— by Jeff Schultz
Jordan Peele’s thriller has striking performances going for it. But the movie is also slow, even draggy until the final third when the action kicks in. Fortunately there are golden nuggets throughout from five actors you can’t get enough of: Standup comic LilRel Howery takes the “best friend” role and runs to the finish line with it, literally: just about the very last line is his, and it gets the biggest laugh in the theater. Betty Gabriel’s zombie-like housekeeper is as much crazy fun throughout as her scene in the film’s trailer. (“Oh no, no no no no no no no no no no no.”) In a similarly oddball way, the automatous Lakeith Stanfield, especially his camera flash freakout. Bradley Whitford, looking and sounding like the late Dennis Hopper, finds the knife edge between affable and menacing as Dad. And Catherine Keener improves any movie she’s in; here, as Mom, she’s literally mesmerizing. The setup seems to be a satire of white attitudes toward blacks right out of a “Key and Peele” sketch. But at the end, one line from a character played by Steven Root (who is always good to see) seems to make race irrelevant. Other aspects of the plot’s windup also left me confused. But then, Stormy had to explain “Westworld” to me.
By Alan Yudman
2015’s LEGO MOVIE was such a surprising joy, the question was always, what’s next and what would it be like. The next choice was a slightly odd one I suppose. Focusing on BATMAN in the sequel was a risky choice. He was easily the darkest character in the original movie. How would his narcissistic heroism play over 2 hours?
The answer is awesomely! THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is nearly as much fun as the original, but in a completely different way. The original had a sweetness to it. This is a little edgier. It also helps if you have a working knowledge of BATMAN and his cadre of villains. I’m not deep into the mythology, so I was surprised to find that every villain mentioned is absolutely real.
BATMAN is still the self-centered, lone wolf, Dark Knight of Gotham. He fights the bad guys but never admits to needing any help, or that he cannot live without them. Then Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon worm their way into his life and all bets are off.
Will Arnett is just fantastic as the voice of BATMAN. Michael Cera owns Robin and the villainous voices include Zach Galifianakis, Doug Benson, Conan O’Brien, Jenny Slate, Billy Dee Williams, Zoe Kravitz, Kate Micucci. And that’s not the whole list. Oh, and Ralph Fiennes as Alfred.. just perfect.
The jokes are brilliantly funny and come flying at you faster than a Bat-A-Rang. So fast I think I missed about 30%. That’s kind of frustrating, but now I can’t wait to go back and watch it again for the nuggets I missed. I also understand there are a ton of Easter eggs for those deep in the BATMAN lore. So, THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE has something for everyone, adults and kids alike.
Sent from my iPad
— by Jeff Schultz
Brilliant, hysterical — and at times, almost impossible not to look away. Ricky Gervais’ alter ego has never been more cringeworthy as he attempts to fulfill his dream of being a rock star by taking leave from work to go on a self-financed tour that any idiot can see is going to be a bust. But then, David Brent isn’t just “any idiot” — he’s a socially clueless, pathetically needy twit underneath whose aggressively awful attempts to ingratiate himself lies a lost little boy with no friends and less self-awareness than an ashtray. Indeed, it’s the taste of ashes you may experience watching David digging himself in ever-deeper when placing an order with a black waitress, or revealing his ignorance of soccer while drinking with his bandmates (who only agree to a drink if he pays them), or “explaining” his awful songs from the stage about the plight of Native Americans and the mentally disabled. The Netflix special ends on two welcome notes of near-redemption — and the hope that this will not be the last we see of David.
by Alan Yudman
If you are looking for a traditional Oscar-bait story of inspiration that hits all right notes, look no further than HIDDEN FIGURES. That may seem like a slight. It is most definitely not. The story of three African-American women who helped propel the United States to the front of the space race is truly inspiring.
It’s not easy to make a film that tells about a little known part of history and make it truly inspirational without making it eyerollingly cloying. So good job to director Theodore Melfi and screenwriters Melfi and Allison Schroeder. The succeeded where other movies have failed. There is also a danger in the telling of how three black women overcame prejudice to succeed to find a white hero (Emma Stone’s character in THE HELP is the notable example). There is none of that here. Even though Kevin Costner’s head of space operations comes close, he walks the line without jumping over it.
The acting is really very good. The Golden Globe this film won for ensemble cast is truly deserved. There is not a weak link. Some standouts are Taraji P. Henson who plays Katherine G. Johnson, who winds up being the focus of the film. Octavia Spencer is just a wonderful actress in whatever she does. Her role here as Dorothy Vaughn, a woman who takes initiative and makes herself indispensable is quietly powerful. And Janelle Monae is a revelation as Mary Jackson, a woman who fights the system to follow her dream. They are three powerfully strong characters who don’t require the help of a white man, but don’t turn away from it when the hand is offered.
I must admit, there were several moments in the film where I felt a catch in my throat and tears in my eyes. Maybe I’m a sap, or maybe in the current political climate this is truly inspirational. Whatever it is, HIDDEN FIGURES is marvelous entertainment.
by Alan Yudman
I really had no idea what to expect when I walked into NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. Directed by a fashion designer? What could Tom Ford bring to the table as a storyteller (he wrote the screenplay) and a director? Style over substance was my fear. Boy was I wrong.
The movie is very stylish. It looks fabulous. The actors are beautiful and beautifully shot and clothed (wonder if Mr. Ford provided wardrobe). But it also dark and disturbing.
