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Born in China (2019)
Population manipulation is especially problematic when it's real. This is an expertly real doc.
"As a bookish child, I would come to see the one-child policy as one of the most fascinating and bizarre things about the land of my ancestors, equal parts Aldous Huxley and King Herod."
Mei Fong, One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment
Hearing about China's 1979 one-child policy, lasting 35 years, is one thing. Listening to Asians who lived through it is another. The logic of administrators, some of whom who appear in Nanfu Wang's informative and touching documentary, One Child Nation, almost make sense.
Then you realize who is abandoned and who abducted, mostly girls, and you grimace for them and the families who were torn apart by the rule. Assuredly the females had to go first when authorities discovered families with more than one child because the Asian tradition had always favored males.
Wang having been given a man's name (Nanfu translates into "man" and pillar") shows a deft hand at directing without preaching. She does what I find lacking in too many docs-the other side. Those supporting a one-child policy appear frequently praising it as the salvation of a billion people who would have starved or resorted to cannibalism without the population restraint.
The devastating effects cannot be hidden: babies left in baskets, twins separated forever, human trafficking on a grand scale are just a few of the disorders. Propaganda is always there to reinforce the state's message. Wang presents it all, both good and bad.
But like our dark slavery past or Nazi cleansing, heinous plans to control population never seem to survive. The trail, however, is bloody and harrowing.
Wang has expertly balanced between a depressing subject and an important history lesson: "Don't fool with Mother Nature."
The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)
An entertaining spin on Huck FInn set in contemporary Outer Banks.
"Friends are the family you choose." Tyler (Shia LeBeouf)
The Peanut Butter Falcon is about as odd and endearing as the title, which refers to the alter ego of Zak (Zack Gottsagen). His dream of being a pro wrestler like The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church) is hampered by the fact that Zak is a down-syndrome lad escaping from a nursing home in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Lucky for him to meet Tyler (think Matthew McConaughey in Mud, but less flamboyant), who is himself on the run. As might be expected for those who are familiar with Hick Finn, the two encounter disreputable good old boys and caring ladies while Zak learns how to survive and maybe fulfill his dream.
Here is an odyssey that doesn't pander to notions of romance and rehabilitation; rather it gently shows the sweet and sour of life that Tyler can give to Zak with mixed results.
With the exception of John Hawkes playing his usual lean and mean redneck, the cast is unusually without stereotype. Church's Clint/Salt Water is especially right for a former wrestler given to kindness. In fact, the film is best exemplified by the opening quote to this review: the search for family is even more important than a lifelong obsession with becoming a pro wrestler. With the emergence of do-gooder Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), family becomes more possible than finding that Florida wrestling camp.
"This is not 'Lord of the Flies.' There's rules. There's regulations!" Eleanor (Dakota Johnson)
Mike Wallace Is Here (2019)
A superior doc like its superior broadcaster.
"That's not an interview, that's a lecture!" Mike Wallace analyzing a Bill-O'Reilly interview as they watch a tape of it together.
Mike Wallace's entrance into a room would be announced as if he were a rock star; and indeed, he was one as a hard-boiled broadcast journalist, as well known as some of the well-known figures he toughly interviewed like Salvatore Dali, Betty Davis, and Vladimir Putin, to name only a few. He set the standard in the twentieth century for asking the questions others were afraid to ask.
Although the informative and entertaining Mike Wallace is Here could be judged a puff-piece of celebration, like its subject, the documentary regularly looks at the underside: for a high-profile interview, it was discovered a producer had provided him with most of the questions; during a severe bout of depression, he tried suicide; Morley Safer called him a "prick" at his interview with Wallace; and much more.
This documentary does a credible job of taking us through his early years as a pitchman for Parliament Cigarettes and other commercials that eventually prepared him for serious broadcasting, most of its groundbreaking honesty married to savvy production, to the point that 60 Minutes became the most-watched news magazine in the world. When he asked Larry King why he had a reputation as a patsy, no one should have been surprised at Wallace's candor. That's who he was.
Sometimes this uncompromising doc has moments of soap-opera sentimentality as when star Wallace disagrees with his legendary producer and CBS about not publishing their candid interview with Jeffrey Wigand, the tobacco whistleblower. Hero Wallace refuses to buy into the network's caving into fear of litigation.
If you are looking for a contemporary hero with Greek-tragic properties, then see this expertly-edited song of praise for a broadcaster who deserves his place next to Walter Cronkite for integrity and charisma.
Light of My Life (2019)
Not a standard horror film, it has seriously-satisfying thrills.
"Survival can be summed up in three words - never give up. That's the heart of it really. Just keep trying." Bear Grylls, explorer
I would have given all I owned to spend as much time with one of my daughters as Dad (Casey Affleck) does with his daughter, Rag (Anna Pniowsky), dressed like a boy, on the run from a disease that strikes only females. In Light of My Life, they roam the grey Okanaga Valley of British Columbia seeking refuge as much from bands of men looking for uninfected girls as from the plague itself.
If you can endure the overly-long opening story dad lovingly tells daughter, the almost two hours will fly by as the protagonists combat daunting obstacles.
The thoughts of the decimation of the female population are horror-film good enough for the imagination, so minimalist writer/director Affleck spares us the usual terrible tropes to concentrate on the loving relationship. As he does in his Oscar-winning acting, Affleck concentrates on the slow-burning details.
That Affleck himself faced possible Oscar-negating accusations of sexual harassment makes his holy father here even more interesting than, say, Ben Foster's father character in Leave No Trace.
Survival is the operating action here, mainly slipping out of windows as men storm the house or tent. Father and daughter are adept at escape, leaving only that motif for tension, whereas if they fought with each other (a pre-teen and her dad holds multiple possibilities) there might be more interesting conflict.
As in It Comes at Night (2017), the cloaked assailants and the disease give the imagination the usual willies, but fascination with the survival of a father-daughter left to survive is the greatest conflict of all. You'll enjoy all of Affleck's indie charms and insights in a quietly effective thriller.
"To survive it is often necessary to fight and to fight you have to dirty yourself." George Orwell
Blinded by the Light (2019)
Another in the exciting musical stories inspired by a celebrated singer.
"Mister I ain't a boy, no I'm a man/And I believe in the promised land." Bruce Springsteen
The recent memorable music films such as Yesterday, Wild Rose, Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Star is Born left me exhilarated but pessimistic that there could be no more competitors. Enter Blinded by the Light, adapted from Safraz Manzoor's memoir, Greetings from Bury Park, to reinforce the euphoria I continue to have about music of greats from the past set in dramatic context or original songs set to stirring stories.
Pakistani Javed (Viviek Karla) lives in small town Luton, in Thatcher's austere 1987 (the anti-immigrant National Front was prominent if you need contemporary context), a nowhere place in England miles from London that is not friendly to Pakis. He is a fledgling writer who luckily discovers Bruce Springsteen, already an irrelevant rocker for Brit teens, and his beautiful unironic music of isolation and rebellion. No one in the audience could possibly not have an affinity for music that speaks of release from boredom and suppression.
Javed, listening to tapes like Darkness at the Edge of Town and Born in the USA, identifies with having a hungry heart and being born to run. However, Paki tradition of slavish fealty to his father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), keeps him from leaving to follow his dream. The film spends way too much with the conflict between controlling father and submissive son. Consequently, the Springsteen songs and the Bollywood dancing and acting out they inspire (set pieces with Born to Run, the Promised Land, and Thunder Road are outstanding) feel shortened so we can endure the constant bickering with strong-willed, directive dad.
The moments when Javed can cut loose with Bruce are among the best of the two-year buffet we have had of this sub-genre. Because the story is based on an actual experience, we can call it a biopic and rank it right alongside Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody. While Blinded is much softer than those two, Springsteen's music has such a real relationship with the world that the film connects with our everyday experience as no fantasy-filled musical story can do.
Blinded by the Light is as much about the powerful cultural impact of pop music as it is about the place of Springsteen in the collective imagination. And, it is simply a stirring story with some exceptionally-entertaining music!
The Farewell (2019)
Learn about China and about life and forget about trade wars.
"Based on an actual lie." From the titles
Lulu Wang writes/directs a quietly powerful drama about a Chinese tradition of withholding disturbing news like impending death that competes with the Western tradition of openness and disclosure. The Farewell is no imitation of the frothy Crazy Rich Asians.
Gone since she was three, Billi (Awkwafina) returns to China to visit her grandma Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. However, the family refuses to tell her the grim news out of a Chinese custom to avoid that discussion. Westernized Billi believes otherwise, and the film is pervaded by the overt and subtle struggle between her desire to give grandma a chance to say goodbye and her relatives' desire to carry the emotional baggage themselves for Nai Nai.
While this may seem like a one note conflict, The Farewell is also a commentary on the strong family bonds of Asians, enviable when juxtaposed with the Western tradition of gritty individualism. For Asians, that individuals participate in the whole community is an attractive belief in times when the Western world is racked by factionalism and special interests.
Although the actors in The Farewell are not as glamorous as those in Crazy Rich Asians, their humanity and warmth are superior and their story more enriching. Whether or not to disclose a terminal condition to a sufferer touches every culture. It's just that this exceptionally entertaining and instructive treatise on family unity in China makes me even more certain that I love the Chinese despite the trade war.
Wang settles the debate-- to disclose or not to disclose--in a most satisfactory conclusion. To see The Farewell settle a thorny issue is to know you have experienced on of the best films of the year.
"You can't hide your emotions." (Billi's parents)
Dear Comrade (2019)
Unfair to women for most of the film. Overly long.
Dear Comrade is an Indian romance surrounding a headstrong comrade (one who fights for a social-justice cause, not necessarily a communist), Bobby (Vijay Deverakonda), and his paradoxically independent/ dependent love, Lilly. With touches of Bollywood's optimism, exuberant singing, and dancing, this actioner at times also could remind about West Side Story, though it lacks anything close to the nuance and artistry of that classic.
As the principals finally get together and split again, more than once, the almost three hours is fortunate to have such comely, charming actors to offset the enduring repetitions of fate. While it seems Lilly is intended to be an exemplar of the new Indian woman (she is a state cricketer, after all), who is not rushing into marriage (no sane woman would hook up with this angry cutie except in the last reel, when he, of course, is a new caring, feminist man).
Although Dear Comrade has issues like freedom of speech and rape awareness, these important themes are secondary to gang rivalry and the lovers spending too much time swooning over each other. If you're a romantic, you might enjoy this drama; if you're a realist, forget it and see Yesterday or Bohemian Rhapsody instead.
The Great Hack (2019)
Entertaining an educational takedown of Cambridge Analytics and Facebook. And a caution for us all.
"If you run campaigns designed to undermine people's ability to make free choices and to understand what is real and not real, you are undermining democracy and treating voters in the same way as you are treating terrorists." Christopher Wylie, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower.
Don't cancel your Facebook account just yet even though The Great Hack does a credible job exposing its abuse of privacy data for each of us. This carefully thought out and smoothly presented Netflix exposition of Cambridge Analytica's effective data shenanigans during the 2016 presidential election and pre-Brexit initiative is informative and entertaining, just like a good doc should be. Harvesting information on more than 50 million Facebookers is impressive and scary.
The major player here is Brittany Kaiser, the former director of business development for Cambridge Analytics, a defunct political data outfit; she turns on the company after serious soul searching. Like many of us as well, playing with psycho data on millions of subscribers to direct them to either trump or Brexit seems beyond the pale of democratic social media that should be neutral at all times. As for Kaiser, well, she's a hired gun who worked for Clinton before Cambridge-in her I don't trust.
Although Kaiser could be held up to intense scrutiny for the Trump campaign and Brexit, her meeting with Wikileaks' Julian Assange and his subsequent disclosures about Hillary Clinton seem to damn her just as well. Yet, she is contrite here, seemingly trying to right the wrongs of the cyber terrorism Cambridge Analytics clearly fomented. Anyway, the intrigue is unusually ripe for a documentary.
Besides the narrative magnetism of Cambridge's targeted messaging and psychographic manipulating is the caution for those of us who are lucky just to be able to write a word document-watch your identity ever so carefully. Current technology can know us and our personalities with thousands of reference points just for us, some of whom are the "persuadables" who can be directed to political and social ends. The Russians are coming.
You MUST see this. It's 241 min of romance tempered by tough nostalgia.
Twenty-five years after Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino is still getting our attention. Today in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood he takes a calmer, less sardonic view of the passage of cultural time from The Graduate, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, and other great '60's classics and the future '70's greats like Taxi Driver, Star Wars, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The Hollywood mojo was impressive in those decades, and he loves it all.
By focusing on almost has-been TV star Rick (Leo DiCaprio) and his stunt double (Brad Pitt), writer/director Tarantino can be wistful about a Hollywood that has reached its peak in the 60's and hard-nosed about the wars like Vietnam and murders like Manson's to temper the almost giddy love of movies divorced from reality. Never is he sappy or sarcastic, just mindful throughout of the passage of time and innocence.
In the 2 hrs 41 min, however, he doesn't cut scenes when he should such as the re-creation of old TV show segments just too long and dull to be anything but slow. However, when the two stars are together the magic of old Hollywood is present, even if they can't compete with Newman and Redford.
Never one to rely just on meticulous re-creation of an era (his details are marvelous), Tarantino plays with the lost innocence motif, even with war raging on TV and producers assassinating the careers of stars. Still, this is a milder, gentler Tarantino, unlike Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, for instance. As a loving take on violence and loss, he allows himself to honor the movies, from when he was a nerdy, video geek to a formidable auteur.
See this romantic rendition of the sixties by arguably one of the best artists in the world. At the least it's entertaining, at the best it blends our benign nostalgia with the evanescence of fame, beauty, and peace.
As soulful a doc as Cohen's deeply moving and memorable work.
If you are familiar with Canadian Leonard Cohen's work, you'll recognize the deep voice singing lyrics of poetic joy and lamentations mostly about women in his life. Such is also the spirit of the informative and moving documentary Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, both joyful like his megahit Halleluiah and woeful like his song of goodbye to his muse Marianne, a Norwegian beauty capable of inspiring transcendent music.
A woman in my theater row disclosed that the two concerts of Leonard she saw were a religious experience. Indeed, here was a poet and songster who exuded a prayerful love of life and inspirational muses like Marianne and Suzanne. That he spent six of his last years in a monastery is no surprise, nor that during that Buddhist time he lost his fortune to a "friend" who embezzled it all.
Love and loss fueled his '60's persona that with his poetic writing and dark good looks magnetized women to the extent that the endless supply of supplicants seemed to energize and inspire him rather than laying low ordinary men with the excess. This doc is about the beginning of his career with Judy Collins introducing him as a singer rather than just a composer who lived with Marianne on the idyllic Greek isle Hydra.
Although director and close Marianne friend Nick Broomfield stays out of the lovers' way, he loses some power in the multiple vignettes that sometimes feel isolated rather than fluid. Nor does the director allow more than just snippets from memorable songs such as Suzanne, Goodbye Marianne, Halleluiah, and Bird on a Wire, which are my favorites. In truth, this estimable doc is about Leonard's love life rather than his songs anyway.
I miss this unique troubadour, and you will too after hearing him again and living for a short while with his inspirations.
The Lion King (2019)
Photorealism is perfection, a comedy team riffs hilariously, and the rest is just as it was in 1994.
Life is tough for animals in the African savannah because after all Darwin's survival of the fittest fits best there. Eat or be eaten. Surprisingly the benign Disney empire covers its 1994 The Lion King, a brilliant but not so sweet story of the rise of a young lion, Simba (voice of JD McCrary), eventually to succeed his aging father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones).
Director Jon Favreau guides the animation through the most realistic depiction that could be hoped for, more photorealistic than his 2016 The Jungle Book. Although it seems every shot from the original is carefully reprised here, each eye movement, each facial tic is as if it were a photo made just bigger. Above that realism is the real key to The Lion King's success, the humanity that exudes each utterance and each challenge.
It's ironic because this is animation with animals who can't disguise their human qualities of love, hate, compassion, forgiveness, and most of all attachment to home and its protection. Simba must find his way back home to protect it-it's that simple, but the veiled Hamlet motif hints of family dysfunction, regicide, and the terrible toll of revenge.
Although lamentably Disney doesn't update the story to align with contemporary and actual lion lore that lionesses are the major influences from nurturing and social engineering to getting food. It is a remake that reflects the patriarchal and masculine tradition of dominance that has ruled Western culture for millennia. Really though, look at how ready Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) are to share the combat load. Maybe in a makeover someday.
Then, they did change "Hakuna Mutata" from the early meaning of "No worries," to a more modern "Who Cares." Not the Disney I know but much more real. For new material, listen to Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner riff on warthog Pumba and meerkat Timon. They are a hilarious comedy team ushering in the very modern "What me worry"?
Anyway, a child returns home to love and conflict-so human and so Disney. Then Pixar does well in the family motif, too. It's all the circle of life, Baby.
The Art of Self-Defense (2019)
It needs a lighter touch for its heavier themes.
Writer/director Riley Stearns' The Art of Self Defense has been called a "dark comedy." Maybe it is, but with so much dark and so little comedy, it would be better thought of as a psycho study of male impotence. That it doesn't have the light Jim Jarmusch touch as in The Dead Don't Die, where dry comic "Bill-Murray" reactions rule the raged zombie terrain, highlights the art of understated humor absent from Stearns' satire.
In today's world of women's ascendency into the macho sphere previously owned by men, Stearns has a serio-comic thriller in an indeterminate time with echoes of Fight Club and any men's magazine that features gun ownership and boobs in the same issue. The Art of Self Defense is anything but about art; it is a dense, dark, melancholic cautionary tale of a 30-something milquetoast, Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), who becomes a menace through the "art" of karate.
Besides the overly-long set up, this film has a challenge to strike the right balance between the dreary life of an introvert and the dangerous world of violence and misogyny, not dull but disquieting. The film is effective showing the almost exclusive male training in artful macho that discriminates against a woman (Anna, played by Imogen Poots) by stifling her ambition and relegating her to a boiler room for a locker room.
Casey embodies the wrong-headed notion that courage can come from a punch and a kick. As for an equalizing gun, it is not for the weak as the dojo's rules claim. Casey will have his own take. His sensei (Alessandro Nivola) must face his pupil as avenging angel.
The Art of Self Defense is not for most regular film goers: It's slow and unsure of its tone. For the discriminating audience, however, it offers a skewered perspective on the hobbling of timid spirits by substituting violence for sympathy and force for understanding.
In the hands of rank amateurs, the defense should be for themselves against themselves. Fight Club or Karate Kid this is not. Like them it is in its minimal humor. Dark comedy? not so much.
Wild Rose (2018)
A great companion piece to recent musical biopics and completely different.
"Three chords and the truth" -- slogan on Rose-Lynn's arm (Jessie Buckley)
By the time I reached the end of this musical drama, Wild Rose, I wanted much more of lead Jessie Buckley playing an aspiring country singer from Glasgow. I never got what I wanted because this flip-side of a Star is Born is relentlessly real (the "truth" of the slogan above) as much about her aspiration as her first-class talent.
Wild Rose is about the challenges a single mother-of-two must face with this enormous singing talent bursting out of her. One of her challenges is putting her two children before her hope because she does not come easily to selflessness. Where other musical stories emphasize the talent, this story emphasizes the responsibilities any human will have entering the rarefied competition for music.
Happily, the film rarely meets formulaic expectations: At each turn expectations are subverted in favor of a non-romantic slice of reality. Yesterday, Rocket Man, Bohemian Rhapsody, and even A Star is Born, fulfill the dictates of successful Hollywood musical romances. Not this Glasgow slice of life.
If you're into fantasy only, see it anyway if just to witness an otherworldly performance, say, Lady Gaga without the hype. This is your friendly critic giving a word to wise cinephiles: See it.
Perfect July-August low-expectations thriller.
"Alligators all around." Haley (Kaya Scodelario)
Although you may expect at least one grindhouse experience per summer, you'll usually get more than that. Start this summer with Crawl, a thriller that pretends to be nothing more than a low-merit, low-budget horror show about a young woman fighting off hungry alligators in her flooded Florida home during a hurricane.
It's plain old fun because all you should ask for is a few scares, mediocre graphics (the alligators are not always convincing), and a pleasantly humane tale of a father and daughter bonding over monsters. Praise French director Alexandre Aja for providing gallons of suspense and surprise without stretching credulity too far.
In fact, a remarkable verité is present, whereby you might actually feel as if you're swimming furiously among the reptiles. Kaya gives a taut performance about a strong young woman who happens to be a good swimmer and loving, if neglected daughter. Barry Pepper as her dad, Dave, is convincing about losing himself, parts of himself anyway, to the bad-boy demons of the not so deep.
What do film critic buddies like Wayne Miller and John DeSando do on holiday? We hoot and howl at the noon showing of a cheesy thriller, happy that we can enjoy without filters the waning summer and along with it the quality of movies. Watch for us at 47 Meters Down: Uncaged. We'll have no cages on bad taste.
Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)
If you like adolescent romantic adventures, this small super-hero romp should please you.
"I think Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) just hijacked our summer vacation." Peter Parker (Tom Holland)
After Captain Marvel, Shazam, and Avengers: Endgame this summer, I need a respite, and Spider-Man: Far from Home provides that. Like its eponymous hero (Tom Holland), the film is lighthearted, adolescent, and not earthshattering. It's generally immature, with the usual proliferation of explosions, some of them illusory, and teen flirtations with no naked scenes, thank goodness.
Saving the earth is what a superhero does, and now with Tony Stark gone to the great techno heaven, it's up to Peter Parker to do just that. Except he's on a class trip to Europe and really wants to enjoy it, especially romancing the seemingly indifferent MJ (Zendaya). As the opening quote exclaims, the tour is not going to turn out well.
What is good is meeting the alternative-earth hero, Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who joins Avenger forces against some very bad water and fire monsters. He's smart and cool, a potential leader to replace Tony. Gyllenhaal had fun with the role, playing the leitmotif of appearance vs reality deftly and just enough insouciance to keep us interested.
As always for me, the explosions are too many, and the romance too negligible. Except that the flirtation between Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and Happy (Jon Favreau) has real world possibilities, if only to contrast the too-much-time with silly teen confusion over the right way to romance. Spidey is, after all, only 16! At least writers McKenna and Sommers got that awkwardness down right.
Spider-Man turns out to be a teen vacation punctuated by some bad villains and hairy situations. Teens will save this box office. Adults not so much.
About the Spidey with his new responsibilities:
"He looks out for the neighborhood, has a dope suit, and I really respect him." Flesh Thompson (Tony Revolori)
You'll weep it's so good.
"We were driving through Colorado, we had the radio on, and eight of the Top 10 songs were Beatles songs...'I Wanna Hold Your Hand,' all those early ones. They were doing things nobody was doing. Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid... I knew they were pointing the direction of where music had to go."-Bob Dylan
If the works of Shakespeare were suddenly erased from the world's memory, culture would suffer an unthinkable loss. In Danny Boyle's witty and entertaining Yesterday, the works of the Beatles have been lost in a freak 12 sec global electrical outage. Except for Jack (Hamish Patel), who remembers the music and proceeds to reintroduce it as his own.
Boyle and writer Richard Curtis, who seem to know a thing or two about music and struggle, have a winner of a conceit in the world discovering arguably the greatest composers of pop music in history. Patel interprets the songs beautifully and simply with a stripped-down guitar that enhances the lyrics and melodies.
We have been graced this year with two outstanding musical biopics, Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman (although the latter is surely more fantasy than bio), and Yesterday is a fitting companion piece to those stellar movies. The Beatles come alive through the songs, interpreted with low-key power by Patel.
Yesterday disappointed with its reliance on the old trope of boyhood friend Ellie (Lily James), then manager, having unrequited love for Jack. You know how that will end, taking considerable surprise away from an otherwise intriguing premise.
Then the matter of the ethics of plagiarizing; not until the end is Jack faced with the moral dilemma when so much effective drama could have been experienced much before then. Anyhow, hearing the simplified Beatles should bring tears to your eyes (It did to mine) with a deep appreciation of transcendent pop music.
Yesterday is about today and forever.
The Dead Don't Die (2019)
Humorous and ghoulish, a pleasant homage to an eternal genre.
"Somethin' weird's goin' on." Ronnie (Adam Driver)
Zombie movies don't die. Except that Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die is even more lasting than the most intrepid zombie. The slow, ironic pace and the dry responses of lead cops Cliff (Bill Murray) and Ronnie guarantee chuckles every few seconds and a leisurely stroll through a ghoulish genre.
While undoubtedly some audiences will not like the slow pace, I found it well suited to Jarmusch's jaded view of slacker humanity, giving us time to savor the rich satire about acquisitive humans returning from the dead for their "stuff" like chardonnay and coffee.
Indeed, if there is any reason for zombie lore, it has to be lampooning their selfish, materialistic natures that feed of each other to keep alive to ransack stores for more "stuff."
As to be expected, this kind of off-beat satire has its weaknesses, especially in character development where lead characters have no back story, and promising secondary roles like Steve Buscemi's grumpy farmer have no room to strut their sardonic stuff. What we do get is Buscemi giving his patented acerbic misanthropy in small doses.
Other minor characters lend texture and humor. The nerdy owner of a weapons and comics store, Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones), is spot on for an eccentric denizen perfectly attuned to the bizarre activities. Zen samurai Zelda (Tilda Swinton) acts like she stepped right out of Uma Thurman's castrating Kill Bill and into the same only with heads. She has a wickedly good swing.
Cannibalism even in comic form never really interests me, yet Jarmusch succeeds getting me interested in the lead characters and the thematic and figurative underpinnings of the zombie cineverse. For the hard-core zombie lovers, the theme has to be: "This is not going to end well." (Ronnie) For the rest of us, the bible can parse some of the meaning: "And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them." Revelation 9:6 ESV
Toy Story 4 (2019)
I hope this franchise never ends. Brilliant!
"I was made to help a child, I don't remember it being this hard." Woody (Tom Hanks voice)
Joy, sorrow, laughter, tears, love, and loyalty-those words may describe Casablanca, but right now I'm thinking Toy Story 4. Who would have thought an animation could compete with that classic romance? Who would have thought one animated frame could show more humanity than those in all the summer blockbusters? Who would have thought after the triumph of 3 that 4 would be just as good?
Pixar and director John Cooley (a Pixar operative with his directorial debut), together with writers Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, have crafted yet another brilliant story of little people overcoming the crush of cretinous big people to save their pleasant roles as support for kids and strengthen their bonds as buddies. No better example than cowboy Woody and astronaut Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), whose initial Toy Story 1 dislike for each other has grown to a lively mature friendship three iterations later.
Woody's growth is the heart of an uproarious adventure with the lovely Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who is the best strong female to occupy the screen in a long time. The two are sweet on each other but subsume that affection to the tasks of saving kids and toys from disconnection.
Moreover, they have to deal with a new character, Forky (Tony Hale), a beautiful piece of trash with pipe-stem arms and disproportionate eyes, who forces friendship decisions and affections that help determine the maturity of lead characters. In addition, the carnival setting with a carousel and second-hand antique shop among other props helps to mix the joy of toydom and the danger of a rambunctious world without rules.
And so it goes, turning not so much this time on finding home as finding love. Every family member should fully appreciate the humanity of that arc and listen to its abundant life lessons..
You know Avenger's: Endgame is a change agent for a successful franchise. Don't miss the summer's even better revolution: Toy Story 4. I hope Pixar itself doesn't change this monumental animation by ending it.
"Some kids play rougher than others." "You wouldn't believe the things I've seen." Bo Peep
All Is True (2018)
Quiet and fascinating rendition of the Bard's retiement.
The general details of Shakespeare's retirement to Stratford, his hometown, are known, but the despair over the early death of his son, Hamnet, and his need to be a respected bourgeois may be slightly imaginative in All is True. No matter, what is certain is that he already was known as a poet and playwright of renown and had family challenges just like us.
Kenneth Branagh's lovely, peaceful rendition of this period, as well as his own underplayed Shakespeare, brings joy to those who have had to sit through Godzilla, Shaft, and Men in Black this summer to mention a few of the confections that pale beside Branagh's classy drama.
The depiction of a thriving little mercantile town 100 miles west of London is beautiful to behold, a living Constable, and the way the Bard navigates family and friends with the cool of a retired rock star is pleasant. After all, why not just play him low key as the greatest literary mind in all of civilization can't adequately be honored with bombast. Gently is the way Branagh gives the genius.
Although many anxiously awaited the scene with Branagh and Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton, it was too short but nonetheless satisfactory. Not only two gifted actors but also an interchange that suggests the bard dedicated lines to a beautiful youth, the Earl himself: "For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings." The Earl's tamping down the bard's ardor is fun and suggestive of a side of Shakespeare unknown to groundlings like me.
The drama Shakespeare experiences with his two daughters is also carefully handled with no screaming and much respect from a dad still reeling from his and everyone else's disappointment that he missed his son's burial years before. Wife Anne (Judi Dench) reminds him he was writing Merry Wives of Windsor then. Ouch.
For the millions who worship Shakespeare, All is True is no Shakespeare in Love-it is so much more.
Late Night (2019)
Tough is not so bad in the hands of the gifted Emma Thompson.
"Your earnestness can be very hard to be around." Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson)
Molly (Mindy Kaling), a new writer on the old Katherine Newbury late night talk show, is as earnest as Katherine is tough. Despite firing Molly more than once for that honesty, Katherine calls her back each time for Molly's connection to contemporary social media culture, her youthful optimism, and most importantly--being a woman
Late Night is a savvy and witty deconstruction of the ego-driven talk show hosting and the relentless adjustment older hosts must make to contemporary culture and openness. Katherine's rapid fire, spit fire putdowns are worthy of screwball comedy and hosting invective best exemplified by an original host, Jack Parr. But, of course, her supercilious, caustic attitude is eventually what puts her on the employment chopping block.
Besides the aging business is her staffing challenge: all male writers, who never meet with their boss. The sexism usually suspected in the entertainment business is only too apparent when the camera pans the table of male writers. (It works both ways as she is thought not to like women anyway.) Their acceptance of Molly is cold and ignorant because she is warm, honest, and funny.
Molly's down-to-earth spunk gets the beleaguered host's attention. Although no audience will be surprised by the turn of events, the acting is so top flight and writing spot on that waiting for the next bit of humor is the chief delight. While the plot is formulaic, the two actresses command attention.
Because I loved the Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, uncompromisingly tough while being uncommonly talented, Katherine appeals to me. Tough is not bad, and it can be tamed for the times.
The theme of the need to love your fellow humans is clear and applicable to the audience and the characters alike. To the characters the theme becomes the powerful advice to get a life, a behavior that just may provide the skills necessary to keep a job and enjoy a life.
Late Night shows it's not too late to change, and the denouement is as positive as you might expect a comedy to offer. Although J K Simmons' Fletcher in Whiplash defines the tough teacher, Emma Thompson's Katherine takes the role of leader a step farther toward charity and happiness.
Enjoyable, brilliant biopic of one of Rock's icons.
"And I think it's gonna be a long, long time. Till touch down brings me round again to find, I'm not the man they think I am at home. Oh no no no, I'm a rocketman!" Elton John (Taron Egerton)
Elton John's remarkable removal from reality while he really defines a new rock performance style in the late '60's expresses in "Rocketman" the tension between performance dynamism and the formulaic loneliness fame and success bring to a legend. Taron Egerton's Elton is every bit as good as, if not better than, Remi Malik's Freddie in Bohemian Rhapsody. Egerton sings with his own voice, not imitating Elton but recalling his genius while retaining Egerton's own distinctive sound-recollection not ompersonation.
Besides a career-defining role for Egerton, the biopic approaches the subject matter not so much historically as impressionistically, where each scene illuminates a character trait or moment that comments more on the human condition than the showbiz at hand. Elton's struggle with his sexual identity and a legion of typical 70's drugs like alcohol and cocaine highlight the difficulty any artist might have overcoming a culture of excess. So 70's, so rock 'n roll.
Director Dexter Fletcher brilliantly finished Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer's departure, and in so doing prepared to one-up himself with an Elton John more nuanced than Malik's Freddie. Fletcher and writer Lee Hall also make the standard Elton John repertoire express the moment rather than just provide a delightful chronological feast. The montage-like presentation, with the resonating emotion and psychological exposure, evokes the best of Baz Luhrmann, who never found a song that didn't fit a true emotion as in the memorable Moulin Rouge.
Rocketman is an impressionistic fantasy about the growth of Elton with an outstanding central performance, iconic songs, and a formulaic but not any less profound arc from glory to debasement and back again. Come to think of it, the ancient Greeks had that dramatic formula down so well that their drama is fresh even today.
Rocketman shows that Elton's signature flamboyance becomes a natural part of his genius: "Don't you want to just sing without this ridiculous paraphernalia?" Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). Thank goodness John knew it wasn't "ridiculous."
Relax, it's summer, they always return. Have fun without using your mind.
"Sometimes I think this is Godzilla's world. We just live in it." Chief Warrant Officer Barnes (O'Shea Jackson Jr)
It's summer blockbuster world, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a hot mess of good intentions bubbling over with smoke and fog that keeps geeks from fully appreciating the original Japanese destroyers. It's been 5 years since the old boy terrorized Tokyo and San Francisco.
The first act looks like writer/director Michael Dougherty and co-writer Zach Shields are aiming at an intelligent theme about cooperation but end in the third act losing all intelligence as in most superhero films with explosions and mano-a-mano monster mashing.
The scientists, mainly married but estranged Mark and Emma Russell (Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga), are the chief protagonist-connections with the monsters. She is onto something about tapping into the titans' (the identifier of the original monster/ rulers of the earth) audio frequency with an Orca machine to neutralize them and eventually fold them into a benign universe of cooperation with humans.
Along with the crypto-zoological, multinational organization, Monarch, the Russells work to save the titans from governments bent on destroying them. Not bad, but in these essentially cheesy films, Godzilla has to breathe fire, and Mothra and Rodan destroy anything, and ultimately the bad boy with three heads, King Ghidorah, has to bite his enemies to death.
In order to humanize the proceedings, Dougherty includes the usual tension between teen daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), and mother Emma, with Dad Mark in between. Because the monsters are threatening life as we know it, this familial squabbling is all the more ludicrous for its emphasis.
In our culture, we have always written about dragons and gorgons, so in a way we are right at home with these ridiculous monsters. That doesn't mean we have to accept the foolish plot points and silly dialogue:
"We opened Pandora's box. And there's no closing it now." Jonah Allen (Charles Dance)
The "box" is summer blockbusters, monsters who return relentlessly every summer. Don't think about it too hard. Just veg out with the geeks.
