and make-up are perfect in setting up the class differentials. The TV and radio segments provide context and timing with the deaths of Medger Evers and JFK. Even the books on Skeeter’s shelf make a statement: To Kill a Mockingbird, Huck Finn, Native Son, and Gone With the Wind.

This story takes place 50 years ago and director Tate Taylor does an admirable job of bringing Stockett’s novel to the big screen. Mr. Taylor is a longtime friend of Ms. Stockett’s and was quite fortunate to get the directing rights. He doesn’t disappoint. Sure the story is a bit glossy at times … it is geared towards the masses. If you are looking for more depth, there are numerous documentaries and books available on the Civil Rights movement. If you are seeking a very entertaining movie that uses humor to tell a story and send a message, then this one’s for you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you read the book OR you enjoyed The Blind Side OR you want to see quality entertainment presented with humor and a message.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an in-depth history lesson OR you are the type that worships all things politically correct.

watch the trailer: