Wednesday, June 26, 2019
Directed by: Warren Beatty and Buck Henry
Starring: Warren Beatty, James Mason, Julie Christie, Dyan Cannon, Charles Grodin, Jack Warden, Buck Henry, Deacon Jones, Joseph Maher
Warren Beatty pulls quadruple duty as star, co-director, co-writer, and producer of Heaven Can Wait, and he infuses what could've been a silly screwball comedy with intelligence and charm. The movie has a naturally silly premise anyway, but it is endearing and in some cases, deeply moving.
The film is a remake of 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan, updated for the late 1970s. Los Angeles Rams backup quarterback Joe Pendleton (Beatty) is on the tail end of his football career when is he named the new starting quarterback. Joe goes for a bike ride one day and has what seems to be a fatal collision in a tunnel with a tractor trailer. Joe is off to a waiting station on the way to heaven, but it turns out Joe's angel (Henry) mistakenly pulled Joe's soul from the impending crash moments too soon, and thus robbing Joe from living another 40-50 years. Joe would've missed the truck, you see, but none of that is of any comfort since Joe's body in Earth was cremated and now Joe has to stand around in heaven wondering what to do next.
No worries. Mr. Jordan (Mason), the head honcho of the waiting station, finds Joe a new body on Earth so he can live out the rest of the days which were taken from him. The body belongs to Leo Farnsworth, a billionaire industrialist drugged and drowned in his bathtub by his scheming wife Julia (Cannon) and his assistant Tony (Grodin), who want to cash in on the insurance money. Imagine their shock when Leo (really Joe) emerges from the bathtub unscathed. Leo wasn't a great guy though. His goal seemed to be to enrich himself by building factories and destroying the environment. But, Joe/Leo wants to change all that, especially when the pretty environmental protester Betty Logan (Christie) comes knocking at his door. When she demands one of his factories be removed from her hometown in England, how could he say no?
Leo/Joe wants to be a quarterback again, though, and goes about this by buying the Rams and installing himself as the starting quarterback. He convinces his friend and trainer Max Corkle (Warden) that he is indeed Joe in Farnsworth's body and they work to get his body back in shape in time for the upcoming Super Bowl. Leo/Joe's new team isn't thrilled with this development, and his offensive line nearly gets him squashed in practice.
There is a touch of screwball in Heaven Can Wait, especially when Mr. Jordan materializes and Leo/Joe has to hold conversations with them in a closet. Julia and Tony continue to plot Leo's murder and are amazed how he manages to cheat death, until one day he doesn't, leading to another set of complications as Mr. Jordan finds Joe his new permanent body on Earth. Joe falls in love with Betty, but for reasons not entirely explained, Joe's spirit will disappear when he enters his final body, and thus not remember anything about his previous lives. Even so, Heaven Can Wait has a happy and hopeful ending.
Heaven Can Wait was made with care, with Beatty and company not plumbing the material for slapstick opportunities, but instead for warm, gentle humor and a convincing romance at its core.
It mostly steps right, and the result is magical.
Monday, June 24, 2019
Directed by: F. Gary Gray
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Rebecca Ferguson, Rafe Spall, Kumail Nanjiani (voice)
MIB International is not the fourth installment featuring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, who made the first three installments a lot of fun, and in the case of Men in Black 3, poignant. Instead, we have Chris Hemsworth as Agent H and Tessa Thompson as Agent M. The agents receive their names based on the first initial of their first name, so what happens if more than one agent has a first name beginning with H or M? There are only twenty-six letters in the alphabet, mind you, but none of the Men in Black movies to date have had to deal with his issue.
Hemsworth and Thompson, who previously starred together in Thor: Ragnarok, try hard, but this is all ground we've covered before. There isn't much else that can be done with the Men in Black universe. Once you've seen one nasty alien who wants to take over the universe, you've seen them all. MIB International feels more like a retread than a continuation, or even a sequel we weren't exactly clamoring for.
The action starts in 2016, in which Agent H and High T (Neeson) storm the Eiffel Tower in hopes of vanquishing a dangerous breed of alien, the Hive, from existence. Since the action cuts to a flashback from 1996 before we see the agents dispense with the Hive, we know they likely didn't succeed, even though the official story says they did. The 1996 scenes show Molly (who will grow up to be Agent M) witnessing her parents encounter the Men in Black and befriending the cute alien the MIB are after. She helps the alien escape and avoids the dreaded neuralizer which erases the memory of those who look directly at it.
Flash forward the twenty-plus years later, Molly tracks down the secret headquarters of MIB and becomes an agent-in-training. She is shipped off to London, where she is teamed with H, who we are told is not the same go-getter agent he was before he confronted the Hive in Paris. He drinks, parties, sleeps at his desk, and has a devil-may-care attitude toward his work. Faster than you can say the Hive, M and H are on the run from intergalactic assassins and keeping a mysterious object given to them by a slain alien ally safe. And there is a mole inside MIB, whose identity is easy to determine. All you have to do is rule out the agent who doesn't get along with H and M, and you can easily figure out the rest.
H's former lover, a notorious three-armed arms dealer named Riza (Ferguson) may hold the key to defeating the bad guys, but she isn't exactly thrilled with how H ended their relationship. Would it shock anyone to discover that M will run into the alien she helped twenty years earlier again? F. Gary Gray is a veteran director who knows his way around an action scene, but the chemistry of Smith and Jones is missing. They brought their own unique attitudes to the material. Smith is more animated as he meets one odd alien after another. Jones is laconic, treating all of this as if it were the most normal thing in the world. He's seen it all, and it takes Smith a while to catch up.
Hemsworth and Thompson aren't Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, and there isn't much about their characters which would distinguish them in MIB lore. There aren't a lot of thrills or laughs, and MIB International lacks a villain as memorable as Vincent D'Onofrio's bug man in the first film. The first three films were high comedy. MIB International is by rote.
Directed by: Tim Story
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Regina Hall, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Matt Lauria, Avan Jogia, Lauren Velez, Isacch de Bankole
The 2019 version of John Shaft is making up for all of the fun he missed in the 2000 version, where he was ultra-serious about taking down the bad guys. So much so, he chucked his police badge at the wall like it was a Chinese star. And it stuck in the wall too. That Shaft and this one are both played by Samuel L. Jackson, but the present day one takes his catch phrase, "It's my duty to please that booty," much more to heart.
I'm at odds with myself about Shaft. It begins in 1989 and in terms of spirit and the title character's outdated views on the treatment of women, Shaft stayed in 1989. This is the type of action movie Arnold Schwarzenegger would've relished starring in, minus the borderline misogyny. We witness prolonged gunfights with its participants using hand cannons as weapons, and the cops have the decency to stay away until long after the necessary villains have been disposed of. There are numerous scenes in which John Shaft Jr. (let's call him JJ) (Usher) rolls his eyes and corrects his father after the old man spouts off another old school view of sexual politics. And Shaft II (Jackson) is so bad, he walks across the street heedless of oncoming traffic knowing full well the cars will slam on the brakes and give him the right of way. I don't think the motorists know he is JOHN SHAFT, Harlem legend, but instead don't want to be booked on vehicular manslaughter charges for running him over. So they stop, as any prudent driver would do.
Shaft is ridiculous, yes, but it embraces its ridiculousness, especially the throwaway line about how Shaft's father, John Shaft Sr. (Roundtree, the original Shaft from 1971) pretended to be his son's uncle in the last incarnation. Why did they pretend to be uncle and nephew when they are father and son? If it's explained, I missed it. No matter, that minor sticking point is dropped and the three generations of Shafts confront the drug dealing villains who use an armed forces veterans center, a mosque, and a grocery store as fronts for their illegal activities.
I won't go too much into detail about how JJ, an FBI analyst, reunites with his estranged private eye father to investigate the suspicious death of JJ's best friend, who had ties to all three of aforementioned fronts. Shaft II is long divorced from JJ's mother Maya (Hall), and both Shaft II and Maya have pulled off the amazing trick of managing to go from 1989 to the present without having looked as if either has aged a day. Maya and Shaft II still have a thing for each other, it seems, as does JJ and his lifelong friend Sasha (Shipp), who has kind of, sort of friend zoned JJ, but licks her lips when he displays his aptitude with shooting guns.
Still, Shaft moves along swiftly with energy and a certain swagger. Despite its negatives, which rear their ugly heads in retrospect, I was tempted to give Shaft three stars simply because it reminded me so much of the fun action thrillers of my teenage years. But, I hedged, and I'll go with 2 1/2 stars, which truth be told is a whole lot better than I anticipated giving Shaft when I walked into the movie theater.
Friday, June 21, 2019
Directed by: Nisha Ganatra
Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Reid Scott, Amy Ryan, Hugh Dancy, Ike Barinholtz, Denis O' Hare, Max Casella
Katherine Newbury has been a network late night talk show host for 28 years and won 43 Emmys, but the ratings have been in decline for ten years. The network's new president (Ryan) tells Katherine this is her last year as host, with an hipper, edgier comedian (Barinholtz) taking the reins in hopes of attracting a younger audience. Katherine isn't easy to work with. She is stubborn, doesn't know any of her writers by name (or even that her favorite one died seven years ago), and in the words of her husband and others, she has become complacent. With the news of her imminent demise as host, Katherine takes a hands-on approach to dealing with her writing staff, but still won't bother to learn their names. She refers to them as numbers.
There is also criticism directed towards Katherine that her writing staff is made up strictly of white males, so a token diversity hire is made. That person is Molly Patel (Kaling), who has no comedy writing experience and works as a quality control engineer in a chemical plant. Don't dare call it a factory, because Molly will correct you immediately. Molly doesn't exactly endear herself to her new boss or colleagues. She lists what is wrong with the show, but doesn't offer any solutions to fix the problems, so Katherine lays into her. The veteran writer with whom she shares an office gives her sage advice, "Start writing,"
She writes one joke during the entire duration of the movie, a variation of George Carlin's joke about how people who are against abortion are those you wouldn't want to f*** in the first place. More credit is given to Molly's comedy writing skills than is ever displayed, but no matter. Molly's place in Late Night isn't to write or necessarily be funny, but to help break Katherine loose from the constraints she puts on herself and her show. (Get on Twitter, go out on the street and interview people, stray from the host-guest format). Late night talk shows are no longer simply monologue, then interviewing guests formats. The guests are forced to take part in skits, and they oblige, but I think I can hear their teeth gritting the entire time.
I expected more of an edge to Late Night. It brushes on topics such as sexism, diversity, and how women are viewed in previously male-dominated office settings, but it relies on safe formula instead of pushing the envelope. There isn't much bite. Kaling, who wrote the screenplay, yields to Katherine much more dimension than she gives Molly. We don't see for ourselves how Katherine managed to stay a late night host for 28 years. She is much more colorful behind the scenes than she is in front of the camera, and Thompson has a ball as the aloof, arrogant Katherine. We don't witness what the big deal about Katherine is. Like Molly's writing chops (or even the staff's for that matter), we have to take it on faith that she is indeed talented enough to be worth the hassle.
