Film Review: Jojo Rabbit

Starring: Roman Griffin Davis, Taika Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell
Directed by: Taika Waititi
Rated: PG 13 
Running Time: 108 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

I don’t know how a movie featuring an imaginary Adolf Hitler managed to be one of the most heartwarming films of the year…but it’s 2019 and every day actual reality gets more ludicrous, so that sounds about right. Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is a masterful satire that nails its tone with a kind of supernatural precision that most filmmakers can only dream of and a story still more wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.

Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a small boy who lives with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) in a village in WWII Germany. His only ambition is to fight for Hitler just like his absent father. Lacking any real warfront nearby and too young to be conscripted, Jojo instead joins up with the local division of the Hitler Youth headed by the one-eyed Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). It’s a lot like boy scouts if all the participants were extremely racist and whose bonfires consisted of banned books. Jojo plays tough but gains his titular nickname when the older scouts test how murderous Jojo actually is and the kid fails to kill a bunny in front of the everyone.

Jojo is not only disappointed with himself but he’s royally failing Hitler! Specifically the imaginary Fuhrer, played by Waititi himself, who follows Jojo around and goads on Jojo’s tough guy persona. To be clear, Waititi isn’t actually playing Hitler (in fact when asked about ‘researching’ his portrayal, the director says he didn’t because that guy was “a fucking cunt.” Yep.) Instead, he is playing an icon to a child, which is an entirely different prospect. In Taika’s take just about the scariest thing about him is the unnatural blue contacts. He’s a playground bully who spouts back all the vile lies about Jewish people the boy’s troop leaders are trying to drill into him. Jojo’s whole bubble is popped when he finds an actual living Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in his mother’s attic.

With McKenzie’s arrival, the film begins to become something much more than the riotous comedy that Waititi achieves in laying out Jojo’s life in the scouts. (Although if this film had only given me a burnt out Sam Rockwell demonstrating deadly weapons to a group of small children, I would have still considered it a cinematic gift, but I digress.) No, rather than being fearful, Elsa leans hard into the gross mythos the Nazis are spreading about her people in order to intimidate the young Jojo. It’s one thing to tell a ten year old that Elsa is a demon, entirely another to ask him not to then be terrified when faced with her one on one. Their bond is the heart of the film and McKenzie wields what small power she has over Jojo with ferocity while Jojo steadily moves from fear into fascination and maybe even friendship. Mckenzie’s is a stunning performance that has me more excited to see her in Edgar Wright’s next feature. As for Davis, putting the weight of this movie on the ten year old is thematically fitting but a huge risk. However just like Hunt for The Wilderpeople’s Julian Dennison, Waititi’s casting of Davis proves to be spot on. 

Meanwhile these kids are surrounded by the grown actors putting in some truly beautiful work. Sam Rockwell’s one eyed captain is physically out of commission but maybe that’s not the only reason he’s not on the field. Considering there’s nothing remotely straight about him and second-in-command Finkel (Alfie Allen). Scarlett Johansson is fearless as Rosie who lovingly calls Jojo “Shitler” and whose drinking, smiling facade belies her own defiance. After all, her sheltering Elsa is a huge breech of the law. Still Rosie dances, she bike rides and she declares her dinner table neutral Switzerland. Johansson brings genuine depth and warmth to Rosie in both her bonds with Jojo and Elsa.

Jojo meeting Elsa and beginning to encounter the larger world is where Waititi really hits home. Rosie allows Jojo into the Hitler Youth only insofar as she is a single mother and there’s really no alternative daycare. But when face to face with his supposed enemy, Jojo’s whole worldview is challenged.  Hate cannot flourish without ignorance and it’s the ordinary people in this film whose small acts make the larger world better for all. Taika’s crafted a film that’s not only timely but manages to earn tears both from laughter and sadness.

Film Review: “Joker”

Joker

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro and Zazie Beetz
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Rated: R
Running Time: 122 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

Much like the Joker’s origin in “The Killing Joke,” Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is an aspiring stand-up comedian. Before he can reach that pie in the sky dream, he makes ends meet as a clown-for-hire, takes care of his ailing mother in a rat-infested apartment, and attempts to deal with several mental illnesses. There’s actually nothing particularly extraordinary about Arthur, and that seems to be casually ingrained into him by his co-workers, passersby on the street and even his own mother. But if the title of the film wasn’t a big enough clue, there’s a lot in life that’s in store for Arthur.

It’d be disingenuous to try and rank all those who’ve portrayed the Joker (minus Jared Leto) because of the drastically different material they were given. However, “Joker” stands tall in its own category because it’s surrounded by subpar films. Villain origin stories aren’t great fodder, just look at “Venom” and “Hannibal.” But “Joker” isn’t just an origin story for the clown prince of crime, it’s a character study, something that’s never been done before on screen. Breaking down the Joker is a tricky task and there’s really no right way to do it, but there’s definitely a wrong way to do it. While Phoenix does it magically nuanced way, director/writer Todd Phillips handles it in ham-fisted fashion.

