Friday, June 29, 2018

“SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO” IS AN EFFECTIVE NAIL-BITER DESPITE PLOT HOLES THE SIZE OF POTHOLES



SICARIO, meaning hitman in Spanish, was lauded critically and a modest box office hit in 2015, raking in around $85 million worldwide. That was enough to warrant a sequel, and it’s entitled SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO. That one translates to “Hitman: Day of the Soldier,” not the best of titles, but the follow-up is exceptionally tense and gritty just like its predecessor. It too raises questions concerning the effectiveness of our nation’s ‘war on drugs.’ However, this sequel also raises unfortunate questions about its plotting. At times, it makes no sense, and the lapses in logic keep it from being as successful as the first.

Emily Blunt isn’t in this one, and not having her FBI agent present abdicates any pretense of a moral center. You’ll remember that her character Kate Macer reluctantly went along with the secret U.S. government task force, spearheaded by Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver, intent on bringing down the Mexican drug cartels by any means necessary. Their relationship was an uneasy mix as Macer’s’s by-the-book mentality continually clashed with Graver’s looser, more maverick methods. In particular, she couldn’t abide Graver’s partner Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), a former drug cartel lawyer, now employed to help the soldiers find and take out the bad guys. Gillick also had personal scores to settle, especially with the drug kingpin who murdered his wife and child, and that left Macer feeling compromised by aiding such efforts.

After wreaking havoc and satisfying his revenge, Gillick even forced Macer to sign a waiver legitimizing the operation. He threatened to kill her if she didn’t, and the righteous FBI agent was forced to go with the flow. Well, she’s not in this one, and now Gillick and Graver have carte blanche do whatever it takes to further accelerate their mission. Their scheme this time is to kidnap a drug kingpin’s daughter and make it look like a rival faction is behind it, ensuring in-fighting that will take down the drug trade from within. It’s an intriguing strategy, but the methods they use to put their plan into action create the first fraying snag in the plot.

Graver and Gillick decide to snatch Isabel Reyes, the surly teen daughter of one cartel top dogs, while she is being transported from school in a guarded SUV. That idea seems far too conspicuous and could create a ton of collateral damage on a busy Mexico City street. There are also cameras everywhere in such places these days, so it’s not like they’d be unidentifiable. Sure enough, things go awry, and both sides lose lives and vehicles. Wouldn’t it have been easier to capture Isabel at school when she was on the playground, without armed guards watching over her?


As played by the 16-year-old Isabela Moner, the character of Isabel is both vicious and vulnerable. Her very first scene finds her kicking the crap out of a classmate at recess. It’s an incredibly violent scene, indicating that the drug trade has likely turned Isabel into an entitled and ruthless kid. (The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, apparently.) And it indicates too that the team might have been smarter to target a more malleable kid. 

Then, to gain her confidence, the team pretends to rescue the girl by posing as DEA agents. But rather than have someone who would be a new face pose as her DEA conduit, Graver assigns Gillick to the task. He is a man that her father knew all too well, one she likely saw many times. That seems to be a ridiculous choice at face value,  no? And, sure enough, it isn’t long before the savvy smart-ass figures out exactly who he is, and complications ensue.

Then the B story, concerning Texas teen Miguel Hernandez (Elijah Rodriguez) starting to help his cousin Hector (David Castanada) run illegal immigrants across the border for cash, T-bones the A story in a poorly contrived way. Gillick and Graver just happen to be meeting a contact in the El Paso mall that Miguel frequents, and their SUV almost runs him down in the parking lot. Angry glances are exchanged, and of course, later on, Miguel will remember the face of Gillick and finger him later in the story when he’s incognito. 

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is a better scripter than that, as evidenced by the hugely intelligent screenplays he wrote for HELL OR HIGH WATER and WIND RIVER, so why succumb here to such coincidences, a veritable Deus Ex Machina? (A Deus Ex Machina is a plot device that solves a narrative problem through contrivance.) Yet as the film goes on, there are a lot of nonsensical moments like that. This is supposed to be ‘the day of the soldier,’ yet they can’t hire people who are loyal. Graver's crew is betrayed and ambushed rather easily midway through the film. Then Isabel escapes, and Graver sends the all-too-recognizable Gillick to find her? Not only that but once Gillick finds her on foot, he can’t find his way back to the team. We see million-dollar computer equipment aiding them throughout, but the guy doesn’t have a cellphone with GPS?


The question of how easily identifiable Isabel would be to the general population becomes another issue in the film as well. Would the face of a kidnapped child belonging to a drug cartel boss be plastered all over the news so readily? And would every character be able to identify her immediately upon glancing at her? Is she a celeb like Jennifer Lawrence? Even the deaf Angel (Bruno Bichir), who graciously takes Isabel and Gillick into his modest home to hide for the night, knows who she is. By the way, his TV looks like it’s a beater from the early sixties, so one wonders how he gets such crackerjack reception out there in the desert enough to identify her.


Later, at the border, when Gillick tries to smuggle Isabel across to witness protection in Texas, they dress up as a migrant farmer and his son. Even with a cap on her head, and her locks shorn to bowl-cut length, everyone can readily identify her as the kidnapped girl from the news. Such plot holes are about as large as Chicago freeway potholes and they’re laughable. If this is the day of the soldier, I’d hate to see how much “winning” they'd accomplish in a week. 

Soon, such conveniences and contrivances ensure that point blank bullets don’t cause death, Graver is abandoned by his sponsors who all get cold feet, and everyone goes rogue, even though they have a contract guaranteeing $10 million being funneled to their efforts each month. This franchise deserves a script as shrewd as the first one. But then again, the politics of this one are muddled too. Now, without Blunt’s moral character, we’re asked to cheer on these lawbreakers, even they turn soft and gushy and decide not to let the girl be collateral damage. It's okay that others are mowed down in the process, just as long as she isn't.  


Despite all that, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO remains an effective nail-biter. The actors are all good, although Matthew Modine as an evil cabinet secretary paints with too broad a brush. Catherine Keener fares better, bringing an appropriate weariness to her part as the government flack overseeing the operation. Brolin and Del Toro are always terrific, and they can play tough in their sleep. The standout here is really the teenage Moner. She aces her complicated part, and the camera loves her. It’s a credit to director Stefano Sollima and his editor Matthew Newman that they spend a lot of time on her face, studying it, and not cutting away from her delayed reactions. Moner already understands that so much of character in the movies is revealed after the lines are read.

Sollima, taking over chores from Denis Villeneuve, who masterfully directed the first one, wrings the tension out of every scene, and ensures that we can follow the action in each set-piece. It’s accomplished work, and all the below-the-line artists bring their A-game. Composer Hildur Guonadottir, in particular, induces tons of menace in his spare score, creating chills before anything even happens in the scene. 

Of course, the subject material here couldn’t be any timelier. The story sympathizes with many of the Latino characters caught in the vice of the drug world, especially those trying to escape it to America. SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO is a provocative and affecting thriller, one that impresses on so many levels, but it should have filled in those plot holes on its journey to our Cineplexes. 

Thursday, June 28, 2018

"BOUNDARIES" IS A ROAD PICTURE DRIVEN BY CHARM AND ECCENTRIC CHARACTERS



In a summer of ginormous tentpoles and multiple franchise entries, it’s nice to see a modestly budgeted, original film like BOUNDARIES appear in Cineplexes. More and more, this kind of film is vanishing from the landscape, but if they’re done as well as this one, hopefully, it will encourage more such productions. Say what you want about films where heroes don super suits and save the world, more often the best special effect onscreen is the chemistry between two actors. And in Vera Farmiga and Christopher Plummer, BOUNDARIES has special to spare.

Road pictures are always, yes, a vehicle for two disparate characters to get to know each other. There’s something about being stuck in a car together that feeds the tension and encourages truth and humanity to come out. Be it IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT or  RAIN MAN, the road changes people and closes the gap between them. In BOUNDARIES, written and directed by the exceedingly clever Shana Feste, the gap between father Jack (Plummer) and his daughter (Farmiga) is a mile wide. Yet, days together in a contained car will force this odd couple to get to truly know each other and come to appreciate each other as they haven’t ever before. 

Farmiga’s character of Laura Jaconi is a single mom, with a quirky teenage son Henry (the marvelously droll Lewis MacDougall), and she’s got more baggage than a Samsonite showroom. Laura fancies herself an independent spirit, guileless and spontaneous, but such characteristics are not the best for the responsibilities of motherhood. She’s terrible at managing money, lackadaisical when it comes to parental discipline, and there isn’t a stray cat or dog that crosses her path that she can say no to. Laura fools herself into thinking she’s in control, but she even lies to her therapist. 

Her lack of discipline is starting to create problems for Henry too. Not only is rent and food a question every week for them, but with no true guard rails, the teen boy is quickly following in his mother’s peculiar footsteps. Henry has few friends, draws graphic nude photos of everyone he encounters, and gets tossed out of his school due to his overt lack of propriety. This movie earns its R-rating in the first 10 minutes when Henry’s graphic, nude sketch of his school principal is shown and the visual earns one of this comedy-drama’s largest laughs. 

Laura’s got her hands full with her difficult son, his sketchpad, and all those fur babies living with them, but then her estranged father Jack (Christopher Plummer) needs to enter her fold. He gets tossed out of his senior living home for selling pot. Jack is also a tart-tongued scoundrel, randy and slovenly. The old man has even been growing the marijuana he sells on the retirement home’s premises. Now, he is homeless and has product to unload.  

Thus, he calls Laura, and immediately they bicker with each other like in the past. The banter between Farmiga and Plummer is acerbic and full of anger, yet each performer knows how to find the gooey center underneath all that acrimony. Laura gets talked into driving her dad to LA to live with daughter JoJo (Kristen Schaal) and soon, she loads up the car with Henry, a couple of dogs and a cat, and off they go.  

As the road picture kicks into high gear, Jack needles her from the get-go, enjoying pushing her buttons, but he always stops just short of being a jerk. It’s a credit to Feste for casting Plummer in the role because even when he’s at his worst, he’s still oh-so likable. (Plummer’s so good, he almost made you feel sorry for his J. P. Getty in last year’s ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD. Almost.) The veteran star plays against type here – he’s rough, unshaven, and profane – but we love him every step of the way. And slowly but surely, Jack wins over his daughter and grandson too. He helps Laura face her shortcomings, plays father to Henry, and even punches his daughter’s ex-husband in the face when she should have been the one to wallop him. 

As road shows go, meeting up with an ex is just one of the typical tropes that Feste visits. Of course, the Jaconi clan also experiences a dangerous run-in with a cop, and it’s not surprising that they stop over at crappy motels and greasy spoons to engage in revelatory conversations as well. Naturally, the visit to Laura’s former husband Leonard goes badly, and we knew it wouldn’t the moment we saw Bobby Canavale in the part. Still, in even such expected set-pieces, Feste finds fresh ways to serve them up. Through clever snatches of off-beat dialogue, reaction shots that linger longer than they have to, or slightly askew physicality between the character, Feste continually breathes new life in every scene.  

Still, it’s the most unexpected turns that give BOUNDARIES its best moments. A stop to drop off some weed with Jack’s old friend Stanley (Christopher Lloyd) turns into a comic highlight as the old coot is not only a hugger but a nudist. Jack’s affectionate relationship with Stanley’s handicapped adult son is given time onscreen to stick too. There’s also an inspired visit to a weed customer played by a coolly affable Peter Fonda. Best of all, the film spends time in L.A. once the Jaconi’s arrive, and we get to know JoJo too. Schaal is delightful here, as her JoJo is as lovable and eccentric as the rest of the oddball family.

Feste keeps her story bubbling along, breezy and smart, heavy at times, but never morose. Farmiga keeps the frazzled Laura recognizable and relatable throughout, but then again, the accomplished actress can make any crazy mom understandable. If you have any doubts, just look at her award-winning work for five years as Mrs. Bates on A & E’s hit thriller BATES MOTEL. Farmiga’s one of the best actresses working today and it’s great to see her landing film leads outside of the horror genre like THE CONJURING franchise. 

At times the film is almost eccentric to a fault, but it’s all so engaging and charming, what’s to complain about? Feste is arguing that such craziness lies in every family, and truly, what exactly is normal? The filmmaker knows that no family is perfect and that each soul is lost in their own way. Who among us couldn’t afford a few more understanding, more hugs, or a few four-legged companions to remind us to live more vividly? We all need more delightful films like this at the box office too. 

Sunday, June 24, 2018

LIGHTEN YOUR LOAD WITH ALL KINDS OF LAUGHS

Original caricature by Jeff York of Steve Martin and Martin Short in the Netflix comedy special AN EVENING YOU WILL FORGET FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE (2018).
It’s been an awful week in the news, depressing and demoralizing, and all the more reason to seek out some relief at the movie theater or your home theater. Four comedies I’ve come across recently have helped lighten the load, and perhaps they could do the same for you. Two of them are indie films that you’ll have to seek out on VOD or at film festivals, and two are comedy specials available right now on Netflix.

STEVE MARTIN AND MARTIN SHORT: AN EVENING YOU WILL FORGET FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE (Netflix)

It’s hard to go wrong putting classic comedians like Steve Martin and Martin Short on a stage together, but what makes this special so well, special, is that the best highlights aren’t the skits and gags they perform with expertise, but instead, the personal stories they tell and the throwaway bits that show off their cynicism about Hollywood. 

Veterans of a collective 97 years in show biz (Martin – 51, Short – 46), these two have conquered stand-up, television, film, and even theater. "We thought you might like to get to know us a little bit," Short says early in the show, and with crackerjack timing, Martin deadpans, "And the reason we think that is because we’re egomaniacs." Throughout the show, they not only dig at each other the way only true friends can, but they delve into anecdotes about their experiences in Tinsel Town together. Their explanation of how the comedy THREE AMIGOS came about reveals the start of their lasting friendship, as well as that of a more complicated relationship with tempestuous costar Chevy Chase.

Short is the lesser known of the two, and he uses this vehicle to show off his myriad of talents. He sings, he does characters, he plays straight man and oddball. The Canadian comic also pulls on our heartstrings in surprising ways too. In between the schtick, Short tells of a few dark tales concerning his alcoholic father and how difficult it was for his large family to live with such a mercurial presence. There’s always been something solemn just under the surface with Short, as his acclaimed dramatic turn in the TV series DAMAGES in 2010 demonstrated so well, and here, his eyes and inflections darken on a dime. It makes the man all the more dangerous on stage. You never know what he might say or do, make you laugh or break your heart.

Martin has always projected a bit of the pickled pill, and here he delivers a lot of droll and snide gibes with aplomb. He teases Short with ease, commenting after a song, “I think you are underrated as a singer…which I totally get.” Short gives it back to his white-haired friend too, ribbing him mercilessly about his banjo playing. “It’s like DELIVERANCE,” he exclaims. “It’s all fun and games until the banjos come out.”

Martin does indeed play his banjo for a delightful musical interlude in the show with his band The Steep Canyon Rangers. For those of us who remember how well Martin played the instrument during his legendary 70’s stand-up shows or while hosting SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, it’s great to see his Grammy-winning musical skills on display in this vehicle too. 

Towards the end, when Short reprises his Tommy Glick schtick, it feels a bit forced and the needling of Hollywood a bit too "on-the-nose," but these are small quibbles. All in all, it's utterly fantastic to see these two legends give such an animated show for over an hour, demonstrating verve and energy of comics half their age. Here's hoping that they do more specials together for a long time to come.  

Alycya Magana and Alex Serrato in THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING.

THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING (VOD)

Younger filmmakers love to tell stories about overgrown man-children, and a number have graced screens already this year. FISHBOWL CALIFORNIA was one of the better ones, and so is Nick Alonzo’s THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING. It tells the story of Carl, a quietly panicking doofus who's pushing 30 and searching for answers, in some very fresh and delightfully odd ways. For starters, most of his story takes place in a forest setting. More importantly, it has a wonderfully quiet, deadpan sense of humor to it all that will induce large laughs to those who discover the film's charms.  

Carl (Alex Serrato) has decided to seclude himself in the local woods to help with his soul-searching, and it's not going particularly well. As the movie opens, he’s tense and sweaty, trying desperately to masturbate to relieve his angst. Unfortunately, the bearded shlub can’t even bring himself to climax because he keeps getting distracted with thoughts of his angry girlfriend Gloria (Alycya Magana) who dumped him. The end of their relationship drove him into the woods to commune with nature and lick his wounds. It was a stupid decision as he’s wholly unsuited to 'rough it' in the wild. The forest is dangerous. It's hot as hell. And Carl barely has enough proper supplies to survive.  (He's lugging about cans of lychees for sustenance. Lychees?) As if that is not enough of a recipe for disaster, he hasn't even ventured that far away from civilization. He keeps getting distracted by car noises, planes overhead, and other connections with the real world a stone's throw away. 

Carl shuffles through the woods, sweating, swatting away bugs, s scratching his overgrown beard, and trying to learn things from his copy of the book How to Survive in the Woods. The film cuts back and forth between Carl's attempts to master nature and flashbacks to his troubled life back home. We see the painfully funny exchanges with his girlfriend and their lack of chemistry. Filmmaker Alonzo also shows us just how Carl is at odds with whatever his environment is. We see him toiling away at work in one of those colorless, cubicled corporations that sucks the life out of its employees. Carl may have a scant pint left, and he's a lost soul of the Buster Keaton variety. 

Of course, that makes it all the more amusing for us to watch.  Serrato earns laughs continually as Carl with his passive, doltish reaction to everything. Watching him try to navigate the trees, exercise in the woods, and keep his dignity throughout is a continual hoot. His woes reach their zenith when he eats some mushrooms that his drug-dealing neighbor gave him for the journey. Carl can't handle tripping and gets freaked out by the hilarious episode, all brought vividly to life by an amusing, animated interlude. 

We root for Carl as he remains more sympathetic than just pathetic. He's trying at least, though he really shouldn't be going overboard to demonstrate his willingness to take stock and grow up. Alonzo gets a lot out of his cast, as well as his below-the-line crew. The woodsy world is brought vividly to life by cinematographer Nicholas Daniel Sledge with camera work that alternates between eerie stillness and creeping around Carl to add to his angst. 

As he forges ahead, really making a go of it out there, his old flame Gloria seeks him out, but to reveal any more of the story would be to take away the fun of Carl’s unique spiritual journey. This is a  quirky film, a deadpan indie with a lot of heart. Carl is foolish, but at least he's trying. That means a lot in the world of man-child's.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Ali Wong in HARD KNOCK WIFE (copyright 2018)

ALI WONG: HARD KNOCK WIFE (Netflix) 

One of the very best stand-up comedians working these days is Ali Wong. Her first Netflix special BABY COBRA, released on Netflix on Mother’s Day of last year, was a huge success. Then, this Mother's Day, Netflix dropped her new special entitled HARD KNOCK WIFE. It's the hardest I've laughed at stand-up in a long, long time. 

As hilarious as she is, Wong may frighten some. Her delivery is bold and laden with harsh language. Even more discordant are her opinions about motherhood, her private parts, and divvying up duties between parents. She’s brutally honest about the highs and lows of raising a child and isn’t afraid to admit that sometimes she’d like to kick her toddler to the curb. Any parent will know such feelings, but it's an entirely different thing to express such bile in front of a thousand strangers. Still, Wong makes it all relatable and funny as hell, even when she’s raging. 

The 36-year-old talks about a host of topics that few would dare take on like the adverse side effects of breastfeeding and giving birth. She goes on for quite a while about her vagina and what having a baby did to her body. It’s pointed and political too, especially when she delves into the sexual politics of marriage, not to mention women's rights in the workplace, specifically regarding maternity leave. She is a ball-buster and apparently is having a ball in her take-downs.

In many ways, her scathing critique of society may be the most audacious since the likes of George Carlin or Sam Kinison. She roams the stage as those two did, jutting her head out towards the audience, getting in their face as best she can from her vantage point. And it's all even funnier because Wong is eight months pregnant here, wearing a tight Cheetah print mini, and ginormous rose-colored glasses that show off her expressive eyes. 

I suspect that Wong may very well become the next big thing in comedy. Don’t be surprised if she gets her own show soon, or starts to make movies. She should be a major star or at least a household name by Mother’s Day next year.

Illustrator Andrew Tarasov's poster for the movie HOUSESITTERS.

HOUSESITTERS 
(Dreamland Home Video) 

Film critic Jason Coffman has ventured to the other side of the camera to write and direct HOUSESITTERS, a dirt-cheap exploitation parody that riffs hilariously on the tropes of monster movie horror, as well as stoner culture. It looks like it was shot on a cellphone, and one in need of some serious upgrading for that matter, but it's all the better for Coffman to spoof the handheld horror phenomenon that still plagues far too many entries in the genre. Coffman is a connoisseur of horror, from the top of the line to the trash, and it’s one of the film’s best jokes that he never tries to make his effort look wholly professional, just like all those B-movies and worse that he's evaluated in his day.

When I was the horror film critic for the Examiner for five years, I saw a lot of subpar entries too. Coffman has seen even more and he wrote about the range of them in his vast tome The Unrepentant Cinephile: Collected Reviews of Cult, Exploitation, Horror and Independent Films. Here, he satirizes all the mismatched lighting he's encountered in those B-movies, not to mention the jarring sound edits, the overwrought music, and the cheesy puppetry. Coffman's villainous creature at the center of his horror spoof is a rather crude looking hand puppet. It's reminiscent of Joe Dante's GREMLINS if one of them had escaped Frances Lee McCain's microwave after a few seconds of heat. This is a flick that revels in its silliness, yet there's actually much more to it. Coffman has infused his parody with a lot of dark social commentary touching on everything from sexual politics to religion to the male, white patriarchy. 

He makes sly satire out of Millennials self-absorption with his two heroines. They are oblivious to most of the world outside their own needs, but at least the girls are sweet about it. Izzy (Jamie Jirak) is a small-time drug dealer, while her bestie Angie (Annie Watkins) remains unemployed. They amble through life with a devil-may-care attitude, happy enough to spend time with their friends, scarf down pizza, and jabber on about this and that. They’re like a female Bill and Ted, yet even more easygoing and guileless.

When Angie stumbles upon a housesitting job, she invites Izzy along to keep her company. They’re especially excited that the owner has lent Angie his platinum credit card and she plans to use it for munchies and booze. When asked who the house belongs to, the best that Angie can summon is “Some guy.” Of course, it's a deal too good to be true, because one there, the girls discover that there's a pentagram scrawled on the basement floor in blood. Still, they don't sweat it as there is pizza to be ordered.

In most horror movies, ignoring such warning signs would spell doom for them, but I think Coffman wants to do more than just satirize teens. He's actually admiring the girls as they don't judge or worry. Perhaps he's suggesting that their ignorance truly is a form of bliss. It certainly doesn't hurt them as Angie and Izzy seem to prevail throughout the film with their live-and-let-live attitude. 

Coffman's best conceit may be the homeowner character (Jay J. Bidwell). When he returns, the silver-tongued patron of Hell not only explains all the chicanery going on in the house in a dutiful Bond villain sort of way, but he delivers a shrewd dissertation on society, religion, the concept of good and evil, and various shortcomings of our modern society.  

The actors all are having a blast, and the chemistry between the two lead women is terrific. Bidwell impresses as he handles a lot of dialogue in an insinuating and elegant way not far from Vincent Price. Particular attention should be given to puppeteer Jeff Burnham too as he ensures the little monster is hilarious and even a little scary. And any filmmaker that employs pin-up artist Andrew Tarusov to do the poster art, well, he’s aces in my book.  

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

“RBG” SHOWCASES THE MAVERICK SUPREME COURT JUSTICE AND THE FIGHT FOR EQUALITY

Original caricature by Jeff York of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (copyright 2018)

I’m late to the dance reviewing the new documentary RBG, a laudatory examination of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her career, but it seems especially timely to write about it this week. With the travesty of migrant children being ripped from the arms of their mothers and then caged, it’s important to recognize the sexism inherent in the new Trump administration policy. It treats these women and their offspring as second-class citizens, ignoring basic civility and the crucial qualities of maternal caregiving. It’s a status issue that women the world over in fight day in and day out, in so many ways. That’s why such women’s rights and protections have been the cornerstone of Ginsburg’s career. She’s been battling the patriarchy in the United States for over 60 years in court, and it’s why she refuses to retire at 85. There is still far too much work to be done. 

It’s hard to believe in this day and age that women in America are still battling for such essentials as equal rights, equal pay, or, for that matter, common decency in the workplace, but they are. Electing a president who bragged about “grabbing women by the pussy” and watching other celebrity males, including another former president, defend their sexist and abusive actions in the age of #MeToo suggests that we haven’t evolved nearly as much as we should have by now. Yet because of people like Ginsburg, our society has taken giant leaps forward over the last half century and without diligent voices like hers, we may still be in the sexist dark ages of the 50’s.

This documentary, by filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West, showcases the strides that Ginsberg made for herself in the workplace and a male-dominated society, as well as ultimately for all women in both arenas. When she wanted to go to law school, the patriarchy argued that a woman’s place was in the home or professions that were less demanding, but she persisted and rose to the very top of her class. As a lawyer, she argued many times in front of the Supreme Court on behalf of women in cases that challenged gender inequality and won five of those six cases. She advocated as a volunteer attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, and even became their general counsel in 1973. It was a historic career long before President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. 

Of course, the crux of her career that most of us are familiar with is her time on the Supreme Court, where she was appointed to by President Bill Clinton in 1993. It’s hard to believe that back then Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah was actually the one who suggested that she be chosen to Attorney General Janet Reno, but politics wasn’t quite as partisan then as it is now. The film showcases many of the cases that came before the Supreme Court once Ginsburg was sworn in as the second female justice in the history of the court, and how she moved more to the left from her earlier centrist positions as the right started to take more of a stronghold on the court. It’s amazing to see that she got along with Antonin Scalia in private as friends, even though they clashed on the court often as he was a hardline Constitutionalist who saw no reason to update or modernize American law.

She did, of course, fully recognizing the need to recognize women and minorities as full citizens with equal rights, even though that wasn’t evident in the original laws as framed by the founders. The film showcases her triumphs, as well as her losses, on such issues as they came before the highest court over the last 25 years, and it’s inspiring to see her fighting to give everyone a chance at the American Dream.

Still, as political as the film is, and clearly timed to serve as a counter to the overreach of the radical right in our modern world, it’s wonderful to see so much of the story be about Ginsberg’s personal life. Interviews with her children illuminate her tenacity to study cases well into the evening, as well as her limits in the kitchen, but mostly, of the great family she and her husband Martin, whom she met at Cornell and married before attending law school at Harvard and Columbia. There’s was a great love story, filled with self-deprecating humor, complementary skills, and passion. 

Ginsburg has been through a lot in the past eight years and the film spends a lot of time on both her triumphs and tragedies. Her spouse’s death, a bout with colon cancer, her controversy in speaking out against Trump during the 2016 campaign, all of these difficulties are chronicled here. So is her workout regiment, including weights and strength training, that has kept her nimble and fit well into her eight decade, helping her to live strong and keep fighting the good fight. She may be petite and soft in voice, but everything about the “Notorious RBG”, as many have dubbed her, packs an incredible wallop. 

There is humor – she enjoyed Kate McKinnon’s parody of her on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE – and there are all kinds of admirers talking about her on camera from Ginsberg’s former clients to religious leaders to presidents to the press. This is clearly an affectionate study of her, but the Associate Justice is wholly deserving of it, particularly in our #TimesUp times and all that still needs to be accomplished. She is a pioneer, icon, and fighter. And her story is one of this year’s must-see films. 

Monday, June 11, 2018

“INCREDIBLES 2” IS ONE SUPERHERO SEQUEL THAT LIVES UP TO ITS NAME


Of all the Pixar or Disney animated films released in the last 20 years, THE INCREDIBLES was easily the one that lent itself best to a franchise. After all, comic book heroes tend to have extendable stories. Still, the 2004 Oscar-winning classic about a family of superheroes didn’t get around to releasing a sequel until this month. In some ways, it would have been wonderful if it hadn’t and left well enough alone. Yet if you’re going to do a sequel, INCREDIBLES 2 is the way to do it. It echoes all the best things from the original and may have even surpassed the terrific action set-pieces from the first. 

This sequel picks up right after the end of the original with the expansion of the attack by the Underminer baddie digging up more villainy for the Parr family to fight. Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) uses all of his he-man strength to thwart the character (voiced by John Ratzenberger) and his family joins in the battle. Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) extends her talents all over the terrain to help stop the Underminer’s runaway truck, and the kids do what they can too. Violet (Sarah Vowell) creates protective force fields and disappears at will, while Dash (Huck Milner) lives up to his name, rushing about to undermine the Underminer wherever he can.

That first breathlessly exciting scene sets the stage for how the team will interact together, not to mention how the family friend and fellow super Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) will help out where he can. You’d think that such an elaborate and thrilling action sequence would be hard to top, but the movie does so throughout. At times, INCREDIBLES 2 even eclipses similar action that’s been on display in many of the live-action Marvel films that Disney also spearheads.  

And even though the Incredibles thwart the Underminer’s destruction, two things go awry. The bad guy escapes, and the superheroes get in trouble for coming out of the woodwork. After all, their ilk has been banned in the world due to their powers being deemed too dangerous. The Parr family retreats to a dingy motel and worries about how they’ll make ends meet. That’s when a telecommunications tycoon named Winston Deavor shows up. As voiced by Bob Odenkirk, you expect him to be supercilious, but instead, he’s actually an honest huckster. 

Deavor, and his behind-the-scenes tech genius sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener), plot to create a campaign to bring the supers back and Elastigirl is put at the front and center of it. That sends the overly macho Bob into a flaccid funk, but Helen is thrilled that she can strike one for her contemporaries, her family, and womanhood. This film is feminist and forward-thinking, and it dovetails nicely off of the conversation about superheroes and the patriarchy that WONDER WOMAN started last summer. 

Elastigirl’s job is to showcase how vital supers are, and her first battle ends up being with a new villain called the Screenslaver. He not only likes hacking into the world’s computer screens, but he has hypnotizing tricks that turn the viewers into mindless sheep susceptible to all kinds of wrong directions and fake news. (Remind you of any news network out there?) Meanwhile, as Helen takes on the role of breadwinner, Bob becomes a stay-at-home dad. He has his own Herculean tasks to conquer like struggling to take care of baby Jack-Jack who’s developing many different powers and help Dash figure out the new math. 

One of the most delightful surprises of the film is that Bob isn’t awful at being a dad. He starts out clueless and afraid, yet manages to get it together and heroically take care of the household. And even when he screws up Violet's date with a classmate, he manages to work towards fixing his mistake and gaining the forgiveness of his daughter.
All of the characters are deepened this time out, and it’s poignant to see Violet struggle with her first crush at school. Surprisingly, the biggest laughs in the family are delivered courtesy of Jack-Jack. He not only has a wide range of ill-timed powers, but writer-director Brad Bird hands him the funniest sequence in the story as he battles a raccoon in the yard. Watch out, Scrat, from the ICE AGE franchise, you have competition from another intrepid and hungry critter!
Bird manages to mix thorough character development, smart fun, biting satire, and exciting action as you’d expect, and his success here will likely warrant another visit with this delightful family. He also voices the costume designer Edna Mode again for the sequel and her scene is a comic highlight. (Can an Edna Mode short be far in the future? I would imagine not.) If there’s anything that is less than incredible here, it is in the identity of the Screenlaver, but that’s a small quibble. For an industry where some superhero franchises are starting to wear out their welcome, this one proves that it definitively should suit up again. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

“WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?” SHOWCASES THE POWER AND POLITICS OF FRED ROGERS


Who knew that Fred Rogers was so political, so radical, and so subversive?

Without question, the remarkable documentary WOULDN’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? presents the legendary host of MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD as the man we all knew and loved. In scene after scene, the film showcases Rogers as the gentle, kind, and soft-spoken writer, producer and actor who became an institution with his children’s television show on PBS from 1968-2001. 

Throughout, everyone who is interviewed about Rogers stresses that the man was precisely whom the camera captured. Rogers proves it too in insightful interviews with him talking about his work. But what is not as apparent to most viewers will be just how daring all that Rogers did was on so many levels.

Rogers was an ordained minister, a registered Republican, and a man drawn to television by the need to offer children a program that was more sensitive to their needs, especially since so much of what was being provided on the tube was brash and vulgar. Noisy cartoons with their slapstick violence, crass commercials with their hard sell of everything from cereal to toys, these things perturbed Rogers. Too much of television was treating children as consumers, he felt, and it worried him that it was desensitizing America’s youth. That’s why when he had a chance to put together his show in Pittsburgh for the local PBS station, he seized the opportunity. He would create a children's program that talked to youngsters more on their level.  

That meant slowing things down, creating more tranquility, and taking on the mantle of being a teacher, not just entertainer. That mission is made clear as the documentary opens with black-and-white, handheld footage from 1967 showing Rogers being interviewed while sitting at a grand piano. He gently speaks of not wanting to patronize children, and instead, helping them through the various modulations of life. Rogers recognized that growing up is tremendously challenging, and children under 10 have so much to fathom as they become more and more a part of the adult world.

Rogers knew too that the 60’s were a turbulent time for everyone, let alone children. That’s why his program set out to help kids understand all the chaos in the modern world in terms that they could understand. He also wanted them to know that it was okay to feel the full range of emotions they felt, from fear to sadness. He knew that it would be tough for children navigate things like death and war, and his show dealt with such topics head-on. 

Rogers aimed at explaining the complexities of the adult world and how it impacted children with a blend of his Christian faith, a good neighbor sensibility, and the learnings from advanced child psychology. In doing so, Rogers put on a program each week that was remarkably adroit - considerate, compassionate, and a distinct counter to the majority of children’s cartoonish programming.

Throughout this inspiring and uplifting documentary, scenes from his show showcase just how radical his show was in treating children so humanistic. Clips highlight how MR. ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD dealt head-on with racism, bullying, war, divorce, assassination, and the disabled. The very first week the show was on, Rogers tackled the subject of war and how it divided our nation. Seeing clips from that episode look daring by today's standards, let alone those in 1968.

Filmmaker Morgan Neville won an Oscar in 2014 for his documentary TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM, chronicling the world of backup singers, and he has an affinity for the entertainment industry. Here, he illuminates how shows are put together as well, and ensures the exposure is educational, entertaining, and even inspiring. All of the former colleagues, friends, and family interviewed for this documentary give fascinating anecdotes about the making of Rogers' program and some of them are hilarious, others deeply touching.

One such example is relayed by Francois Clemmons. He played Officer Clemmons on the show and told of a scene that Rogers wrote for them to play where they share a kiddie wading pool to cool off their feet. It appeared to be a warm and charming interaction between the two adults, but it was written to serve as an allegory for racial harmony, especially with the segregation going on in public pools throughout the south. Rogers was socially demonstrative like that, time and time again, as this documentary illustrates.

In fact, throughout its run, Rogers dealt with world events, including the Challenger Shuttle disaster and 9-11, and he explained the events so that they were understandable to his young audience. Rogers was a virtual father figure, minister, social worker, and best friend. 

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? is sly in the way it shows how Rogers used puppetry to deal with his own obsessions and forlorn past. These cuddly creatures may have lived in the “Land of Make-Believe,” but they represented all-too-real facets of Rogers personality. Daniel Tiger’s insecurities reflected much of the angst Rogers felt as a chubby child, and King Friday's rule represented the powers that Rogers desired to change the land.

This documentary is a bold and compelling film, chock full of never-before-seen footage, backstage tales, and remarkable testimony from many of the program's cast and crew. Rogers’ widow and two sons are interviewed as well, and their insights will make you love their patriarch more. The doc even finds a place to showcase a few of the many parodies done of MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD over the years on late night TV, from Eddie Murphy to Jim Carrey to Martin Short. As you'd expect, Rogers had a sunny attitude about all that too. He could laugh with others and laugh at himself too.  

Rogers was truly was a progressive leader, both of his time and in many ways, before his time. His constituency was children, but in reality, humanity was his true audience. He connected with people in ways that few ever do, and he did it in a public forum for close to 40 years. This film is a fitting and remarkable tribute to all that he was and a reminder that we could all use a lot more of his kind of understanding and kindness in the world today.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

BAD GUYS CHECK INTO “HOTEL ARTEMIS” BUT THEY DON’T CHECK OUT


The new thriller HOTEL ARTEMIS is a fun, frothy, and assuredly made B-movie with an A-list cast. It’s not a lot more than that, but as diversionary entertainment, Hollywood could do a lot worse. (And often does.) Its most marked characteristic is that Jodie Foster is the star, returning to the big screen after a five-year absence. One wishes that she might’ve returned in something more highbrow, a bit worthier of her accomplished resume, but at least she’s having fun in this pulpy concoction. 

HOTEL ARTEMIS starts with a bang as a 2028 Los Angeles is under siege. It seems that the megalomaniac corporation that owns the city’s waterworks has decided to cut off the water supply to the public to control the violence and lawlessness that has run amuck. Now, the City of Angels is experiencing riots, and the streets look like a Third World hell. Even worse, the hordes are looting, and the chaos is bringing out the underworld in full force. 

Chief among them, for story purposes, are a group of bank robbers led by brothers (Sterling K. Brown and Brian Tyree Henry). They’ve hoisted a ton of loot and some errant diamonds they didn’t expect in their haul, but when the gang is ambushed by riot police, the two brothers get shot and require immediate medical attention. They head over to the Hotel Artemis, the secret hideout for criminals that caters to their every wanton need. At the Artemis, they can check in, lay low, and even receive emergency surgery. 

Running the run-down, art-deco hotel is a character known only as "The Nurse" (Foster). She wears many hats there, checking the criminals in, catering to their room service needs, and yes, nursing their wounds. She also strictly enforces the rules, including the first one that states all weapons must be checked at the door. Of course, rules are meant to be broken, and it won’t be long before almost every one of her ten commandments is in ruin as much as the hotel’s wallpaper. 

One of the fun conceits of the movie is that despite the rooms all being dilapidated to a fault, they nonetheless contain all the modern amenities needed to cater to the killer clientele. Holographic phones, state-of-the-art gizmos, heat-sensor tags – they’re as prevalent there as the old-fashioned, turn-key doors. It’s very much a mix of the old and new, as every dystopian future must be since Ridley Scott created his visionary BLADE RUNNER in 1982.

Even the tools that the Nurse employs to bring the badasses back to life are ultra-mod, including laser scalpels, fully-functional operating room accouterment, and other fancy do-dads to patch everyone up. Helping out with some of the care is a hulking Nurse’s aide (Dave Bautista) called Everest. He also serves as the hotel’s muscle when some of the vermin start rattling in their cages. Inexplicably, for a hotel that bans weapons, there are also machines on the premise that can create instant graphite firearms.  

It doesn’t make much sense that such a rule-laden hotel would have those kinds of machines available to guests, but then writer/director Drew Pearce’s script isn’t all that interested in logic. His screenplay intends to be ‘too cool for school,’ giving his film Tarantino-type savvy at every turn, as in the way his criminals are assigned the names of their hotel rooms, which all happen to be vacation destinations. Brown is called Waikiki, Boutella gets the French moniker Nice, etc. 

It all plays like second-hand Tarantino, or even Elmore Leonard, with a whole helluva lot of JOHN WICK thrown in too. (Name-dropping that Keanu Reeves franchise must have helped greenlight this one.) What Pearce should have spent more time on was pushing to the forefront more of his own original thinking. His concept of a business-run government denying essential human rights could’ve helped all this play as a much more savage social satire, but he seems more interested in exploring the action/adventure elements of this saga.

Unfortunately, those action scenes are merely serviceable and not particularly inspired. The biggest set-piece gives Boutella a chance to strut her stuff, but it misses being genuinely memorable by being so blanded written and staged. In the ho-hum scene, her assassin takes out a batch of bad guys in a tight hallway, armed with only a stash of the Nurse’s scalpels. She tosses the blades around but finds no imaginative way to slice and dice with them. They might as well be Ninja stars for how boringly they’re employed.

Just like those scalpels, the film fails to cut through in more meaningful ways as well. Jeff Goldblum’s droll arrival late in the picture as the crime kingpin should've been chock full of possibilities, but then he’s given very little to do in his time onscreen. More talent is wasted, including both Zachary Quinto and Jenny Slate in their supporting roles as well. Quinto is given only one emotion to play – rage, and comedic treasure Slate isn’t handed one quirky line to utter. 

Even worse, Pearce strains to create pathos throughout. The Nurse tears up thinking about her deceased son continually, and Brown’s baddie bitterly talks of what might have been if he wasn’t burdened by his ne’er-do-well brother. Pulp like this doesn’t need maudlin excesses; it needs snap, crackle, and pop. But even though a ton of the cast ends up shot, beat up, or killed, most of the violence is shockingly tame. Only Charlie Day’s motor-mouth criminal meets a truly gruesome and fitting fate.  

In its favor, the movie does move fast, and the production design by Ramsey Avery is exceptionally gritty. Foster is made up to look like an old lady, and she does create a quirky, eccentric biddy.  Still, Pearce needed to give her more to do and say that was truly memorable. Having her repeat the line “It’s just another Wednesday” again and again doesn't cut it. As Regina George said about the term fetch in MEAN GIRLS, “It’s not going to happen.”

If HOTEL ARTEMIS had a script as impressive as its cast, this could’ve been a genuine sleeper and worthy of becoming a franchise. Instead, it’s most likely to become a popular VOD rental down the road. This one could’ve been five stars if it tried harder, but suffice it to say, better nights out await elsewhere. 

Sunday, June 3, 2018

"HEREDITARY" IS UNSETTLING HORROR THAT STRUGGLES TO SETTLE ON AN ENDING


Your enjoyment of HEREDITARY may depend on how many horror movies you’ve seen. If you haven’t seen a lot, most of it will shock the ever-loving bejesus out of you. If you have seen quite a few, you might get a kick out of counting all the bits that you’ve seen in other films from the genre. Or, if you’re a big horror fan, you might be confounded or even angry at those derivative bits being tossed in, along with one too many other ideas that end up seriously marring the last act. The film falls just short of greatness due to its wildly overplayed finale.

The shame of it is that HEREDITARY is quite terrific before it unravels. Assuredly written and directed by Ari Aster, the film is filled with dread rather than a high body count. The film’s production values are exemplary, particularly the deliberate camera work and subtle sound design. And it contains an intensely committed and affecting performance by lead Toni Collette, not to mention able support by her fellow cast members Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd and Milly Shapiro. 

Aster starts things off with an unsettling image that sets the tone for most of what’s to come. The camera slowly moves in on an elaborate and detailed dollhouse. It’s clearly hand-crafted art, and as we get closer, it focuses on one of the bedrooms. Then, quite eerily, the room seamlessly becomes real, with a teen boy waking from his bed. Is this a dream, a metaphor, or the film telling us that the line is going to be very thin between fantasy and reality? Yes, yes, and yes. And the movie only gets better from there.

We’re introduced to the occupants of the house, starting with dad Steve (Byrne). He’s a calm and stoic sort, gently nudging the self-absorbed teen boy Peter (Wolff) to get his clothes on for his grandma’s funeral. Younger sister Charlie (Shapiro) isn't ready for the trip to church either. She's an eccentric 13-year-old, sullen and morose. Then there is mother Annie (Colette), a woman so high-strung that she’s already sitting in the car ready to go to the church before her children have even awoken. 

At the funeral, this family's dysfunction is exposed even more. Annie confesses to barely knowing the woman she’s eulogizing, and the bitter daughter indicates that she hasn’t forgiven her mother for the many years of estrangement. The mercurial mother kept many secrets from her daughter too, and Annie confesses to not knowing any of her mom’s friends who show up to mourn. 

The more and more time we spend with the Grahams, the more we realize just how utterly secretive and strange they all are. Annie is always on edge, sleepwalking, and displaying wild mood swings day and night. Steve seems inert, even cowardly, in his abilities to calm her or control the wildly undisciplined household. Peter keeps to himself to a fault and lies about his affinity for drugs. And Charlie? Well, she's the oddest of all. The girl chooses to remain aloof from all, locked in her own private world where she can talk to herself, make irritating noises with her tongue, and scribble ghastly portraits in her sketchbook. She has no friends and is the type of oddball who enjoys decapitating a dead bird and toting it around in her backpack.

Meanwhile, Annie’s fraught history with her deceased mom continues to stick in her craw to the point that she thinks she's haunting her. It doesn’t help that the miniatures she makes are all of the oddest moments of her weird family life, including unseemly ones with her mother. Her mother exposing a breast to feed one of Annie’s babies, or the family watching Grandma wither away in the hospice are just two of the tableaus Annie has made for her upcoming gallery show. Charlie seems to have inherited a similar creepiness as she makes her own sinister sculpture art out of wires, wood, and that beheaded bird. The young girl also has visions of Grandma too. Indeed, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree in this family.

Then, a major character is beheaded in an automobile accident, and it throws the family into utter turmoil. Resentments build, relationships fray, and Annie turns towards spiritualism to help her grieve. She meets Joan (Ann Dowd, at her most unctuous) at a grief counseling session and is talked into performing a seance to contact her dead family member. Later, when Annie cajoles her family to join in yet another seance in the middle of the night, the film reaches its zenith of freakiness and unsettling terror.  

But then, as the third act kicks in, the story starts to wobble. The narrative becomes a lot more silly than scary, players zig and zag out of character, and bits are borrowed from other famous frighteners. Aster throws in tropes from ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE FURY, FIRESTARTER, THE WICKER MAN, THE OMEN, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and THE SHINING, and the uniqueness of the film turns too derivative. It almost plays like fanboy homage rather than a cogent climax.

Did Aster doubt his script’s strengths and decide to give his final act a balls-to-the-wall finish to seem bigger and more commercial? Perhaps so, but that miscalculation robs what had been a unique effort up until the end. Seeing everything but the kitchen sink tossed into the ending while turning the Annie character into some sort of Freddy Kruger/Mrs. Baylock/Jack Torrance hybrid is not only disheartening, but it’s also almost laughable.

Perhaps the hereditary in the title actually refers to all that Aster derived from those other movies for his third act, but he should have trusted his subtler instincts. His film could have been a modern classic, something on par with GET OUT and IT FOLLOWS, a shrewd and intellectual exercise in horror, but it falters at the finish line. Not only are the last 20 minutes desperate undisciplined, but the actions are screen don’t tingle the spine. They make you scratch your head.