Thursday, October 4, 2018

FAHRENHEIT 11/9 (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Michael Moore, America
DIRECTOR: Michael Moore
GENRE: Documentary

You pretty much know what you're going to get with a Michael Moore film. Hard hitting, wickedly humorous satire that will bite you on the ass if you're the butt of it. That's what I was expecting in his new documentary, Fahrenheit 11/9 (not to be confused with his earlier film, Fahrenheit 9/11...11/9/17 being the date when it was confirmed that Donald Trump had been elected president). And as Moore states so directly at the beginning, this film attempts to answer the question: How in the f**k did we get here?

I think that's the only time I even grinned during this movie. Moore strikes a deliberately somber tone here, and there is dirge-like music that seems ever present in the background, so you'll make no mistake where he is coming from. Because his message is that time is running out. That would be the time we have left to save our democracy--or what passes for one here in the USA--before we slide down that slippery slope into fascism. 

You're expecting it to be a full-blown hit piece on Trump, which it starts out to be, and then the road takes a detour to Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan and it becomes a hit piece on Governor Rick Snyder, whom Moore holds ultimately responsible for the polluted water crisis there.  He makes a compelling case, and it makes you wonder how this man stayed in office. 

The democrats don't go unscathed either, earning Moore's scorn primarily for how the Hillary Clinton forces rigged the nomination process in her favor. There is plenty of blame to go around for how and why we got to where we are today. 

Before he's done, Moore will hit on racism, gun violence, the loss of civil liberties, freedom of the press and more, while tying it all in with Trump again. But the juxtaposition of a Trump rally with a Hitler rally will add fuel to his critics who have branded and dismissed him as a radical.

 We revisit the enormous march on Washington that resulted from the Parkland high school shootings, and the ballsy kids who organized it and spoke so eloquently at the rally. It's a powerful thing to watch on the big screen, and it strikes the hopeful tone (there's always one near the end of a Michael Moore film) of people power in action. But this time it comes with a dire caveat: Time is running out.

Grade:  B + 

JILL'S TAKE

Let me start out by saying I'm apolitical to a fault. I'm also a big Michael Moore fan. I heard him speak once a few years back at a film festival in Sedona, AZ and love his acerbic wit. That being said, my biggest complaint with Fahrenheit 11/9 is its length. Come on, Michael... Two hours and eight minutes of dire warnings would make even the most rabid anti Trumpster squirm. I realize he had a lot of territory to cover. But audiences get weary after awhile....

Still, I must give this Michigan native high marks for his use of background music. My favorite bit (and this won't ruin the movie for you) was at the beginning. The music he chose for Hillary awaiting victory was uplifting, hip and high-spirited. Then, as Election Night progressed, we cut to Donald Trump somberly walking out on stage, accompanied by an equally somber family, to give his acceptance speech. What music did Michael choose for this moment? The famous aria from Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci." A brilliant move on his part!

But the movie is misleading. Even the poster with with a pudgy Trump hitting a golf ball and the subtitle "Tyrant, Liar, Racist, A Hole In One" makes you think it's going to be a hatchet job on our 45th president. Far from it. Instead, it's a hatchet job on the state of our country. Not a message that lends itself to humor. And I sorely missed that aspect of Michael's personality.

I also felt the ending was weak. I won't go into detail (out of respect for those folks who want to react in their own way) but for me it ended with a whimper rather than a bang.



Grade: B -

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

LIFE ITSELF (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa
DIRECTOR: Dan Fogelman
GENRE: Drama

If I had to distill Life Itself down to one sentence, I'd say: It's a big, ambitious film filled with the small moments of life. A multi-generational saga that can seem, at times, like it's abandoned the entire narrative you were following and started up a different film altogether. Then just when you think what movie am I watching, anyway...what does this have to do with anything?...it connects the dots and there you have your AHA! moment.

Brilliant.

The plot revolves around Will Dempsey (Oscar Isaac), a mentally unstable screenwriter and his young and very pregnant wife, Abby (Olivia Wilde). Will had been committed to an institution, but he's out now and trying to piece his reality back together with the  help of his therapist (Annette Bening). Twists and turns and unanticipated moments of high drama ensue as we are placed on alert to expect the unexpected, journeying through the multiple spin-off lives that follow. To give you more would reveal too many spoilers.

I never quote Rotten Tomatoes, but I had a feeling that Life Itself was going to get panned by a lot of critics, and I was right. When I checked  the site, the film had an approval rating of just 12 percent among critics. But get this--it had a full 80 percent audience approval rating! Well, that tells you that critics are pretty much full of shit, aren't they? Yes, I said it. Why? Because critics are cynics. They think their job is to dissect something and tear it apart, when oftentimes it would serve them better just to get in touch with some genuine human emotion. And that is just what Life Itself is imploring you to do. 

Director Dan Fogelman has gotten his impressive cast to buy into this one all the way--as evidenced by the many sincere and powerful performances.

So the question is, can you handle a film that is unabashedly saying something to you in a straightforward manner without couching the message in cryptic terms that are supposed to make you scratch your head to try and figure it out?  For those who answer in the affirmative, Life Itself is a full box of tissue movie. You know what that means. Bring one or you'll be sorry.

Whether your response to Life Itself is positive or negative...whether you think it's brilliant or corny as hell...I'm betting you'll come away thinking, like I did, that you've never seen anything quite like it.

Grade: A


Wednesday, September 19, 2018

WHITE BOY RICK (2018)



Rated: R

STARS: Matthew McConaughey,  Richie Merritt, Jennifer Jason Leigh,  Bel Powle
DIRECTOR: Yann Demange
GENRE: Drama

If you like drugs and drug dealers (in the movies, I mean)...junkies, crooked cops and dedicated cops, and a little shoot-'em-up--all played out against the bleak backdrop of the seedier side of Detroit, amidst the height of the hysterical drug war in the mid eighties...then White Boy Rick is for you!

Based upon the true--and truly sad and appalling story of Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt), the film comes about its title due to the fact that Wershe was the youngest undercover FBI informant ever--at age 14--who hung around exclusively with black folk (at least in the movie) because all the dope dealers in this film are black (does that make this a racist film?), and thus he came to be affectionately known as "White Boy Rick."

Rick's dad, Rick Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey), is an unscrupulous firearms dealer who sells AK-47s to the drug dealers through his son. The FBI gets wind of Junior's extra-curricular activities and recruits him to become a dope dealer himself in order to infiltrate the big boys of the trade, rat on them and take them down. 

As good as McConaughey and newcomer Merritt are in this film, the Kickass Performance Award goes to two supporting cast members: Jennifer Jason Leigh as a totally jaded and weary FBI  agent...and young British thespian Bel Powle, who plays Rick's junkie sister. Powle is perfectly cast in this role; her eyes are so naturally haunted it's scary (and Halloween is coming up!)

Also notable is Bruce Dern as Grandpa, but only because he's been reduced to bit parts as a curmudgeonly old bastard--popping up higgledy-pigleddy, just enough to make you say: hey, that's Bruce Dern...what the hell's HE doing in this film???

Like most movies based on true events, White Boy Rick proceeds at breakneck speed, leaving you at a loss to keep up at times, with a hip-hop soundtrack that could have been better if any of the songs were recognizable. But on the strength of the gritty performances, I'm giving it a decent rating. You may or may not agree, depending upon how chemically altered your brain is at the time. 

Grade:  B

JILL'S TAKE

I'm thinking maybe Tim's recent hiatus from movie reviewing has made him go soft. (oh oh)  Sad as the story of White Boy Rick is, I'm getting fed up with the idea that just because something is based on a 'true story'  makes it cinematic gold. Wrong!

If you're looking to spend one hour and fifty-one minutes being depressed, feeling a sense of unrelenting hopelessness, then this is the movie for you. I have to hand it to cinematographer Tat Radcliffe whose visions of Detroit in the 1980s are enough to make any young man sell drugs just to get out of there!

I suppose, if I had to pin-point the problem with White Boy Rick (a grabber title, by the way), it would be that it's riddled with nothing but losers, including the FBI agents. I'm not suggesting that some Hollywood knight come charging in on a white horse to rescue everybody.  But a film with nothing but bad guys in it risks being too much of a downer. At least it was for me.

Maybe my negative reaction had more to do with the toothache I was experiencing at the time.  I think not...


Grade:  C -

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

SEARCHING (2018)



Rated :  PG-13

STARS:  John Cho, Debra Messing
DIRECTOR: Aneesh Chaganty
GENRE: Suspense/Thriller

If your head is buried in your phone or computer screen for essentially every waking hour, then you'll feel right at home with Searching and it's gimmicky visual presentation. If that isn't you, then the caveat is that every shot in the entire film is viewed through the filter of some technological device--whether laptop, phone, webcam or what have you. It's a gimmick to make a statement about technology being a double-edged sword--as potentially dangerous as it is magical. I found it distracting, and a heavy-handed way to make a point, but not to the degree of where it ruins the film, which I became increasingly absorbed in as it picked up speed and raced toward it's you-didn't-see-this-coming conclusion. 

John Cho is David Kim, whose 16 year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La), has disappeared. As the clues to her possible whereabouts pile up like Jenga blocks, David becomes increasingly frantic and hot-headed, accusing one individual and then another (including his brother) of having something to do with her disappearance. When the story goes viral, police detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned to the case. Her first instinct is to tell David that his daughter has likely run away. But when Margot's car is discovered submerged at the bottom of a lake, things start to point toward a tragic outcome. The answer to the mystery lies--where else--in Margot's laptop.

Lots of twists and turns along the road to the ultimate revelation in this one. But like many a suspense thriller these days, where the bad guy always turns out to be the one you'd least suspect, Searching falls into the trap of getting too cute...s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g the bounds of plausibility and believablity. 

Grade:  B -


JILL'S TAKE

If I could retitle this snoozer, I'd call it "The Computer Training Manual." I spend enough time at home staring at my monitor. Do I really need to do it in a movie theater? The opening setup was very original. We see, on a giant computer screen, photographs of a close knit family at various stages (baby pix, dad being pounced on in bed, mom and daughter playing a duet on the piano, etc.) including the decline and eventual death of one of its members. Like I said, very original.  But after 15 minutes of nothing but a cursor scurrying across the screen and text messages between dad and daughter beeping endlessly, I began to fidget.  

I also wondered what viewers who weren't that  computer savvy would think of this Google-driven who-done-it.  No doubt it made the cost of making Searching a whole lot cheaper.  But it was a steep price for me to pay as my eyelids kept getting heavier and heavier.  

Tim has already outlined the plot which, by the end, seemed ridiculously unbelievable.  I won't ruin it for those of you foolish enough to want to see this movie but it was all I could do not to guffaw when the true villain emerged. 

At least casting Asians in these roles was believable. Then again, maybe it's just me and my resistance to technology. I don't know how to text, selfies are beyond my skill set and I'm the only person I know who doesn't own a cell phone.  

Grade: C -

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

JULIET, NAKED (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Ethan Hawke, Rose Byrne, Chris O'Dowd
DIRECTOR: Jesse Peretz
GENRE: Romantic Comedy

When a great song from the sixties (in this case Marianne Faithful's "Come And Stay With Me") pops up in the middle of a film that is already beginning to win you over, you get the reassuring feeling that yes, they're going to bring it all home. And bring it home they do in the quirky (mostly) British romantic comedy, Juliet, Naked.

Annie (Rose Byrne) plays second fiddle to her flatmate Duncan's (Chris O'Dowd) obsession with a minor cult figure, musician Tucker Crowe, who seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth since making his brief splash in the early nineties. Duncan interacts with an online community of about 200 diehard Tucker fans--and when, in her exasperation, Annie posts a review of her own that is less than complimentary, she gets a personal response back from the real Tucker, who surprisingly agrees with her observations. Annie and Tucker begin an online dialogue, and at this point we know they are destined to meet, even though he lives in America and she's in England. Duncan learns nothing of his partner's budding friendship with his idol, until...until he does...at which point the comedic complications set in.

The irony is that nothing in Juliet, Naked is laid bare, save for our roller coaster emotions as we follow Annie and Tucker through a gauntlet of twists that involve, for one, when a bevy of kids that Tucker--like any rock musician doing his duty--has spawned from different mothers, show up. Annie likes kids, and wants to have one of her own, but will this be too much of a dose of reality for her? 

At the end, we're urging Annie not to make the wrong decision--it seems perfectly clear-cut--but we won't get the answer till the closing credits are ready to roll.

Ethan Hawke's Tucker is as affable as they come--for a flawed character; Rose Byrne gives an understated performance as Annie, content to be upstaged by O'Dowd's alternately priggish, confused, awe-struck, and righteously indignant Duncan.

 As movies go, Juliet, Naked may be the most fun you can have with your clothes on!

Grade:  A


JILL'S TAKE

I knew it!  I knew Tim would react the same way I did to this sparkler of a movie.  I went to see it with some trepidation since Ethan Hawke has done some pretty talky, overly self-indulgent films. (Before MidnightBefore SunriseBoyhood).  This time, however, the pace was just right and Hawke captured the character's quirkiness to perfection.  Hawke has played another real life musician in a movie I really dug titled Born To Be Blue about jazz trumpeter Chet Baker.  So this Austin-born actor knows what being on the road can do to man, his talent and, in particular, his relationships.  Even though the character Hawke portrays has been pretty damn irresponsible all his life, you like the guy anyway. 

I have to also tip my hat (if I was wearing one!) to director Jesse Peretz who also knows about the musician's life having been the bass guitarist and founding member of The Lemonheads, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based band formed in 1986.  As I read through Peretz' directing credits, I noticed one of my all-time favorite TV series listed:  Nurse Jackie.  The man definitely knows how to keep the story moving and the audience engaged.
I guess if I had to criticize anything about Juliet, Naked it would be the title.  Yes, it was the name of one of the character's albums,  Still, it seemed a choice to draw in audiences rather than anything intrinsic to the plot.  (It drew me in, that's for sure!)
You gotta go see this one!

Grade: A










Thursday, July 12, 2018

RBG (2018)



Rated:  PG

STARS: Ruth Bader Ginsburg
DIRECTOR: Julie Cohen, Betsy West
GENRE: Documentary

She is known as "Notorious RBG," and she's a rock star.  She's also as U.S. Supreme Court justice. Vilified by the right, revered by the left (and respected by a good deal of moderates, I imagine, who tend to have more of an open mind on things), Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a champion for equal rights and human decency from the beginning.  RBG, the reverential documentary on her life and career, leaves few stones unturned in presenting her story.

The film begins with a montage of right-wing politicians and talk show hosts hurling insults and epithets. It then goes on to show you who she really is. Nice touch, I thought. As documentaries go, RBG is rather austere (could have used a bit more stirring music, I felt), with interviews from the likes of Bill Clinton, Gloria Steinem, NPR contributor Nina Totenberg, and the late conservative justice Antonin Scalia. Of particular interest is Bader's close friendship with Scalia. They had a fondness for each other that transcended political lines. There is a clip showing them riding an elephant together, one of the numerous humorous touches sprinkled throughout the film.

There is even a romantic element, with archival footage and background on her late husband Marty Ginsburg and their times together. And here's the answer to the question that has been in the back of your mind, so admit it. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a strikingly attractive woman in her youth. (So any subsequent biopic that might be made about Ms. Ginsburg, they can go ahead and put Julia Roberts in there to play her.) Now in her mid eighties, Ruth Ginsburg is a warrior. She does a fitness routine that would shame most younger folks.  

Today, with the U. S Supreme Court irretrievably (in our lifetime) skewed to the political right, Ruth Bader Ginsburg will stand, in many cases I suspect, as a lone dissenting opinion--and that is the melancholic  undertone that kept haunting me throughout this film. For I don't see how anyone, regardless of political leanings, could come away from RBG without the impression that there is one word that best describes  Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And that word is integrity. 

Grade:  B +   


JILL'S TAKE

I went to this movie thinking I'd be bored witless. But the current film options playing in both southern California and Tucson consist mostly of shoot 'em up crapbusters.  So off I went -- unwillingly-- to learn about this 84-year-old legend. By the end of the film, everybody in the audience was clapping.  Including me.  

I really have to hand it to co-directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West for interspersing Ginsberg's numerous landmark cases (and decisions) in such a unique and mind-grabbing manner.  She didn't just focus on the feminist perspective (although that earned a healthy share of attention).  I particularly liked a case (Weinberger v Wiesenfeld, 1975) where a widower wasn't eligible to collect special benefits while caring for his children.  Bader argued that this gender-based distinction was unconstitutional. (She won.)  

RBG was chock full of cases that changed the course of history. The idea that this tiny wisp of a woman has had such a powerful impact on our nation's legal decisions is particularly appealing to me -- since I'm petite too.  But not nearly as soft-spoken!  

I also had tremendous admiration for her loyal and devoted husband who put his wife's career ahead of his own.  A bold move in those days of Stepford wives. I'm with Tim on this one.  Whether you're a raving Liberal or a staunch Republican, this film transcends politican prejudices.

Grade: B+

Monday, July 2, 2018

TAG (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Ed Helms, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson, Kevin Sable, Isla Fisher
DIRECTOR: Jeff Tomsic
GENRE: Comedy

There's a playfully suggestive song that goes back to the early fifties called, "It Ain't The Meat It's The Motion." Turn that little pearl of prurient profundity  onto its head and you've got the new comedy, Tag--a wild romp of a film that's 's filled with cartoonish sight gags (they run, they tackle each other, they smash up shit)--lots of motion but no meat, or food for thought. That is, until the last third of the movie, when it redeems itself...at least to where I didn't have to give it a totally crappy rating. More on that in a moment.

Five "adult" men (played by Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Jake Johnson, and Kevin Sable) get together each May and continue a long-standing tradition, a game of tag they've been playing since the first grade! But like many of the games people play (politics and the like), it has gotten out of hand, and now nothing else matters but to win the game. The current objective is to take down the one group member, Jerry (Jeremy Renner), who incredibly has never been tagged. A plan has been set in motion to get him at his wedding on the last day of the month, figuring he'll be a sitting duck. But Jerry is clever as an elusive Soviet agent--giving Tag the feel of a spy thriller on laughing gas.   

Just when you think that the crazy chase is all the substance this movie has--they'll get him or they won't--the group members must suddenly face their own consciences, as in when does the relentless pursuit of an objective (or an ideology, perhaps) come into conflict with one's sense of human decency? And which one wins out? And that, kiddies, is nothing less than the moral dilemma America is faced with at the moment. So there's more to Tag than initially meets the eye. 

But it comes too little too late to save this film from the Mediocrity Hall Of Fame. All the slapstick gets  tedious after a while, and I was left with a hunger for a little more meat and a lot less motion.

Grade:  C  
   
JILL'S TAKE

Tag makes Animal House look like Gone With The Wind.  Or, for those of you unfamiliar with those two classics, Tag sucks the big one. Unlike Tim, I found no redeeming features in this turkey.  The subtitle should have been 'Peter Pans On Steroids.'  How actors like Oscar-nominee Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) and Golden Globe winner Jon Hamm (Mad Men) got talked into doing this movie is as unbelievable to me as the movie itself. 

I wish I could find something positive to say.  I can't.  I really wanted to walk out of this one before it ended but someone had said the real men the story was based on were shown at the end.  And they were: paunchy, forgettable-looking guys. Playing tag was probably the highlight of their lives.  But it certainly wasn't mine!

And Isla Fisher should be ashamed of herself for playing the competitive harpie married to Ed Helms' character.  Her foul-mouthed mega-aggressive persona set back the image of a liberated woman by centuries.  Yuk!

So my advice?  Don't waste your money.


Grade: F