Phillips is more well-known for his “Hangover” trilogy or juvenile 2000 film, “Road Trip.” Behind the camera, Phillips is more than capable of telling a gritty crime story, drawing from what I can only assume is movies he grew up on and influenced him to become a filmmaker in the first place, “Taxi Driver,” “Kings of Comedy” and “Network.” He encapsulates that late 70s/early 80s glow well, emulating its style, color palette and nihilism. Where he falls remarkably short is writing a script that’s on par with those classics. Phillips makes a lot of leaps in logic, despite grounding the main character in a very realistic Gotham.

There’s nothing supernatural or superhuman about Fleck’s life. There’s no vat of chemicals to fall in or scars that he’s telling conflicting stories about. Everything that makes Fleck the hero and villain of his own story, is inside. So what makes a lot of the “Joker” work is the acting and not Phillips. That’s because the director gives away several mid, and late, storytelling reveals by relying on clichés early on. Anyone familiar with the Batman lore or movies involving psychosis will be able to spot plot twists and turns involving characters or the plot. Phillips’ maturity with his hands behind the camera unfortunately doesn’t translate when the pen meets the paper.

I’ll give credit to Phillips for one aspect, and that’s at least using one of the film’s tropes to set-up discussion about the ending of the film. Since Phillips has noted this is a stand-alone film (meaning it doesn’t fit into the DC Cinematic Universe and won’t have a sequel), there’s a lot to take away from the final 15 minutes. That’s where I assume a lot of the pre-release controversy stems from. Several people have weighed in on what they believe Phillips is intending to say, but I’m in the minority because I’m not sure Phillips is actually trying to say anything in particular. I believe he structured it in such a neutral fashion, that the discussion will simply be guided by the ideology of the viewer.

But for all the hype, controversy, praise, condemnation and mystery, the only thing worthy of discussion for years to come is the performance by Phoenix; everything else feels like contemporary background noise. Phoenix, as he’s done in nearly every role he’s been given, is absolutely magnetic. Despite the derivative nature of the script, Phoenix keeps his character wildly unpredictable while combining antihero elements and sociopathic tendencies. We’re not just witnessing the birth of a supervillain, we’re watching a true descent into madness.

Film Review: “Ad Astra”

AD ASTRA
Starring:  Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones and Ruth Negga
Directed by: James Gray
Rated:  PG 13
Running time:  2 hrs 2 mins
20th Century Fox

Roy McBride (Pitt) is an astronaut.  He begins and ends every day with a diagnostic test, one that is given to ensure he has his emotions in check.  Roy is the only person who, despite the situation, can maintain a heart rate of less than 80.  This is put to the test when, during a routine maintenance mission on a space antenna, a tragedy happens, causing Roy to literally fall back to earth.  Despite the obvious adrenaline rush his heart rate remains low.  Which makes him perfect for his next mission…one to save the world.

Overly long (it feels like double the 2 hour run time) but beautifully filmed, “Ad Astra” rockets across the screen powered by one of Brad Pitt’s best performances.  Age has somewhat weathered his good looks, which is a good thing because there has been a fine actor under that face for years.  Roy’s mission is to head to Jupiter to find out what is emanating from the planet that is putting the Earth in danger.  Roy is shocked to learn that the cause may be his father (Jones), who was presumed killed in action during a visit to Jupiter many years ago.

A lot of the film is Pitt, alone with his thoughts, and he holds the story together as best he can.  Supporting players, like Negga, Loren Dean and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Donald Sutherland do well with what screen time they have.  The film is beautifully photographed so credit is due to the production people.  But the pace…Oy!  Pitt mentions in the film that his journey has covered 2 billion miles.  Believe me, it feels like you were along for every last one.

Film Review: “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice”

LINDA RONSTADT:  THE SOUND OF MY VOICE
Starring:  Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne and JD Souther
Directed by: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Rated:  PG 13
Running time:  1 hr 35 mins
Greenwich Entertainment

Last week when I reviewed the outstanding documentary about David Crosby I noted that I had been very lucky to have met him many years ago at a Vietnam Veteran’s tribute concert.  I bring that up because I also met Linda Ronstadt that day, and she is the subject of the new film “Linda Ronstadt:  The Sound of My Voice.”

As a teenager in the 1970s, Linda Ronstadt’s music comprised a lot of the soundtrack of my life.  And, as a teenage BOY in the 1970s, I had a poster for her “Living in the U.S.A.” album on my wall, giving me a new appreciation for roller skating.  This new documentary takes a look at her life, from childhood through today, giving a very in-depth look at one of the most successful female artists of all time.

She had a very loving upbringing.  Her paternal grandfather was an inventor who gave us such household items as the electric stove and the toaster.  Her mother met her father at college.  Their home was always filled with music, both contemporary and the Mexican music her father enjoyed.  All three (two girls and a boy) loved to sing.  They formed a folk group in the late 60s with little success. Ronstadt met guitarist Bobby Kimmel and they formed the band Stone Poneys.  The band had a hit with their version of Mike Nesmith’s “Different Drum” – still the only song written by a member of the Monkees to hit the Top 10 – and drew much attention.  Unfortunately, that attention was directed at Linda, who received many offers to record as a solo artist.  And she did, releasing hit after hit for many years.

The film is full of great archive footage, including early television appearances on such shows as “Dick Cavett” and “The Johnny Cash Show.”  It also has amazing interviews with pretty much anyone you can think of from the musical scene of the 1970s.  Don Henley and Glenn Frey recount how they were hired to be part of Ronstadt’s road band, only to discover that they had great songwriting chemistry together and leaving to form their own band – the Eagles.  Other female vocalists, like Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris, talk about Ronstadt’s influences on their careers.  If you are a fan of the music of this era, this is a must see movie.

Ronstadt no longer tours, as she is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, but this film serves as a time capsule of her greatest moments and a reminder of how great music was before auto-tune!

Film Review: “Villains”

VILLAINS
Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Maika Monroe, Jeffrey Donovan & Kyra Sedgwick
Directed By: Dan Berk & Robert Olsen
Rated: R
Running Time: 89 minutes
ALTER

A pair of thieves with dreams of living it up in Florida make a couple of big mistakes during a gas station holdup sending them down a wildly different road in Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s Villains. First, they swear this is their “last job!”—always a no no where movie characters are concerned—and second, they forget to,  you know,  pump their escape car with any of the station’s gas. Thus they find themselves stalled out on the road and scouring the nearest secluded home for anything to help them in their journey. The home they find just so happens to have a small girl shackled in the basement. Suddenly the mission isn’t just for gas for the car but an all out battle with the unsuspecting homeowners. As I said, it’s a much different path than Florida.

Villains grabs you quickly and easily thanks to the charisma of its two leads, Jules and Mickey (Maika Monroe and Bill Skarsgård, respectively). They’re goofy as all get out—we’re introduced to them fumbling through their robbery in rubber animal masks—but it’s so obvious they’re head over heels in love with each other that you just want to root for them. Of course Monroe (It Follows) and Skarsgard (It & It Chapter Two) are no strangers to the suspenseful or violent elements Villains throws at them eventually, but as these two crazy kids they both show off a genuine knack for comedy. I can’t imagine a better time to see Villains than if you’re in need for some comedic relief after a dose of Pennywise.

Now let’s get back to that girl chained up in the basement. Turns out she belongs to the equally tight couple of Gloria and George (Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Donovan), the homeowners who combat Jules and Mickey’s manic energy with nothing but civil hospitality. The thieves are ready to fight their way out of the house with the chained little girl, but George and Gloria disarm them long enough to chat about what’s going on. Donovan in particular revels in George’s southern salesman draaaaaaaaawl to calm everyone down. The unlikely clash of these couples is strongly supported by candy colored production design and a nifty musical score that keeps the proceedings tonally in sync until very near the end of the film. The resolution of the wildcard chained child isn’t quite as much fun as how we got there, but with a runtime just shy of 90 minutes, it’s hardly an issue.

The fun of this Villains is all down to the perfect casting. The couples are equally unhinged but operating by their own internal logic while being totally devoted to their partners. Mickey and Jules are like excitable puppies in their eagerness to please each other while George keeps up a veneer of civility even though it’s clear that Gloria is way out of touch with reality. Sedgwick too puts in a delightfully bonkers turn as Gloria that includes a striptease for Mickey. Everyone is chewing so much scenery it’s a wonder anyone has room for Gloria’s shepherd’s pie.

Film Review: “Tigers Are Not Afraid”

TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID
Starring: Paola Lara, Juan Ramon Lopez
Directed by: Issa Lopez
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour 23 minutes
Variance Films 

While there are certainly enough terrifying elements to make “Tigers Are Not Afraid” a horror film, this 2017 title from Mexican director Issa Lopez is a breath of fresh air for any cinephile. It first taps into the cartel-related violence plaguing Latin America to create an imaginative story concerning a group of orphaned children struggling to survive. Next, Lopez’s engaging script puts a spin on what would have been a tragic drama by inserting the ghosts of that violence and their desire for retribution. At not even 90 minutes running time, “Tigers Are Not Afraid” is a sprint that will leave your heart racing. 

Lopez hooks us right away from a startling statistic: that in the 10 years since the beginning of the drug cartel wars (2006) in Mexico, that an estimated 160,000 people had been killed and another 53,000 had disappeared. Staggering numbers to be sure. However, it is made even more sobering when you are forced to consider how many innocent children in all of it have been turned into orphans with no where to go. If a random bullet does not get them, then human traffickers will. 

We find young Estrella (Paola Lara) attending school and crafting a fairy tale in her class about a tiger when gunfire on the street erupts, causing all classes to be suspended indefinitely. While hunkering down, a teacher gives Estrella three pieces of chalk that represent three wishes for Estrella to use. It is not until Estrella encounters a dead body in the street that things become a little Stephen Kingish as a trail of blood follows her home like a snake. 

After Estrella arrives home, we realize that both of her parents have vanished, and she is utterly alone. The father has apparently been out of the picture for a while, so it is the mother that is the focal point of her mourning. In desperation, Estrella uses one of her chalk pieces to wish that her mother would come back. A natural thing to want, but poorly though out as her mother comes back to her in the form of hushed whispers and ghastly images. 

Estrella, always followed by the blood trail, ends up finding refuge with a group of orphaned boys led by a streetwise kid named El Shine (Juan Roman Lopez). This refuge is no place for a girl, especially since El Shine has recently stolen the gun and cell phone belonging to a notorious human trafficker who has murdered multiple people. As they try to stay one step of ahead of them, Estrella other wishes, compounded by her mother’s requests goes to show to be careful what you wish for, even if you do survive. 

“Tigers Are Not Afraid” is a gripping, intense story that is plenty tragic even without the horror element. The plight of Mexican children entangled by this long war on the cartels and the one between them, is too easily forgotten by a news media starving for the next 24-hour news cycle. As for the horror element, it is done is such a minimalist way that it greatly heightens the story’s tension when it is introduced. The acting by the two lead children is performed well enough, but it is the story itself that is the star. If you have heart issues, then you might want to take your medication first before seeing “Tigers Are Not Afraid.”

 

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Film Review: “Rapid Response”

RAPID RESPONSE (Documentary)
Starring:  Mario Andretti, Rick Mears and Bobby Unser
Directed by: Roger Hinze and Michael William Miles
Rated:  PG 13
Running time:  1 hr 39 mins
Atlas Distribution Company

My nephew loves the Indianapolis 500.  It was an event he could attend each year with his father and, more personally, it’s where he met his fiancé.  I used to watch it on television in the 1970s as a child and I can still remember watching the race in 1973 when a high speed and fiery crash ended driver Swede Savage’s (an awesome name for anyone in sports) day.  Savage died about a month later in the hospital, though it’s unsure if his injuries or a serious illness he had killed him.

In 1966, racing fan (and medical student) Stephen Olvey attended the race only to see tragedy strike again.  After the accident, he questioned why, even though there was safety and fire equipment at the track, there were no medical personnel.  Would a doctor at the Speedway have saved the driver?  Since then Dr. Olvey has put together a team of professionals whose job is to save lives at racing events whenever possible.

Full of some amazing archive race footage, as well as interview with such legendary drivers as Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser and Rick Mears, These are men who risked their lives weekly going 200 miles per hour and it’s obvious that they wish a lot of Dr. Olvey’s innovations were around when they were racing.  “Rapid Response” is an in-depth look at the work Dr. Olvey and his “crew” do almost every weekend of racing season.   A look is also taken at how the team has changed the way races are run, making the time spent on the track safer for everyone.

If you’re a fan of auto racing, this is a film I highly recommend.   

Film Review: “David Crosby: Remember My Name”

  • DAVID CROSBY: REMEMBER MY NAME
  • Starring:  David Crosby, Cameron Crowe, Graham Nash
  • Directed by: A.J. Eaton
  • Rated:  R
  • Running time:  1 hr 35 mins
  • SONY Picture Classics

I met David Crosby in 1987.  He was backstage getting ready to perform on a Vietnam Veteran’s concert being taped for HBO.  I accidentally walked into what I thought was the bathroom only to find out it was his dressing room.  He was very nice and we talked for a few minutes.  Later that afternoon he, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash performed in (as always) perfect harmony.

Today, at age 72, Crosby is still on the road.  He has to be.  Though he was very successful during his time with The Byrds, Crosby, Stills and Nash (CSN) and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY), he is quick to point out that he is the only member of those bands who never had a solo hit record.  The new film, “David Crosby: Remember My Name” finds Crosby about to head out for a six week tour.  This saddens him, as he would rather stay home with his wife, Jan.  This saddens Jan, as she is aware of Crosby’s health problems and always fears that when he leaves for a show he will never return home.  But if there is one thing Crosby loves as much as his family, it is to sing.  So out on the road he goes.

An excellent combination of archive footage and interviews, “David Crosby: Remember My Names” is an outstanding film which reminds me, in style, of another documentary, “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me.”  This could be because the director of the Campbell doc, James Keach, is an executive producer here.  The film covers almost every aspect of Crosby’s life, both the highs (no pun intended) and the lows.

The son of an Academy Award winning cinematographer (Crosby’s father, Floyd, won the award for his work on the film “Tabu”), Crosby listened to his mother’s records and soon began playing the guitar.  When he got older, he became a co-founder of The Byrds, a very successful group.  However, due to some of his antics – including telling a concert audience that President Kennedy was killed as a result of a conspiracy – he was booted from the band.  He then teamed up with Stills and Nash to form one of the biggest super groups in music history.   We are shown a

Montage of drug fueled images from the period, including one with my friend Carl Gottlieb expounding on them.  (NOTE:  Carl helped David Crosby write his two volume autobiography, “Long Time Gone” and “Since Then”)  We also learn that Dennis Hopper based his character in the film “Easy Rider” on Crosby.  However, things begin going bad when Crosby’s 21 year old girlfriend, Christine Hinton, is killed when a bus hits her van head-on.  Heartbroken, Crosby finds solace in sailing – and drugs.   Later in his life, his addiction will send him to prison.

One of the best music autobiographies ever written.

The film also allows Crosby to take the audience to Kent State University, where 4 students were killed on May 4, 1970 when members of the Ohio National Guard fired their weapons into a group of students who were protesting the war in Vietnam.  There is a cultural center on campus now, a museum dedicated to the images of that tragic day.  The emotion still wells up in Crosby’s voice as he describes how one leader in the National Guard swore he’d never fired his weapon, when a photo on the wall captures him doing just that.  Within a month of the shootings, CSNY release their song “OHIO,” which Neil Young wrote after seeing a LIFE magazine cover story on the shootings.  Neil Young has said that the event was so emotional that David Crosby wept while recording the song.  That emotion, almost 50 years later, is still obvious. 

The film also includes footage of Crosby on tour, and his voice is just as sweet as it was in the 1960s.  He also shares some personal stories about such fellow musical icons as Cass Elliott, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan.  If you’re a fan of Crosby, or just the music of the period, this film is a must see!

Film Review: “Official Secrets”

Starring: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode and Ralph Fiennes
Directed By: Gavin Hood
Rated: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
IFC Films

At just 29 years old, British translator Katharine Gun became the center of UK headlines when she leaked a memo from her job at the Government Communications Headquarters to UK publication, The Observer. The memo detailed a plot between the US and UK to illegally strong arm smaller UN member countries into signing off on the ill-fated war in Iraq. When she admitted to as much, Gun spent nearly a year before being formally charged under the Official Secrets Act of 1989. Meanwhile the US and UK invaded Iraq despite lacking the support of the nations in the memo. The film adaptation of this case as directed by Gavin Hood is a well crafted political thriller driven by a top notch performance from Keira Knightley.

I had concerns going into this film that it would play out like so many Newspaper Movies (as brilliantly parodied by Seth Meyers and Co, in case you missed it) and I wasn’t entirely wrong. The hallmarks of that trope are all still here –Phone Acting, clandestine meetings on benches, the obstinate paper editor–fortunately they’re performed by a charismatic ensemble led by Matt Smith, Matthew Goode and a very shouty Rhys Ifans. As the film goes on it adds additional strong players to the field with the likes of Tamsin Grieg and Ralph Fiennes when the legal drama starts to ramp up.

More importantly though is that all those subplots and their cliches take a back seat to Keira Knightley’s tightly wound performance. As Gun, she is resolute but not without fear. Some of the most thrilling sequences of Hood’s film come as the enormity of Gun’s act bears down on the wide-eyed Knightley and she realizes how much she has at risk by forging ahead. Having an immigrant husband in Gun’s situation as she does, for example, truly raises the stakes when contending with the government. Often Hood makes some smart choices to elevate Gun’s bravery by highlighting that relationship. How easy it would have been for Katherine, as her barista husband suggests repeatedly, to just do her job and leave the consequences to her higher ups.

Gun had so much to lose but recognized an opportunity to avert a disastrous war and chose to act for her people rather than a lying government. Gavin Hood’s film adaptation of her story comes at a time when relations between the press and politics are arguably even more fraught than 2003, making her story well worth hearing. 

Film Review: “Angel of Mine”

Starring: Noomi Rapace, Yvonne Strahovski, Luke Evans, Richard Roxburgh
Directed by: Kim Farrant
Rated: R
Running Time: 98 minutes
Lionsgate

Angel of Mine, based on the French 2008 film, L’Empreinte de L’ange, sees Noomi Rapace as a woman convinced that her neighbor’s daughter is actually her own long-dead child. It’s a thriller that drew me in with its strong cast but passes too far over into melodrama before the credits roll to warrant much interest. 

Rapace stars as Lizzie who drums up a tenuous relationship with the parents of one of her son’s friends (played by Yvonne Strahovski and Richard Roxburgh) for her own ulterior motives. Turns out the friend’s little sister Lola looks so much like her dead baby daughter to Lizzie that she is desperate to spend as much time around the child as possible. Lizzie’s obsession extends so far as her ingratiating herself with Lola’s parents by pretending to be interested in buying their newly listed house. This connection is already awkward but the film does not help itself by withholding the circumstances around Lizzie’s grief for so long in the film. Revelations over the loss of Lizzie’s daughter earlier in the film to the couple may have won some understandable sympathy points for allowing Lizzie around but as it is, it strains credulity as to why these parents would allow this random woman to have so many one-on-one interactions with their young child. Lizzie’s obsession with Lola is intriguing at first due to Rapace’s haunted intensity but without knowing much about her past, I found myself spinning off many different possibilities for where this could go and the ultimate resolution had me bored. Perhaps that’s on me for wanting something more outlandish or exciting while the film so wants to be grounded. It felt as though since director Kim Farrant wanted so much for Lizzie to be our sympathetic protagonist that they could not inject her obsession with a child with any sort of genuine menace. 

Still more irritating is that so much of the film’s run time is spent with husbands choosing to downplay their wives’ legitimate concerns. This goes for both Luke Evan’s Mike as Lizzie’s ex, shunning her where she clearly needs mental help in her grief, and infuriatingly Richard Roxburgh’s Bernard who is for some reason A-OK with a woman wanting to spend time with his seven year old while his own wife sees red flags all over. Why would he take Lizzie’s word over hers? How their story lines end up in relation to Lizzie and Lola after all this drama rings hollow–and also doesn’t seem legally feasible. 

I had been drawn in by the big name cast Farrant had assembled, particularly Yvonne Strahovski fresh off of her fantastic “Handmaid’s Tale” work (is there such a thing as ‘maternity battle’ typecasting?) but they’re working in service of a basic script that doesn’t throw anything more exciting at them than a Lifetime TV movie. 

Angel of Mine opens in limited release on August 30th

Film Review: “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”

  • WHERE’D YOU GO BERNADETTE
  • Starring: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup
  • Directed by: Richard Linklater
  • Rated: Rated PG-13
  • Running Time: 2 hrs 10 mins
  • United Artists Releasing 

The question that has haunted America for decades now is where did Jimmy Hoffa go? Rumor had it once upon a time that he was buried in the end zone at the New York Giants old football stadium. If it were true, then it’s too bad that the much-delayed comedy/drama “Where’d You Go Bernadette” was not buried with him under a ton a concrete. Based upon the 2012 novel of the same name by American novelist Maria Semple, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” wanders aimlessly for over two hours and establishes no real emotional connection with the audience. Despite a talented cast, and a long list of cameo appearances and small roles by recognizable faces, it’s not enough to save its unremarkable script and direction by Richard Linklater (“A Scanner Darkly”). 

Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) is an agoraphobic mother of a teenage daughter and was once a trailblazing architect in Los Angeles. Since moving to Seattle with her husband and tech entrepreneur Elgie Branch (Billy Crudup), Bernadette has isolated herself in their home, created from an abandoned church, and devoted all her time to their daughter, Bree (Emma Nelson in her feature film debut). Not only does she refuse to make friends with her closest neighbor, the nosey Audrey Griffin (Kristen Wiig), but she also does whatever she can to make Audrey’s life miserable. The only other interaction she has is with an unseen assistant named Manjula to whom she assigns all sorts of tasks via text messaging. 

We eventually learn more about her past successes, which is where cameos by Laurence Fishburne, Steve Zahn and Megan Mullally come into play, but by the time it does we don’t care. The greatest failure of any story is the inability to hook the audience within the first sentence/paragraph of a book or the first couple minutes of a film. If this doesn’t happen then it’s a monumental task indeed to get the audience to ever give two cents. This is exactly the case with “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” which was originally supposed to be released in the spring of last year. There are brief glimmers of something serious going on with Bernadette’s character, and Blanchett is terrific at fleshing them out, but it’s all overwhelmed with one-dimensional characters around her, boring dialogue, and predictable, Disney-like comedy. 

With their marriage on the rocks because of her hatred of all things, including Seattle, and facing near-financial ruin thanks to a scam, Bernadette freaks out and instead of facing her problems flees to Antarctica where they were supposed to take a family trip. The question is – will the experience turn Bernadette back into being a creative force in the architect world, or will she disappear like so many doomed Antarctic explorers at the dawn of the 20th century? Truth be told, the answer doesn’t matter.

 In conclusion, if you want to be scratching your head wondering where this film is going, while also having to listen to needless and distracting voiceover narration by Nelson, then “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is the story for you. I think Mr. Hoffa would agree.

Film Review: “The Art of Racing in the Rain”

  • THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN
  • Starring:  Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried and Kevin Costner
  • Directed by: Simon Curtis
  • Rated:  PG
  • Running time:  1 hr 49 mins
  • 20th Century Fox

There are two kinds of people in this world.  Dog people (guilty) and cat people.  Dog people, please continue reading.

Meet Enzo.  He is an older dog that has lived an amazing life.  And, if you have a couple of hours to spare, he’ll share his story with you.  Enzo (voiced perfectly by Kevin Costner) is chosen as a pup by Denny Swift (Ventimiglia), a race car trainer who aspires to one day drive in Formula One races.  As the years progress, the two are inseparable, sharing adventures both behind the wheel and at home,   Things get complicated when Denny meets Eve (Seyfried) and even more so when they have a daughter, Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong).  Eve’s parents, played by Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan, are well off and not happy with their son-in-law’s profession.  Denny has begun to get some racing gigs, but they take him away from home for prolonged periods.  Things get worse when Eve becomes sick.  Can Enzo save the day?

An entertaining film that’s light on plot points, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is the kind of film Walt Disney would make in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s (think “The Shaggy Dog”), though without such a dramatic backdrop.  Ventimiglia – in the Disney version Denny would be played by Fred MacMurray – does his best with the material he’s given.  I must admit that I’m really only familiar with Ventimiglia as Rocky, Jr. in “Rocky Balboa” and “Creed II.”  I didn’t watch “Heroes” and, though my wife loves the show, I don’t watch “This is Us.”  Considering a lot of his role is playing off of what Enzo is doing, he does a good job portraying a man who loves both his family and the art of going fast.  Seyfried is fine in a very one-dimensional role, making the best out of what she’s been given.  But the true star here is Costner.  He’s always had the kind of voice that you wish your next “Book on Tape” comes with.  It’s his story and he tells it with panache! 

Film Review: “Angel Has Fallen”

Starring: Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman and Jada Pinkett Smith
Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh
Rated: R
Running Time: 120 minutes
Lionsgate

You ever have that moment where you’re surprised that something is popular enough to still be hanging around? You know what I’m talking about. Like when you hear about how “The Simpsons” has been renewed for another season or when Woody Allen released another movie. Much to my surprise, 2013’s “Olympus Has Fallen” has warranted not one, but two sequels. I don’t have to wonder too long about why that’s possible because the third of this franchise, “Angel Has Fallen,” answers that question quickly with mind numbing action.

In the reportedly final installment of this franchise, terrorists are making yet another assassination attempt. This time they’re not only targeting a worldwide figurehead, U.S. President Trumbull (Freeman), but they’re using U.S. Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Butler) as the fall guy for the whole affair. So not only does Agent Banning have to find out who the real perpetrators are, while fighting them, but he also has to deal with various federal government agencies chasing him down. That’s about as simple as I can whittle down the absolute mess that this story is.

While the film’s story is fairly cut and dry, the foundation of the plot crumbles underneath any sight of logic, but this isn’t a franchise or movie that lends itself to being intelligent. Everything about these movies, as well as the newest one, is loud and dumb, like a caveman shouting at the top of his lungs while swinging a big club. The use of graphic blood and violence keeps these films from being too cartoonish, on a level like the “Fast and Furious” franchise. There are several moments of self-awareness, though, that make it seem like the creators are sometimes in on the joke that these movies are silly trash.

That’s why it’s so odd to see so many dramatic elements being wedged in, especially with Banning’s character. The filmmakers start the movie off with breadcrumbs that Banning is dealing with some form of PTSD and work fatigue, even though that plot thread only pays off in one predictable way by the end. We’re also introduced to Banning’s estranged father (Nick Nolte), who’s living in the middle of the West Virginia forests, so that we can add a layer of family drama to the whole shebang. By the end, these components really feel meaningless because of how poorly they’re handled, unless you’ve somehow managed to grow attached to this character over the years.

“Angel Has Fallen” fails only because it strives to be something it’s not, a competent action flick like “Die Hard” or any “Mad Max” film. It earns gold stars for filling numerous scenes with vacuous shootouts, lunkhead fist fighting and earth-rattling explosions. It somehow manages to screw up some of that though, with poorly lit sequences or chase scenes at night that fail to illuminate what’s happening. Fans of these films will get their money’s worth; everyone else will feel too indifferent by the end to ask for their money back.

 

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Film Review: “Ready or Not”

Starring: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody and Mark O’Brien
Directed By: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
Rated: R
Running Time: 95 minutes
Fox Searchlight

I guess a film like “The Hunt” was a little bit too on the nose. There were several disappointed horror junkies, back on August 7th, when it was announced the latest Blumhouse film would be shelved after several mass shootings in America, along with some rumored outrage by President Trump. Maybe those disappointed filmgoers, who are going this year without another “Purge” movie as well, can get a cathartic release from “Ready or Not.”

It’s Grace (Weaving) and Daniel Le Lomas’ (Brody) wedding day. The young couple is getting married at the Le Lomas’ mansion, which was built on a card and board game empire. Daniel’s family, which he begrudgingly introduces to Grace, is an eclectic bunch. Which is a nice way of saying they’re a bunch of snobby 1%’s who believe Grace is a gold digger. Whether or not they warm up to Daniel’s love seems to come down to strange family ritual, a game. Grace must draw a playing card from the film’s McGuffin, and play the game that’s printed on that card. She’s told by several other people who’ve married into the family that they simply played a game Chess or a round of Old Maid. She draws Hide and Seek.

You’ll be disappointed if you go into “Ready or Not” expecting a rich satire about politics and class, but if you’re expecting a gory good time you’ll be stuffed. The goal of Hide and Seek, for the Le Lomas’ family, is to hunt down and kill Grace. This isn’t supposed to be for sport, but to maintain an otherworldly pact, which is certainly a dig at the corrupting power of wealth. If you start thinking about some of the film’s inherent flaws, the set-up quickly falls apart and you’ll begin to wonder about things like logic. So don’t think too hard during this one.

The film isn’t short on violent deaths, blood and visually graphic tomfoolery. It’s all played for comedic effect and eye-wincing shock. Some of the more comedic moments are when one of the drugged out members of the Le Lomas family continuously manages to find accidental ways to kill mansion staff, while some of the most visually disturbing scenes include one where a character makes unfortunate use of a gaping wound in their hand. The scenes unfortunately smack audiences at a blistering pace. There’s a lot of downtime for the characters to wordlessly linger from scene-to-scene and discuss inconsequential plot points.

“Ready or Not” promises a fun cat-and-mouse game, but ends up repeating the formula of Grace being captured, but only to escape. This happens about half a dozen times, if not more, including three times in the climax. At least the movie wrings out a strong performance from Weaving, who has the makings of a scream queen. She has a cold icy stare when her character is in vengeance mode, as well as a perfect high-pitched scream during moments of physical agony and mental anguish. Everyone else is casually fine. The problem is that the actors portraying the Le Lomas clan can’t decide whether or not to be cognizant of the absurdity of it all.

“Ready or Not” sits in between the two extremes of horror content in 2019. It’s not a complete misfire like “Ma,” but it isn’t as intricately put together as “Midsommar” or “Us.” It’s a film that’ll satisfy the late night sweet tooth for people wanting to gnaw on a dark comedy and have guilty belly laughs. It’s the kind of genre mash-up that would have developed a cult following in the 80’s.

Film Review: “Blinded by the Light”

  • BLINDED BY THE LIGHT
  • Starring:  Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir and Meera Ganatra
  • Directed by: Gurinder Chadha
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  1 hr 58 mins
  • Warner Bros.

I was introduced to Bruce Springsteen when I was 15-years old.  And I wasn’t introduced to the Boss by a school friend but rather by my father.  He had been out and seen Springsteen’s face on both the covers of TIME and Newsweek magazines so, intrigued, he bought me the “Born to Run” album.  When he handed it to me he said, “This guy is supposed to be pretty good.”  He was.

England in the 1980s.  As the decade begins we meet Javid and Matt – two young boys with different upbringings.  For his birthday, Matt got a new bicycle.  Javid’s parents got him a Rubik’s Cube.  Learning over fun.  They also share another difference.  Javid is Pakistani while Matt is white.  Their friendship is color-blind.  Sadly, their neighbors are not. 

We meet up with the two lads in 1987 as they prepare for pre-university schooling.  Javid (Kalra) wants to be a writer, though his father finds that occupation frivolous and wishes him to be a doctor.  Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) is now a musician with his own band.  One day, after a day of bullying, Javid meets Roops (Aaron Phagura) a Sikh classmate who hands him a couple of cassettes and tells him that he needs “the Boss.”  After a few listenings he readily agrees.

An uplifting film with a serious back story, “Blinded by the Light,” like this year’s “Yesterday,” is an amazing combination of words and music that tells a story that is just as vital today as it was 30 years ago.  Javid is questioned by his father about why he is so enamored by this American and Jewish singer (for the record, Bruce Springsteen is NOT Jewish), unable to believe that this man’s words can have any meaning in his family’s life.  Yet Springsteen has always been a poet for the people, putting their daily struggles and triumphs into words that resonate with his listeners.

Director Chadha, whose best known film is probably “Bend it Like Beckham,” fills her lens with amazing images, often featuring Springsteen’s lyrics superimposed over the scenes, giving the songs and their message added meaning.  She has also assembled an amazing cast.  Kalra and Chapman have a great chemistry, facing the ups and downs of being friends.  Phagura is energetic as Roops, a young man who has discovered the music that comments on his life and is happy to share it.  Hayley Atwell has a nice turn as Javid’s instructor.  And I must give a proper mention to Kulvinder Ghir, who plays Javid’s father, Malik.  Malik is a proud man who is dealt a few setbacks yet never falters in his love for his family.  He only wants his children to succeed…to do better than he did…though he is reluctant to accept the paths they wish to take.

Even if you’ve never enjoyed the music of Bruce Springsteen (I guess there may be a few people out there that feel this way), you will be swept up in the way that music is celebrated here.  In this writer’s opinion, “Blinded by the Light” is pure inspiration!

 
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