There are also some tender scenes between Katherine and her husband Walter (Lithgow), a musician stricken with Parkinson's Disease. Many of Lithgow's scenes involve Walter giving Katherine honest assessments of the show and rooting her on from the sidelines. But Lithgow is still a warm, genial presence, and I wish there was more of him in the movie. I also enjoyed Max Casella as Burditt, the longest-tenured writer on the show who treats Molly which much more respect than the younger, hipper writers do.
Late Night is a genial comedy which plays nice when it should have more teeth. It maintains an amusing tone, but the stakes never really appear to be too high. Katherine's future is never in doubt, nor is Molly's, and while it's all rather sweet, it's all rather safe as well.
Tuesday, June 18, 2019
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Tilda Swinton, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Steve Buscemi
Rereading my review of Zombieland, I could almost copy and paste it for my review of Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die, with the title being the funniest thing about the movie. But, no, I will write a full-length review, because that's what I signed up for. Jarmusch had lofty aims with The Dead Don't Die. He wanted to make a zombie movie, but also sprinkle in pop culture references, political satire, breaking the fourth wall moments, and a Deep message. The movie is a mixed bag which soon just feels all over the map, and ultimately doesn't distinguish itself from other zombie movies.
Zombies are not compelling villains. Jarmusch attempts to infuse some subtle humor into them by having them spout one or two words repeatedly (usually something they loved in life, like chardonnay or iPhones), but they pretty much lumber along and overwhelm their prey with sheer numbers. How do the dead rise from the grave and walk the planet as the undead? Apparently, polar fracking has shifted the Earth on its axis, and this causes longer daylight hours, erratic radio and cell phone reception, and the tiny matter of walking corpses looking to eat people.
In the tiny town of Centerville, in an unnamed state, Police Chief Cliff Robertson (ho ho) (Murray) and his deputy Ronnie Petersen (Driver) patrol the quiet area. Their conversations are spoken in flat, almost emotionless tones, as if Murray and Driver were directed to try and out deadpan each other. This would explain their relative calm when it is determined zombies are out and about destroying the local diner and motel. Thanks to numerous zombie movies and The Walking Dead, maybe Cliff and Ronnie aren't altogether shocked at the possibility of zombies in their midst.
Other characters are introduced, including Tilda Swinton as a Scottish (maybe) undertaker who wields a samurai sword and is maybe subconsciously happy a zombie apocalypse has arrived so she has targets to practice on. A local farmer (Buscemi) wields a shotgun and wears a "Keep America White Again" baseball cap. Cliff and Ronnie's police colleague Mindy (Sevigny) soon has to come out from behind the dispatch console at the police station and battle the walking dead. We have more people, all of whom simply brought on stage to futilely fight off the mob of decrepit corpses.
There are moments in which Ronnie explains he knows this will all end badly because he's read the script. Cliff is perturbed by this, chiding "Jim" for not allowing him to read the whole script. I'm not sure either actor read the script. Both actors have worked with Jarmusch previously and probably enjoyed the experience enough to work with him again. This is a skilled cast
with the misfortune of playing people who will be mauled or eaten to death by the zombie mob and become undead themselves. Then, there is Hermit Bob (Waits), who hides out in the woods watching the terror unfold and spouting off asides about the action, as if we needed a narrator.
Jarmusch may have come along too late to make The Dead Don't Die seem like anything more than a retread. He tries to freshen it up with obvious satire or obscure references (one of the gravestones has the name Sam Fuller on it. He was a famed movie director back in the day, and maybe one person out of a thousand might know that at first glance). A few more might catch Cliff Robertson, but in the end, the living are blowing off zombie heads with shotguns, or slicing them off with a sword, or cutting them off with garden shears. These movies, no matter how you frame them, usually wind up as monotonous as killing zombies in video games. Everything else is window dressing, and yes there is even a Star Wars reference and Adam Driver is in the movie. Ho ho.
Monday, June 17, 2019
Directed by: Andrea Arnold
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Adam Scott, Alexander Sarsgard, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling
Season 1 of Big Little Lies was high-quality soap opera. Its characters' seemingly perfect, affluent lives were shrouded in deceit, treachery, and in the season finale: death. I felt the finale was a bit of a letdown, perhaps because what preceded it was so involving. We have an A-list cast knocking it out of the park with its performances.
Season 2 is more of the same, with the addition of the stellar Meryl Streep added to the cast as the grieving mother of Perry (Sarsgard), the abusive husband of Celeste (Kidman) who was pushed to his death by Celeste's friend Bonnie (Kravitz) in the Season 1 finale. Celeste's friends Madeline (Witherspoon), Jane (Woodley), and Renata (Dern) concoct a story that Perry's death was due to an accidental fall. Uh huh. Perry's mother Mary Louise arrives on the scene ostensibly to assist Celeste in her time of need and to care for her two grandsons, but Mary Louise doesn't buy the official version of what happened. She, in fact, doesn't seem to buy any negative stories about her son, even when Celeste tells of the abuse she suffered.
Perry's death ripples through the town of Monterrey, California like aftershocks. Bonnie is guilt-ridden and withdrawing from her husband, who is Madeline's ex Nathan (Tupper). Nathan is so stuck on how to handle Bonnie that he asks Madeline's current husband Ed (Scott) to take her out to lunch to get to the bottom of this. Ed's reaction is priceless, as is his reaction to the news that Madeline had an affair last year. Gossip spreads like wildfire in Monterrey, and those affected are the very last to know, with lasting and damaging consequences.
It is common to say Streep is excellent, and almost more common to follow that with "of course", but her Mary Louise (which coincidentally is Streep's birth name) is a malicious treasure. She is alternately caring and loving, while offering no holds barred, uncomfortably frank assessments of Madeline and Celeste. Which isn't to say she is wrong, but the people in Monterrey aren't used to that level of honesty. Any "honest" statements most of the people say are in the service of covering up their secrets even further. Mary Louise, however, is also delusional about her son. She is so blinded by her perception of him that she refuses to believe anything truthful.
The blurred lines of truth and perception are a big part of what makes Big Little Lies tick. The "Monterrey Five" as Celeste, Jane, Madeline, Bonnie, and Renata are derisively referred to, meet secretly in cars in vacant parking lots to ensure their story about Perry's death stays cohesive. Madeline's overtures to comfort Bonnie are mostly self-serving. She isn't as much interested in Bonnie's emotional well-being as she is about whether Bonnie will crack and confess to the police.
Their very lives are a house of cards, and people like Mary Louise and the FBI (who arrest Renata's husband Gordon on securities fraud charges) are the ones who can bring it crashing down.
The first two episodes of this season's Big Little Lies are juicy and delicious. Will the rest of the season follow its route mercilessly? My guess is yes, because the way these people run their lives, it is nearly impossible to arrive at anything but another tragic ending or two.
Monday, June 10, 2019
Starring: Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti, Maggie Siff, Asia Kate Dillon, David Costabile, Kelly AuCoin, Nina Arianda, Richard Thomas, Samantha Mathis, Jeffrey DeMunn, Toby Leonard Moore, Condola Rashad, Clancy Brown
The people in the lives of New York Attorney General Chuck Rhoads (Giamatti) and hedge fund billionaire Bobby "Axe" Axelrod (Lewis) fall into two categories: Those who have been screwed over and those who haven't been screwed over yet. I neglected to review the first three seasons because my blog was strictly focused on movies, but I'm expanding my horizons and including TV shows. Like the first four seasons, Billions is a trashy, soap opera ball. It is immense fun, bordering on self-parody, and the double and triple crossing keeps you wanting more.
The first three seasons detailed the obsessive quest of Rhoads, who was the United States Attorney for the Southern District, to bring down Bobby and Axe Capital. At the end of season three, Rhoads is fired after a power play against the U.S. Attorney General (Brown) goes awry, and Axe's prized protégé Taylor Mason (Dillon) leaves Axe Capital to form a rival hedge fund. In the middle is Chuck's wife Wendy (Siff), who is employed at Axe Capital as a performance coach. At the end of season three, an uneasy alliance between Chuck and Axe was teased for season four.
Season Four begins with Chuck in private practice as a pathetic has been who curries favors with more powerful men than he in order to regain his relevance on the law scene. Axe and Taylor dig their heels in to go to war, with each one-upping the other in attempts to destroy the other. Chuck wants to be Attorney General of New York, if only to reassert the power he previously wielded as U.S. Attorney. He does so at the expense of Wendy, including publicly outing he and his wife as into the BDSM world. Axe calls in favors to Chuck to help him use his power to rid him of his enemies. Chuck does so, but with a wary eye. With all that has gone down between them in the previous three seasons, it is not unreasonable to expect Axe and Chuck not to be all warm and fuzzy with each other.
Axe is now divorced and beginning a new relationship with fellow hedge funder Rebecca Cantu (Arianda), who is whip smart, but maybe doesn't quite have Axe's killer instinct. Then again, who does? Except for maybe Chuck? Which is why Axe and Chuck need each other, because everyone else wilts under the pressure of their schemes. Wendy becomes collateral damage to Chuck's ambitions, but Axe continually keeps a soft spot in his heart for her. She has been with Axe since he was a fledgling hedge fund manager whose partners died in 9/11 leaving him the sole operator of the fund. He remains fiercely loyal to Wendy. Is there something romantic brewing under the surface? There are vibes, and have been for years.
Lewis and Giamatti have so much fun as the rival schemers that they can barely conceal their smiles. They are generally loathsome people who nonetheless fascinate us. It's the game that drives them, not the rewards or the spoils of victory. Axe has billions at his disposal but is rarely seen enjoying his possessions. Money and objects are just ways to keep score. Personal relationships (except maybe for Wendy) be damned. The people in Chuck and Axe's life are held in place until they are called upon for a favor. Although Axe has at least some loyalty to wild cards like his right-hand man Michael "Wags" Wagner (Costabile) and Dollar Bill Stearns (AuCoin), who will fly into the wall for their emperor in the name of making money.
With all of this being said, and as a joy as Billions is to behold (even though the dialogue contains several too many obscure pop culture references for my taste). Billions should end following the upcoming Season Five. I fear the show will begin to double back on itself and begin covering the same old ground. Billions zealously creates plots on top of schemes on top of riddles, and the writers are to commended for keeping things fresh up to this point, but the last thing I want to see happen is for me to say, been there done that. So far it hasn't.
Sunday, June 9, 2019
Directed by: Johan Renck
Starring: Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, Emily Watson, David Dencik,
Mikhail Gorbachev's words from his 2006 memoir about Chernobyl being the event which brought down the Soviet Union are depicted in Chernobyl's sad epilogue, and the same thought was racing through my head during this five-hour plus HBO miniseries. Chernobyl represented the watershed mark in Soviet history in which the superpower had to admit failure and lagging behind the West on its ability to safely harness nuclear power. The explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant on April 25, 1986 wasn't a one-off disaster which could be contained and dismissed as a minor accident.
Thousands died, either right away in the blast or years later after radiation had slowly sapped the life from their bodies. The Soviet Central Committee attempted to conceal the truth from the public and the world. Their official number of deaths from Chernobyl remains 31. The truth, that the explosion was a result of incompetence and cost-cutting measures which hampered plant and reactor safety, could not be uttered under any circumstance. This type of accident doesn't happen HERE. It happens in the West. Chernobyl was the man-made catastrophe which couldn't be ignored.
The explosion of Reactor 4 of the plant was the result of a safety test gone horribly wrong. The perfect storm of lack of communication, a jerk superior who intimidated his inexperienced subordinates to go through with the test, and a lack of a fail-safe measure triggered the unprecedented core meltdown and explosion. Firefighters and containment personnel were sent in to contain the fire without sufficient protective gear or knowledge of what happened. The local population wasn't evacuated for fear of word leaking out about the explosion. By the time the Central Committee contacted Dr. Valery Legasov (Harris) to assist, the radiation was already doing its damage far beyond what could be reasonably contained. Legasov isn't brought in to assist, actually, but for appearances' sake. He is a nuclear physicist who understands that what happened at Chernobyl is far worse than his superiors are letting on. The Central Committee is taking a "nothing to see here" approach, but local hospitals treating victims with head-to-toe radiation burns know the danger is much more than is being advertised.
Legasov and Central Committee member Boris Shcerbina (Skarsgard) are tasked to investigate the explosion, but somehow arrive at the Communist Party's position that the disaster was caused by human error no matter what evidence is unearthed. Human error was part of the problem. The power plant was hastily certified in December 1983 before any tests could be conducted to ensure the plant's safety. The plant operators erroneously and arrogantly attempted a test during a critical period in which factories depending on the plant's power needed for month-end productivity spikes. Why the operators simply didn't push the already overdue safety test back a few days is anyone's guess. It's not like anyone was looking for it. But conduct it they did, and they discovered how well the reactor responds when it is missing key elements like boron, water, and backup power to properly issue a test.
Also looking into the explosion is Ulana Khomyuk (Watson), who was not a real person, but instead a composite representing the thousands of scientists brought in at great risk to their own health and safety to discover the truth. The final episode clarifies what happened and why in chilling detail, and Legasov puts his life on the line by daring to stipulate that the Soviet government cut corners to save money when erecting the plants. Another Chernobyl could happen if the issues aren't corrected, not that anyone in the Central Committee wants to hear that in 1987, when the Soviets believed they still had a chance to compete with the West for overall world domination.
The three central performances are all very good. They take stock characters and infuse them with humanity and internal conflict. Legasov is a man of science who is forced to tow the party line.
Shcerbina is a lifelong party member who has a lifetime of experience following the party's directives, but finds he can't stomach it any longer as Chernobyl's destruction spreads. Khomyuk is the movie's conscience, urging Legasov to speak the truth even at a potentially deadly personal cost. She finds this isn't so easy.
If there is a weakness to Chernobyl, it is that it didn't need to be five episodes long to prove a point made quite bleakly and convincingly in the first episode. There is an entire segment dedicated to soldiers who must prowl the countryside shooting animals affected by the radiation. We are even treated to a scene in which dozens of dead dogs are dumped into a mass grave. An unnecessary subplot. The five parts could've been condensed to three without robbing of Chernobyl of its powerful, yet concerning message. The epilogue spells out the long-term effects of the disaster, and while another hasn't happened again, the Soviet Union went down fighting the installation of the changes to ensure another Chernobyl wouldn't be repeated. Chernobyl was quite a price to pay to conceal an entire nation's dirty little secret. And now with Vladimir Putin in power, Russia is practically devolving back to the days of the Cold War. Look how well that turned out for them.
Directed by: Bob Perischetti, Rodney Rothman, Peter Ramsey
Starring: (voices of) Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Chris Pine, Hailee Steinfeld, Nicolas Cage, John Mulaney, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Liev Schreiber, Zoe Kravitz, Kathryn Hahn, Kimiko Glenn
Spider Man: Into the Spider Verse starts with an intriguing first act, a middle act which needlessly complicates matters, and then finds its heart in the third act. Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who gave us The Lego Movie and its spin-offs, once again took the approach of overwhelming us with too much story and too many comic book and pop culture references, but Into the Spider Verse recovers once it slows down. Miles Morales (Moore) is a Brooklyn teen bitten by a radioactive spider and then gains the same powers as Spider-Man, but there is of course already a Spider-Man in the form of Peter Parker, who has now operated under the mask for years.
Into the Spider Verse isn't retelling the Spider-Man origins story, per se. It instead introduces the theory of parallel universes in which there are other Spider-Man (and women) and thanks to the crime boss Kingpin (Schreiber), all of the people and things who are Spider-Man in parallel universes all meet up in one universe. Miles has to get all of the other Spideys back to where they came from, plus learn how to harness his powers just in time to defeat Kingpin.
I admit all of the parallel universe stuff made me dizzy. I began to push back because the movie was getting too clever for its own good. A linear story in which Miles takes the reins from Peter Parker would've been just fine. Miles has positive role models in his life, in the form of his police officer father Jefferson (Henry), who wants Miles to attend a private school so he could make the most of his potential, and Uncle Aaron (Ali), who is the cool, fun uncle. You know things will get ominous with Aaron when his voicemail states, "I'm out of town for a few days,"
Into the Spider Verse has a comic book look and feel alternating with nearly lifelike animation. The effect is invigorating and alive. Both Jefferson and Aaron, in their own ways, love Miles and want to help him. Miles also has a burgeoning relationship with Gwen Stacy (Steinfeld), which might actually come to pass in say, an alternate universe. Kingpin is a square-shouldered hulk in a black suit with a head that seems to peer out from his chest instead of those massive shoulders. Even Kingpin's mission has sad, personal, and regretful undertones.
This version of Spider Man won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and it is an inventive (sometimes too much so) version of a story we have seen many times before. It isn't just an animated Spider Man cash grab. And we even see a Stan Lee cameo, which sadly we will never see again.
Directed by: Michael Dougherty
Starring: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Ken Watanabe, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, Zhang Ziyi, O'Shea Jackson, Jr., Thomas Middleditch
It's hard to be engaged in a battle between titan monsters when it takes place in the dark during a nasty hurricane. I'm reminded of My Cousin Vinny, in which a witness is asked how he could possibly identify two men fifty feet away through shrubbery and a filthy window. You see Godzilla, or is Mothra, or is it Monster Zero, who has three heads? Who won? Who lost? What happened? In the end, I'm not sure I even cared.
The primary problem with Godzilla: King of the Monsters is that I had no skin in the game. The human characters are one-dimensional folks who either want Godzilla to save humankind from destruction by the other creatures or want Godzilla dead because he crushed someone under his massive foot five years ago. Godzilla just wants to be Godzilla, and instead he is saddled with the human species' problems. I didn't much give a hoot about the humans or the monsters.
I did not see the original Godzilla (2014), but a brief recap in the film's prologue ensured me that I didn't miss anything. Dr. Mark Russell (Chandler) and his wife Dr. Emma Russell (Farmiga) lose their son after he is trampled by Godzilla during one of his epic showdowns which destroyed San Francisco faster than the 1906 earthquake. In the ensuing five years, Mark and Emma divorce, and Emma travels to the jungles of China with daughter Maddie (Brown) in two to study the birth of Mothra and to perfect a device called the Orca, which allows for communication with the beasts.
The Orca is stolen and Emma and Maddie kidnapped by Alan Jonah (Dance), who is described as an eco-terrorist who wants to rid the world of these gargantuan creatures. Because there are nearly eight billion people on the planet, the monsters don't have much room to stomp around. An organization called Monarch, which is supposed to keep tabs on Godzilla and the like, is called before a Congressional hearing and walks out on the feckless committee when word of a Godzilla sighting occurs. They don't get into any trouble for abruptly leaving a hearing, which sounds very close to the current state of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Mark is soon lured back into action after spending a few years studying wolves in Colorado. The Monarch team travels to Antarctica to rescue Emma and Maddie, one or both of whom may or may not have their own plans in mind for Monster Zero, who is frozen in the Antarctic ice. Think of the monsters as the terrestrial version of Thanos. The first of the movie's endless fight scenes between the creatures takes place at night in Antarctica with snow swirling around everywhere. The military is involved, things blow up, bodies fly around, and it is hard to discern what exactly is going on.
There is more where that came from as battles rage from Mexico to Boston. The Orca comes into play, and Godzilla is seemingly killed by the latest nuclear weapon, but we know there is a way to bring him back. It is bait and switch to have a movie with Godzilla in the title and then kill him off midway through the movie. That doesn't happen, so no worries for those of you who truly care.
The humans spend the bulk of the movie either staring out an underwater window at a monster or gazing up at the sky at the titans. Not much of this is much fun. Say what you will about the Godzilla movies from the 1950's and 1960's, but they were cheerfully schlocky which made them at least amusing. There was also a subtext, in which Godzilla represented the result of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and its unintended effect on Japan. It was a direct shot at the Americans and American audiences ate it up on Saturday afternoons.
I recall Kong:Skull Island (2017) in which a giant Kong was the king of all monsters on an uncharted Pacific Island populated by only two humans, both of whom were World War II MIA's. There was a human story there, and the filmmakers did us a favor by shooting the bulk of the battles in the daylight where we could actually see them, and edited so the action isn't jerked back and forth so quickly that we can't follow it. Skull Island is mentioned in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and I would not have minded a Kong cameo appearance. Godzilla simply lacks in the personality department.
Friday, June 7, 2019
Directed by: Olivia Wilde
Starring: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Mason Gooding, Jason Sudeikis, Victoria Ruesga, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Billie Lourd
Even while dazed from the verbal assault on my senses which is Booksmart, I was at least heartened that no bodily fluids were yet introduced. Moments later, we get a scene of one girl throwing up on another while making out. Great. My one solace has now been removed, and Booksmart continued on. I soldiered on, even while fidgeting in my seat.
Booksmart is practically a remake of Superbad (2007) with the two protagonist best friends now women instead of men. Superbad wasn't anything great, and now Booksmart only wishes it could attain that level of quality. At least Superbad introduced a character who has a fake ID made and calls himself McLovin. That was funny for a couple of minutes. Booksmart doesn't even have that moment to call its own.
Booksmart's dialogue and frenetic camera work hurls itself at you at a dizzying pace. The people don't shut up with their relentless exchanges. The movie jumps back and forth hastily between nothing and nothing with hip hop songs blaring on the soundtrack. It's as if the movie's sole purpose was to drive the audience mad, which is the only thing it succeeds at doing.
There isn't a lot of originality, which would be fine if the people had anything of interest to say or something was going on which would compel us not to squirm. We get Molly (Feldstein in the Jonah Hill role) and Amy (Dever in the Michael Cera role). Molly is outspoken and straight, Amy is quieter and gay. Both forwent parties for studies all during high school. They are best friends soon to be separated after graduation from their California high school. More on that later.
Amy wants to hook up with a female skateboarder named Ryan (Ruesga), while Molly pines for Nick (Gooding), who only knows she exists enough to make fun of her. Right after graduation, Amy is headed to Botswana for a charity mission before attending college at Columbia. Molly is Yale bound, which she humble brags about to anyone who will listen. But, Molly's bubble is soon burst when she discovers the kids who partied down are also going to Ivy League or top colleges. She sways Amy into attending Nick's bash to make up for the partying they didn't do the previous four years.
Amy reluctantly goes along, and we know the bulk of the action will take place at parties in which a house is destroyed and the attendees get wasted with loud music blaring from unseen speakers. Many moons ago, teenage parties presented comic opportunities in John Hughes movies. But three decades later, parties are played out. Booksmart gives as not one, but three parties, one aboard a yacht and one in which the attendees do improv and act out a murder mystery. Then, there is the main event. The three parties combine for zero laughs. Then, a conflict is manufactured out of nowhere between Amy and Molly which feels forced, just so Molly and Amy can make up and start the water works.
I endured 100 minutes of Booksmart's verbal diarrhea and overly stylized production, but I still didn't lose my power of observation. Assuming the high school in Booksmart graduates its seniors in May or June like most do, then why are the characters wearing sweaters, wool hats, winter coats, and sometimes multiple layers in the late California spring? I researched the movie's filming locations and filming started in May 2018 in the San Fernando Valley. I must say, dear reader, that I am baffled. Maybe they went through a record cold spell at the time.
Thursday, June 6, 2019
Directed by: George Armitage
Starring: John Cusack, Minnie Driver, Dan Aykroyd, Alan Arkin, Jeremy Piven, Hank Azaria, Joan Cusack
Martin Q. Blank (Cusack) is a professional assassin whose business is flourishing even though the work is weighing on him. Something just seems...off. Is his conscience getting to him? Is he still regretful about standing up his girlfriend at the senior prom ten years earlier and vanishing? Yes and no. His therapist Dr. Oatman (Arkin) isn't much help because he fears Martin. "I have an emotional attachment to you. I'm actively afraid of you," the petrified doctor tells Martin, who thinks his stories of his kills should be covered under doctor/patient privilege.
Martin's assistant (played by John's real-life sister Joan) suggests he kill two birds with one stone by taking an assignment in Detroit and also attend his 10-year high school reunion in nearby Grosse Pointe. "You could network," she tells Martin. Martin replies, "You know what I do for a living," He raises a good point. His profession does not lend itself to idle chatter at class reunions. ("I killed the President of Paraguay, what do you do?")
When Martin returns to Grosse Pointe, his former flame Debi (Driver), who is now a radio DJ, isn't exactly thrilled to see him. He did stand her up ten years ago after all. A convenience store now stands where his childhood home was, and he has hit men after him led by rival/frenemy Arnold Grocer (Aykroyd), who thinks assassins should form their own union. Then, there is the assignment, which lends itself to other logistical and emotional twists for Martin.
Grosse Pointe Blank is an offbeat comedy with characters who are all edges and elbows. Martin is conflicted and smart. Debi is still heartbroken and not a pushover when Martin tries to charm his way back into her life. Grocer is a professional rival who greets Martin with a hand on his weapon just in case they decide to shoot each other, but he really would like Martin to sign off on joining his proposed union. And what can Dr. Oatman give as advice to a hired killer except, "Don't kill anyone today"?
The material plays to Cusack's strengths, which is fitting because he co-wrote the screenplay. Cusack is at his strongest playing characters who are verbally adept and appear to always be thinking and analyzing their own motives. Not only is he filled with angst, he can tell you all about it in ways which keep us interested. The reunion is a confluence of Martin's personal and professional life coming together in brutal ways, including stabbing a would-be assassin in the neck with a classmate's pen.
The movie manages to blend romantic comedy and a violent shoot-'em-up mostly successfully, and these are not two genres we would expect to go together smoothly. But because Grosse Pointe Blank has a cynical edge to it, with its characters walking on the edge of darkness for most of its duration, it creates a unique comic and near-tragic experience all in one.
Monday, June 3, 2019
Directed by: Tate Taylor
Starring: Octavia Spencer, Luke Evans, Juliette Lewis, Diana Silvers, McKaley Miller, Allison Janney, Missi Pyle, Tanyell Waivers, Corey Fogelmanis
There is just something off about Sue Ann aka Ma (Spencer). It isn't unusual for an adult to buy alcohol at the liquor store on behalf of teenagers looking to party, but to actually invite the kids back to her house so they don't have to imbibe at an abandoned rock pile? The kids are looking to get their drink and weed on, so they don't think much about the strangeness of the situation, or Ma. Ma may even be sweet on Andy (Fogelmanis), one of the kids, which is obvious to everyone but Andy. But, hey, Ma seems cool and they get to hang out in her basement, so they ignore their Spidey Senses.
Then, Ma behaves a bit more oddly by sending out mass texts inviting the teens to party at her place again. She freaks out when one or two venture out of the basement to use the bathroom. Ma works at a veterinary clinic and is frequently chastised for not doing her work. Plus, there's the matter of stealing bottles of animal tranquilizers. Her clinginess eventually wears on her new friends, and they block her unsuccessfully from their phones. We soon learn what Ma is up to, and we also discover her motives for doing so, which are traced back to a high school prank against her gone horribly wrong. The bullying and pranking she endured forever altered her for the worse. Years later, her bullies have all moved on to ho-hum lives, but Ma's mind is still stuck back in high school.
Ma is not a slasher movie, although there is blood and plenty of it in the climactic scenes. Yet, she inspires at least a hint of sympathy as her past is slowly revealed. Yes, she is a psychopath, but she is also a victim of the long-term effects of being bullied and publicly humiliated. What do the innocent students have to do with all of this? We find out, and it can be construed as multi-generational revenge for what happened to Ma thirty years ago.
Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar for her performance in director Tate Taylor's The Help (2011), is in her first lead role. She avoids any temptation to go over the top. To an untrained eye, Ma is seemingly normal, or perhaps harmlessly wacky. But, the desire for revenge burns within her, and she does things we don't expect she would be capable of. Spencer plays a villain who does horrible things yes, but we have a touch of empathy for her even while we root for her demise. Things might've turned out differently for her had she not been the victim of a terrible prank. Many people may have figured out a way to move on from that, but Ma is not one of those people.
Ma is a taut film at 100 minutes and thanks to Taylor's brisk pacing. The trailers may paint Ma as a typical slasher film in which the crazed title character gets hers in the end. But, the cast and crew created a more nuanced movie and dared to make it stand out. Ma is eerie and in its own way creepily effective. Plus, the final scene before the ending credits add a little something extra we didn't expect.
Saturday, June 1, 2019
Directed by: Dexter Fletcher
Starring: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham, Charlie Rowe, Tate Donovan
Rocketman is a better film than Bohemian Rhapsody. Let's get that inevitable comparison out of the way. Rocketman is the biopic of Elton John, who is still alive, while Bohemian Rhapsody told the story of the late Freddie Mercury and once in a while let us in on the dirty little secret that there were three other members of Queen. Bohemian Rhapsody had almost a TV movie of the week feel to it, while Rocketman is a slicker production chock full of Broadway-type musical numbers highlighting some of Elton's biggest hits. Rami Malek won an Oscar while lip-synching Freddie Mercury and Taron Egerton actually sings Elton's songs. In a bizarro world at the movies in 2018, Bohemian Rhapsody was nominated for five Oscars and won four (it missed out on Best Picture). Rocketman will be unlikely to have the same awards season success.
No more comparisons between biopics about gay British icons who sang classic songs which are still played and remembered today. Rocketman is lavish, colorful, and with moments of raw power, but it hedges its bets when it breaks out into the showtune treatment. This isn't to say some of these versions aren't well done, but why was it necessary for them to be done at all? I was hoping the opening musical number flashing back to Elton's childhood was a one-off, but alas it was not.
Rocketman opens with John fleeing a concert still clad in one of his signature outlandish costumes and joining an AA meeting. He wants to get sober, but doesn't exactly want to go through the whole recovery process. But, he opens up about his cold parents who were incapable of showing love or affection, a grandmother who supported his efforts to learn the piano and become a musician, and then we fast forward to Reg Dwight transforming into Elton John as he meets his lifelong songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Bell) and struggles with his sexuality. He doesn't struggle long.
Once Taupin writes the lyrics and Elton puts music to them, Elton John becomes a runaway success faster than you can say "Rocketman". The whirlwind world of lavish spending, constant recording and touring, and drinking soon evolves into addiction to every drug under the sun. This is nothing new in movies about real musicians or fictional ones. The addicts claim the pressure of their lifestyles leads to drug addiction, but 95% of the pressure is caused by the addition itself. It is a Catch-22.
Taron Egerton is most famous for playing Eggsy in the Kingsman movies and as Eddie the Eagle Edwards in the underrated Eddie the Eagle, but none of his previous roles readied me for the depth he reaches with Elton John. He is a good singer, and performs John's songs well, but he is able to hit the dramatic high notes as well. Bell is warm and brotherly as Taupin, whose ego is so secure he is able to handle the fact that Elton achieves all of the fame singing HIS lyrics. Their friendship is a highlight, although I wish it had been given a little more screen time.
Richard Madden's John Reid, the calculating, bloodless business manager who sees Elton purely as a cash cow even while bedding him would be the villain in any other biopic, but John's parents trump Reid in the despicable asshole department. In Bohemian Rhapsody, Mercury's manager was also the exploitative jerk. Is this a cliché or are business managers really this transparently bottom-line obsessed? Elton is in love with Reid, even though Reid clearly abuses him, and this further fuels Elton's descent into near-suicide because another loved one has rejected him.
Does Rocketman want to be an honest story about Elton's path to fame, fortune, addiction, near-death, and redemption? Or does it want to be a ready-made Broadway musical which I predict will reach the stage within the next two years? This filmmaking choice distracts from the overall emotional investment in John's story. Just when we really start to care, the movie pulls the rug out from under us and we have to endure singing and choreography which we wish would just end already so we can get back to the more engaging stuff.