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2018

Image result for Mary Poppins returns

What is good:  the song-and-dance numbers are assured, the melding of animation and reality is deft, and it is for the most part very pleasant.

What is bad:  you don’t remember one of the tunes upon exiting the theater; it is very long and the plot, such as it is, is ragged; Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) comes off as kind of bitchy, with no real affection for the family; the father (Ben Whishaw) is a pitiful whiner; Lin Manuel-Miranda would have been better off writing the musical numbers rather than offering his version of the cockney lamplighter (that version has said lamplighter on MDMA with an accent rivaling that of Kevin Costner in Robin Hood for authenticity); and Meryl Streep is shoehorned into the picture as a gypsy, replete with her own hammy, endless, obnoxious number.

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Mr. Rogers should have been right in my wheelhouse when I was a kid. I was around six or seven when he went national. However, public television was not a staple in my Catholic household. The only glimpse I got was when I went to the home of my Jewish friend, whose parents included PBS in their progressivism, but by the time we became pals, Fred Rogers was there to be mocked, not appreciated.

It’s a shame, because watching this documentary and Rogers interacting with little kids, you can see both the wonder in their eyes and the deep connections he developed. There is a vignette with a little boy who is explaining to Mr. Rogers’ most famous hand puppet, Daniel, about how his cat was run over by a car. The boy is being stoic but when Daniel becomes emotional, you can see the boy become protective as well. His concern transfers to the puppet and in the transfer, he creates a beautiful and healthy way to express his grief.  It’s a stunning exchange.

Genuinely sweet, good and largely uncomplicated public figures are a difficult find. This documentary does a great job of telling the story of one such man.  It has faults – it is thin on his background, it over emphasizes some cable noise about his effect on children (i.e., made them soft), and it succumbs a little to the “these dark times” trope – but these are nits. Highly recommended as both entertainment and moral tonic.

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This rom-com starts off balky, rights itself into a traditional flow, gets deliciously weird (catty women do some frightful things to rivals in Singapore) and then, eventually, wins you over.  Not in a “what a splendid and unexpected surprise!” way, but rather, in a “I am no worse off than I was 2 hours ago and I’ve certainly spent my time in less valuable pursuits” way.  The film’s additional bonus is as a travelogue.  I would now like to visit Singapore and if I were crazy rich, I’d really like to make the trek.

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Yes, yes.  I have no one but myself to blame.  It’s like eating 6 Zingers and expressing displeasure at the ensuing bloat and shame.  But there is awful, and then there is awful on just an entirely different level.

When I was watching Mission Impossible on the IMAX, I saw the preview for The Meg and thought, “A shark the size of a tug boat!?  When he eats bathers, they’ll be like krill.  What can go wrong?”  And fronted by Jason Statham?  As a friend mused, “How is he going to be able to drive a car into the mouth of the shark?”

I expected camp, calamity and chaos.  I got a dead-straight, cookie-cutter snoozer that still managed to entertain, only because the film proved to be so bizarre.  I’ve concluded it was written by someone who just learned English and directed by someone under the influence of Quaaludes.  I have to say, I enjoyed it, even though:

  1. The lead actress, Li BingBing, is so bad, she’s good. She is beautiful, but her acting chops can be best equated to the work of Siri.  I laughed loud and often.
  2. The comic relief, Page Kennedy, is almost as bad. It’s not that he can’t act, but as the sassy, African-American, tell-it like it is, I hate the water stereotype, he was given an impossible task.  Be Kevin Hart.  He’s not Kevin Hart.  He’s not Gary Hart.
  3. Statham seems like he was actually never present for filming. I mean, he’s there, but his mannerisms suggest that he’s acting to a green screen.
  4. Statham’s first 15 lines reference beer. He has to be coaxed to risk the depths “one last time” after his last dive ruined him.  And he is coaxed from some backwater Thai sea town bar, where he drinks a lot of beer and licks his wounds.  And apparently, talks a lot about about beer.  And offers everyone beer.  I have never seen the beer Statham is hawking, but I assume it is Asian, as the film is up to $150 million globally (and $60 million domestic).
  5. The driver – the reason Statham is licking his wounds in the bar until he is called upon to perform “one last time” – is nonsensical. The film opens with Statham and two fellow rescuers extricating survivors of a downed nuclear submarine from the ocean floor.  Statham has to make a split second decision when his fellow rescuers are trapped – go back to save them, or shove off.  He shoves off.  Now, there would be conflict if we, the audience, never learn the fate of the fellow rescuers.  Or better, we are provided information that they died a slow, long harrowing death.  But in The Meg, 2 seconds after Statham makes his fateful decision, the subs blows up.  So, he was right.  Verifiably, provably correct.  And yet, he is pilloried.
  6. BingBing has a child, a precocious sweetheart of a daughter, who stays with her on the underwater research center. The Meg appears at that center.  Thereafter, for some unknown reason, the child is brought along on almost every mission.
  7. That said, I don’t think the child was in any real danger, because people are not eaten like krill. In fact, this picture has a body count just north of Murder on the Orient Express.
  8. But the visuals, you say. The CGI!  They must have made it worthwhile.  Unfortunately, no.  Most of this flick looked like it as filmed in the shallows of Rockaway Beach.

 

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One reviewer remarks, “It’s a provocative, serious, ridiculous, screwy concoction about whiteface, cultural code-switching, African-American identities and twisted new forms of wage slavery, beyond previously known ethical limits.”  Another:  “An absurdist, startlingly original Molotov cocktail through the pane glass window of Hollywood, ‘Sorry to Bother You’ is a riot, the year’s craziest comedy and the most demented call to arms in memory.”  A third, perhaps inevitably:  “An impassioned, chaotically accurate response to dark and troubling times.”

Thankfully, Boots Riley’s debut film bears little resemblance to these painfully misguided and rote intonations, beyond being original and absurdist.  Rather, the story of an upwardly mobile telemarketer (Lakeith Stanfield of Atlanta, who is just the right amount of bewildered and decent yet persuadable) who loses his way and uncovers the most insane corporate skullduggery since “Soylent Green is people!” is playful, trippy, inventive, and surreal with a few brutally caustic comic bits thrown in for good measure.  It’s decidedly less political than advertised by the critics, and when it is political, the message is so broad and zany, you could affix it to just about any ideology you wanted.

It was mind-blowing to learn that it is the first movie for writer-director Riley, who crams so much visual creativity into the flick it eventually ends in an exhausted mess.  The picture is original in most parts, but it owes a great deal to Mike Judge’s Idiocracy.  It’s also a tad reminiscent of wacky Coen Brothers, Spike Jonze, and Scorsese’s After Hours.  Not for everyone, certainly not required to be seen in a theater, but an absolute treat when the price gets right.

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The movie gets an automatic half point deduction because it was so intense and gripping that I had to leave the room a few times and scream to my family, “What’s happening now?”  I have to assume there were some problems with the picture during those moments.  Otherwise, John Krasinski’s sophomore effort as a director is taut, assured (you feel he really had a vision as to almost every scene), and at the right times, edge-of-your-seat terrifying.  It is also bolstered by wonderful performances that are necessarily non-verbal.  Krasinski is moving as a beleaguered father trying to protect his family, and Emily Blunt’s travails as she communicates them are almost too much to bear.

The only thing you need to know about the plot is that the monsters can hear EVERYTHING!