Doubles vies (2018)
So very French, so very entertaining, so very smart.
"Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators." Stephen Fry
If you like things French such as conversation, books, love, infidelity, bourgeoise comforts, Eric Rohmer, and Juliette Binoche, then go right to Olivier Assayas' Non-Fiction. Here's a fiction film about incessant arguing over books vs. e-books, roman a clef, and the politics of publishing in a world where the Internet is shaping even the way talented authors structure their dramas.
Books and the Internet, along with the shape of e-books, informs almost every heated discussion of the fetching comedy with a bit of darkness to make it oh-so French interesting. Publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet) refuses to publish long-time writer and client Leonard's (Vincent Macaigne) newest novel possibly because Leonard has a habit of disguising well know people in his characters, this time may be Selena, wife of Alain, and lover of Leonard. After six years of this tomfoolery, do you think Alain might know?
While Assayas has a good old time with this old-time French drawing room stuff, all get togethers evolve into arguments about the viability of hard-bound books versus digital newcomers. No conclusion is made, except for the viewer who delights in the robust shenanigans that disguise the obsession writers and publishers now have over the mortality of books, hard or soft.
Regardless, the middle-aged literati are disguising their own fear of extinction in the face of Tweeted emotions in so many words and young folk who may not read anymore anyway. Even promotion of a book must attend to the right navigation on social media.
It's all heady words for this word lover who is delighted by such clever screwball setups and the idea, like any debate about the existence of God, that because we talk about books, they will endure. This comedy is not so much raucous as it is profound with a whole bunch of French sensibility and sex. I vote for that to endure right along with books.
"Lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food." Douglas Adams
The Biggest Little Farm (2018)
On of the best docs this year and a virtual poem about farming.
"The simple hearth of the small farm is the true center of our universe." Masanobu Fukuoka
I know some people who claim to have grown up on a farm when in fact it was a piece of arid forest back east with one donkey and a few years under a mad matron. I recommend they, and anyone else inclined to romanticize farming, see The Biggest Little Farm, a documentary so honest about rural paradise as to inspire any audience to call realtor friends upon exit.
Documentarian John Chester and wife Molly, true romantics, buy 200 acres of dry land one hour north of LA (the above "farmers" could take the trip from LA to see this real farm). They document the next eight years with love and glorious photography. They revive the soil and nurture it with a virtual Noah's Ark of eating and defecating cuties, from a loveable sow to a living rooster and lambs and bulls and critters they didn't even have to import.
After a few years, drone shots reveal a swirling landscape of apricot trees and plants and grass to withstand the monstrous wind and rain sure to come. The likeness to crop circles is another layer of the farm's greet mysteries. Rains and wind do come, and the Chesters survive because they listened carefully to expert Allen, whose death leaves them to figure out their own survival. And they do.
Figuring out the place of coyotes in the deaths of their chickens is also one of the many challenges they have to assess and make decisions about life and death, tough calls for two sensitive souls dedicated to the harmony of nature.
They revive the soil, have a prosperous egg business, and learn to live in harmony with themselves and Nature's wondrous bounty. The Biggest Little farm is one of the best docs so far this year and a satisfying emotional and cinematic experience for the whole family and its pets.
One of the best films of the year and teen comedies of all time.
"They did two things. We're the a--holes who only did one." Molly (Beanie Feldstein)
Two high school besties, Molly and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), in Booksmart have overachieved academically, shorting themselves in the more raucous activities they now, at graduation time, resent they didn't do. As in the most successful coming-of-age comedies, starting with the male-centered Superbad, while throwing in Bridesmaids for a little adult naughtiness, the answer is a wild party the night before the graduation ceremony.
Although the drunken activities are not that creative, the patter is smart screwball, too fast and witty to be digested in one sitting. By far superior to Super Bad because the boys there are not the sharpest, these girls are inventive academics needing only a hallucinogen and an affair to complete their education.
As a side note, Molly learns that although she consumed her time in studying and got into Yale, a few slacking others made it into Stanford, Harvard, and Georgetown (mentioned twice, and my alma mater). Molly seems to realize there is more than just academics to young life, and excellence can come in the most unlikely places.
Rather than being dismissive about extracurricular dissipation, Booksmart accepts all kinds of people and ways of life. This democratic inclusion is a bold difference from the teen comedies that have favored white exclusion, outsized bullies, and boring bright nerds.
Olivia Wilde in her first effort directs with the ease of a veteran, changing the pace as necessary, a film fluidly and subtly framed by the appropriate music and smart dialogue. Although she follows some of the formula that takes our heroines up and down the experiential arc, she cannily keeps the two girls' friendship genuine and lasting. That's real female empowerment.
And that's the meta theme here: True friendship is the high-school lesson learned to be kept a lifetime. Booksmart is a smart, super good comedy that will have you laughing all the time and shaking your head in approval. It is one of the best movies of 2019 and one of the genre's best examples.
Books are smart, but friendship is better.