Monday, June 25, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Morgan Neville's loving documentary on Fred Rogers and his groundbreaking public television program, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, is so loaded with heart and tenderness that many will find it tough to sit through it dry eyed. Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, turned children's television into a consuming mission to help young people grow into adults who took care of one another. Neville's film shows Rogers, a lifelong Republican who died in 2003, using puppetry, storytelling and music to comment on world events and work through his own lingering childhood unhappiness and insecurities while delighting children nationwide. This is a beautifully endearing portrait about a man whose life was the embodiment of a much-needed message -- we need each other to survive.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

  • Spanish director J.A. Bayona’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is over modulated and overwritten — loud and long — with heroes that are lacking in screen appeal, a predictably ridiculous and confoundingly open-ended script and special effects that are costly but only serviceable. Yes, the bad guys are, again, dinosaur Kibbles but even the visceral satisfaction of seeing them devoured feels stale.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Hotel Artemis

 Drew Pearce's Hotel Artemis is fueled by the premise that even criminals deserve quality health care -- but that's not the entirety of this grisly and sporadically entertaining picture. It also attempts -- unsuccessfully as it turns out -- to juxtapose tenderness with bloody brutality. Several unsavory characters check into a futuristic L.A. hotel / hospital during an urban riot sparked, we're told, by the privitization of drinking water. That water element is purely background as it is never explored and nothing ever becomes of it. The acting is fine (Jodie Foster, Sterling K. Brown, Jeff Goldblum) but the writing is epigrammatic when it's not mawkish, that is, characters are either talking like mobsters or blubbering like mopes. This could lend a sense of balance but instead it just feels contrived.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Ron Howard's Solo: A Star Wars Story is as precise and competent as a film can be but it lacks essential warmth and surprise. The leads (Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover) are attractive but frustratingly inert. Circumstances toss them into the same cockpit but despite their close proximity they generate no heat. The script, written by A-list Hollywood writers Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan, is safe and familiar and leaves plenty of room for the interminable battles these films inevitably devolve into. Because of the construction of this long-in-the-tooth series, and the placement of this episode in the ongoing Star Wars saga, the film is nearly devoid of real tension.The last 30 minutes are spectacular but deliver little WOW in the end. Disappointing.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Ocean's 8

In Ocean's 8, writer / director Gary Ross (Free State of Jones) offers up a by-the-numbers heist flick that lets the ladies run the show but doesn't actually up the ante for the Ocean franchise. Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett head the crew of lady scoundrels and thieves in an audacious scheme to steal a $150 million necklace from its wearer (a never-better Anne Hathaway) during the exclusive Metropolitan Museum of Art Gala. Bullock is Debbie Ocean, sister of Danny Ocean, played so memorably by George Clooney in previous installments. Danny is now dead, and Debbie is just released from prison and aching to get back at the person who ratted her out (Richard Armitage). That factors heavily into her plans. As with previous Ocean films, the thrill is in watching the execution of an intricate operation but "8" lacks the previous films' edginess and close calls. All happens pretty much as it was story-boarded, which short changes the ladies, I feel. As it is, they all look FABULOUS from start to the flashy, photo finish. James Corden has several winning moments as a British insurance investigator who is called in by Cartier to find the missing jewels and who succeeded in catching both Debbie and Danny after previous capers.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Incredibles 2

Animated adventures have more action set pieces than live features because there is less conversational exposition, usually, and because animation lends itself to greater range of possibilities for battles and audiences expect it. Brad Bird’s Incredibles 2 is a terrific picture in those respects but also has levels of meaning — family, commitment, trust, duty, etc. — that adults will really dig. If this family is a metaphor for modern America’s most crucial social unit then it’s a brilliant one and represents crucial elements of contemporary life with good humor and intelligence. It is NOT just a movie about superheroes. Still, the most entertaining set piece in I2 was an “incredible” baby vs raccoon fight.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

First Reformed

Paul Schrader's powerfully disconcerting morality film First Reformed will no doubt prompt audiences to question their most grounding beliefs -- and that is what make this puzzling picture so captivating and disturbing. With glacial pacing and a level of interiority that is not often seen in contemporary cinematic narratives, First Reformed stars Ethan Hawke in a part that will garner him nominations and maybe statuary come awards season. Hawke is the addled and alcoholic minister of a "museum church" in Albany, where he maintains an ascetic existence and appears to be slowly succumbing to lung disease. His ministry, such as it is, brings him in contact with a congregant (Amanda Seyfried) and her environmental activist husband (Phillip Ettinger) and a crisis that spins them and Hawke's character out of their orbits and into conflict with a church leader (a refreshingly measured Cedric "the Entertainer" Kyles) and a powerful local businessman (Michael Gaston). My favorite Schrader films (American Gigolo, Hardcore, Affliction) all involved characters beset by extraordinary circumstances and their own natures. Hawke's Reverend Toller struggles with faith in his God and fellow man, and we find ourselves pulling for him despite our own natures and better judgments.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018