Amy Adams is married to Armie Hammer. They live a luxurious life in the Hollywood Hills. She runs a gallery. He is in some business that we are told is struggling. After a successful opening, Adams receives a manuscript that is dropped off in her mailbox. It is from her first husband, who she left in the most horrible fashion. Adams begins reading and cannot put it down.
The novel is a tale about a man (Jake Gyllenhaal), his wife (Isla Fisher in an inspired bit of stunt casting) and daughter who are driving across West Texas at night. They are harassed by 3 men led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and run off the road. Eventually the women are killed and Gyllenhaal is abandoned in the desert.
Adams is obsessed with the novel. She cannot put it down as it worms its way into her consciousness. It disturbs her as her life is falling apart. Her husband has gone out of town on “business”, but she discovers he really is hooking up with a woman in a New York hotel. It causes her to reexamine her life through a series of flashbacks. It details how she met her first husband (also played by Gyllenhaal), how they grew to love each other and how they fell out of love and how she left him.
As the novel progresses, Gyllenhaal’s character gets to the police who begin investigating. The detective is wonderfully played by Michael Shannon. He is weary, yet tough and not above going outside the law for justice.
Adams continues the novel and begins to hope for a meeting with her ex.
I really don’t want to go anymore into the plot. But as you can tell there are three stories being interwoven. It had the potential to become a confusing mess, but it isn’t. It is clear when were in each different world. Casting Fisher, who could be Adams’ sister, is brilliant because it makes you believe the novel is really about Gyllenhaal and Adams’ marriage.
The beautiful look of the movie plays wonderfully against the brutality of the story. Ford does a simply fantastic job. I did some research after seeing the movie and found he directed 2009’s A SIMPLE MAN. Never seen it, but now I will check it out.
I think I also understand why Adams may have been passed over for an Oscar nomination for ARRIVAL. She is nearly as wonderful here. It is a quiet, gut wrenching performance. The votes may have been split. No idea. Just a theory to explain a diss.
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is a very good drama/love story/murder mystery. And Ford gets a lot of the credit for its success.
by Alan Yudman
American Nazis marching through streets. Black men and women being killed and denied their rights. It is amazing how much things have not changed in 40 years. That was just one thing I took away from Raoul Peck’s powerful and poignant documentary I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO.
It is based on the unfinished last book of James Baldwin. Baldwin was an author, playwright, poet and social commentator. He was also a confederate of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The film is based on a book proposal and 30 pages of research and notes he had begun. “Remember This House” was meant to tell the story of three lions of the Civil Rights movements through first person eyes of Baldwin. It was supposed to be a memoir of his experience.
In the film, Peck weaves Samuel L. Jackson reading Baldwin’s writing and clips of Baldwin himself commenting on American society. It is chilling. It is an indictment of an American society that is too at ease with itself. That the American dream has always been false because it cannot be realized when certain classes of people are constantly denied their rights as human beings. Hollywood is also in for a takedown as Peck uses movie clips to illustrate Baldwin’s words about the image of African Americans. There are also clips of King and Malcom X talking about what type of resistance is appropriate. It is powerful and left me a little melancholy about how far we still have to go.
Peck also intersperses current images of victims of police shootings and the riots that followed in places like Ferguson, Missouri. He is trying to tie it all together and make the point that things are unchanged, that King’s vision of peaceful resistance will lead to a new normal. What you realize is that maybe Malcolm’s idea was the one that might lead to change. Because where are we now? Not much farther along than when Martin was killed in 1968. Sure, we have had a black President, a fact Peck ties up in a nice bow with a prediction in a clip from Baldwin that is hauntingly prescient. But black men are still being killed. Economic opportunity is still elusive. And with the political upheaval in this country in the past few months, it seems we are moving backward rather than forward. That seems to be the point Peck is trying to make here.
There were a couple of things that didn’t quite work for me. Sometimes the images were a distraction from Baldwin’s words. I found myself thinking more about the images than the narration. Also, if you are not totally familiar with the history of the 1960’s, you may want to bring a notebook to write stuff down for later research. Events are mentioned or glossed over without a lot of explanation or context.
Those minor complaints aside, I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO makes a powerful statement about the state of race relations in this country. It is a statement everyone should hear.
by Alan Yudman
I’ve spent a few weeks trying to figure out how to write a review of 20TH CENTURY WOMEN. And after several attempts to wrap my head around this movie, I have determined that it is a futile effort.
Here’s the premise. Annette Benning is a single mom of a 15-year-old boy. She works. She owns an old Victorian style home in late 1970’s Santa Barbara which she seems to be renovating. To help with expenses she has 2 borders. Greta Gerwig is a proto-punk photographer with fuschia hair. Billy Crudup is an aging Bohemian who knows how to fix cars, is helping with the renovations on the house and makes pottery. He’s the kind of guy who surfs in the morning even though he’s in his 40’s. Not judging. Just saying.
Benning is having trouble relating to her son. I mean he’s 15, why would she? He has one very close friend, a beautiful girl who is a couple of years older played by Elle Fanning. So Benning decides she needs help raising her son played by Lucas Jade Zumann. Yeah, that won’t go too well.
Not much happens in the movie. The characters move through life. They explore things like drugs, knowledge, creativity, love. But not much is resolved at the end. At least not in a completely or clearly defined fashion.
The performances by Benning and Gerwig are really the highlights. Benning is so subtle. Everything you learn about here is in her reactions to things. Gerwig is more overt in her performance. You feel her sense of being somewhat “at sea” and her search for love and meaning in life through art and music.
20TH CENTURY WOMEN isn’t a bad film. It’s ok. It’s just kind of confounding.