Music video auteur Director X's Superfly re-hash is all about excess -- too much money, too much sex, too much cocaine, too much blood, too much trust, too much hate, just too much -- and it all adds up to a surprisingly satisfying ride. The wonderfully charismatic young actor Trevor Jackson (Grown-ish) stars as the elegantly "processed" Youngblood Priest, a major player in the Atlanta drug trade who is off everyone's grid until he dodges a bullet that ends up in the gut of a bystander. Then, as they say, shit gets real. Helping Priest move weight and avoid drug rival Snow Patrol's loose guns are his BFF Eddie (an outstanding Jason Mitchell best known to me from Mudbound and Straight Outta Compton) and his winsome muse Georgia (Lex Scott Davis) and her gangsta bitch girlfriend Cynthia (Andrea Londo). Director X and screenwriter Alex Tse have crafted a crackling film that pops with snappy wit and artfully choreographed throwdowns that is a fitting, if not all together reverent, homage to Gordon Parks Jr.'s 1972 original.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018


Aussie director Leigh Whannell's Upgrade borrows narrative elements from a half-dozen films -- primarily Blade Runner, RoboCop, 2001 and Death Wish. Derivative is not always bad, and in this case similarities can be overlooked because Whannell's execution is sure. This is an interesting, though loopy, sci-fi body count flick that stars Charleston (S.C.) native Logan Marshall-Green as Grey Trace, an underemployed mechanic and restorer of vintage muscle cars. Left a quadriplegic in a thugland attack that killed his wife (Melanie Vellajo), Trace finds his way to boy genius scientist Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), who offers him a makeover -- a sentient chip named Stem (voiced by Simon Maiden) that will make him better than new. With his restored mobility and Stem's timely guidance and occasional intervention, Trace hunts the shooters, but obstructions are plentiful and threats are bloody. A tenacious detective (Betty Gabriel of Get Out) suspects Trace has gone vigilante and that he is dispatching with gruesome efficiency some really dirty, enhanced bad guys but she's early on not aware of Trace's Upgrade, and when she does learn of it, Trace and Stem may be too far gone for her to stop.

Friday, June 8, 2018


Ari Aster's Hereditary works so wonderfully because Aster's story inhabits a tilted, wall-eyed world populated by folks who are a tad too earnest or detached, too intense or unconcerned, who say things that are both meaningful and meaningless, who seem to be loving and indifferent. When the horrors begin we're not immediately sure this is creepy enough to be frightening -- maybe it's just strange. And it is that uncertainty -- and Toni Collette's amazing performance as a frightful mother, wife and daughter in a household haunted either by her Hecuba of a dead mother or by madness -- that holds us tightly through a film that is so deliberately pace it might tax the patience of patrons wanting more solid scares with the abundant grotesquerie.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018


I find it hard to imagine anyone making a more loving portrait of an iconic figure than Julie Cohen and Betsy West have in their documentary of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG).  In many ways the film is quite conventional -- mapping a bit of Ginsburg's childhood, her college years at Cornell, then Harvard and Columbia, and finally her career as a litigator on behalf of women faced with discriminatory treatment in both private and public arenas and ultimately her years on the Supreme Court. Though all of that is noteworthy and duly inspiring, I was moved more by the tender love story between the tirelessly studious and exacting RBG and her gregarious and devoted husband, Marty.  Each of RBG's professional milestones is framed in conventional newsreel style but also through the lens of her husband's devotion and boundless respect for his wife and her work. It's touching and utterly charming.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Rider

Chinese filmmaker Chloe Zhao's The Rider is the beautifully crafted story of a young rodeo cowboy (Bradley Jandreau) who is recovering after being thrown and stomped by a bronco. Bradley has a metal plate in his head and a spastic hand that doesn't always do what his brain tells it, a developmental disabled younger sister (Lily Jandreau) who he dotes on and a father (Tim Jandreau) who is so full of bitterness and regret that he's of little use to his motherless children. Yes, the lead characters are just about playing themselves as are many of the other residents of the dismal South Dakota reservation where the story is set. Though he's as battered as a war veteran, Bradley, under-educated and lacking real options, exudes an optimism (perhaps foolishly) about his life, his dream that he will ride again because, dammit, that's what cowboys do. Zhao's scenes of the restless Bradley, ill-advisedly, training horses and mounting them to gallop through the scrubby Dakota plains are riveting and will surely earn cinematographer Joshua James Richards accolades. Zhao, who also wrote the screenplay, devotes most of the picture to showing how broken bodies and broken spirits heal -- or don't. Bradley's best friend, Lane (Lane Scott) was himself severely injured while riding a rodeo bull. Footage of the strikingly handsome Lane, full of swagger and fire, makes the time the audience spends with his wrecked and palsied body, looking at his nearly unresponsive face, all the more painful, and Bradley's commitment to him both inspiring and heartbreaking. The Rider is emotionally draining and deeply, deeply moving.

Queen & Slim

In the soon to be iconic photograph from Melina Matsoukas's distressing Queen & Slim, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith...