THE OATH

the oath

by Alan Yudman

If America’s current politics are driving you crazy and social media is driving you crazier, then THE OATH may be the perfect movie for you. Ike Barinholtz has crafted a funny and crazy commentary on America in 2018 (actually, maybe 2015-2018).

Barinholtz plays Chris, who is basically a human Twitter feed. The movie opens with Chris and his wife Kai (the amazing Tiffany Haddish) watching as a White House spokesman talks to the Press Corps about something called “The Patriot’s Oath”. It is apparently a sort of pledge of patriotism all Americans are being encouraged to sign before Black Friday the following year. Cut to Thanksgiving week as the deadline approaches and you immediately see how things have devolved. Chris has grown a patchy beard and the news is getting bleak. Chris rants and raves about how rights are being infringed upon, how the Government has become a bunch of brown shirted Nazis and that he’ll never ever sign the Oath.

This is all set against Thanksgiving with Chris’s family. His parents (Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis) his brother Pat and his girlfriend Abbie (Jon Barinholtz and Meredith Hagner) and his sister Alice (Carrie Brownsteing) and her family. Chris promises not to talk politics, but that doesn’t last long. His brother and Abbie (who is the subject of a very funny running gag) are conservatives. His parents seem disinterested and his sister is liberal like him. The arguments spiral out of control on Thanksgiving day and Chris winds up eating and sleeping in his car.

But that is when things really get crazy. Two agents (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) from the Citizens Protection Unit (CPU) show up to question Chris. He is defiant and the situation escalates beyond all control or reason. People are beaten, shot, tied up and well you get the general idea.

Barinholtz uses these extreme and funny situations to comment on the state of our politics and how obsessed people are with social media. It also is easy to see how those co-dependent situations could drive a situation beyond the extreme. You watch it and think, “this couldn’t happen”, but somewhere in the back of your head you are also thinking, “well, I guess it could happen”. That is what makes it effective and hilarious. The movie made me think about what I am doing on social media and whether it is at all healthy for America or Americans.

The cast is brilliant and funny. Barinholtz choices as a director a nuanced and hit every mark. If you spend your days raging at Facebook and Twitter, THE OATH may be just what you need to drag you back to sanity.

FIRST MAN

first man

by Alan Yudman

It is so hard to like a movie that features a character like Neil Armstrong. He’s not the stereotype of the other Gemini astronauts. He wasn’t a cowboy. He was quite the opposite. So it makes his character in FIRST MAN difficult to root for.

FIRST MAN tracks Armstrong’s life from right before he was selected for the Gemini program until he lands on the moon. That’s a space of 8 years. He saw lots of death that obviously shaped his personality. No loss was more deeply felt or more important to this story that the death of his young daughter, Karen. A seemingly introspective, emotionally controlled man seemed to turn further inward.

Armstrong was a brilliant test pilot, cool under the most dangerous or difficult of circumstances. That made him very good at his job. It also made him a very difficult co-worker and a very tough man to like. He seemed to be a loving husband and caring father. But his job always seemed to be his number one priority.

That quiet introspection and lack of emotion had to make this movie an immense challenge for Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling. How to make this seemingly unlikeable man a hero? They did it by focusing on how he overcame tragedy after tragedy during this period of his life. The death of his daughter, the Apollo testing accident that claimed the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, and the crash of a training jet that killed Elliot See and Charles Bassett. That is a lot of death to deal with. Maybe his training as a Naval aviator helped. But it seemed to be his sheer force of will more than anything else.

That is what makes FIRST MAN so interesting. Gosling does a lot of acting with his face and body, mostly because Armstrong wasn’t a talker. At one point after after Armstrong leaves See and Bassett’s memorial, White goes to see him to talk and Armstrong says bluntly, he didn’t leave the memorial because he wanted to talk. He shuts down White. Just like he shuts down everyone when he is not comfortable talking about feelings. But Gosling shows us how he is feeling. How he is focused. How he has his own way of dealing with all this.

Chazelle makes some interesting choices in how he portrays certain events. If you are expecting big special effects like those in APOLLO 13, you will be disappointed. In fact during the Gemini 8 launch, we never see the outside of the capsule. It all is very claustrophobic as we watch Armstrong and David Scott get slammed around in less than heroic fashion. But again, this is not a movie about the big picture of NASA’s manned missions. It is about one man struggling with grief while trying to make history. The one time you get a sense of awe and wonder is when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (the remarkable Corey Stoll) approach and land on the Moon. That is when Chazelle allows the spectacle to breathe.

Josh Singer (THE POST, SPOTLIGHT) took James R. Hansen’s book and make a compelling screenplay, while trying to keep the Armstrong family satisfied and in the loop. And, Claire Foy does great work as Janet Armstrong, the wife who seems to mirror her husbands stoic facade.

FIRST MAN would be the kind of movie Oscar voters loved if it was more like APOLLO 13 or THE RIGHT STUFF. Instead it is a gripping drama about a man, his demons and one historic step.

MANDY

mandy

by Alan Yudman

MANDY is the definition of bonkers!

A friend recommended I check it out. It was $6.99 on Amazon Prime so I figured, why not? I’m glad and not glad I watched it.

Here are the basics. Nicolas Cage and Andrea Riseborough live in the Oregon wilderness in the early 1980’s. He’s a logger. She runs a general store-type shop and draws. They seem blissful. Not far away is a religious cult lead by pseudo-Jesus Linus Roache (a role so far from his Law & Order days so as to be nearly unrecognizable). Roache spots Mandy (Riseborough) on the road one day and must have her. So, the cult recruits a bunch of drug-addled, maniacal, blood-thirsty bikers to kidnap Mandy. She is drugged and brought to Roache for her first “encounter”. Things don’t go to plan and she is killed, right in front of Cage who is tied up. They leave Cage to suffer or die or something and take off. Cage escapes, fuels his rage with a bottle of Gin or Vodka and sets off on a blood soaked course of revenge. First he gets a crossbow from Bill Duke (who he is, isn’t fully explained), then fashions at sort of Klingon Bat’leth (great blacksmith “porn” if your into that sort of medieval thing). So you know there’s going to be blood and lots of it. Next stop is the biker gang who first kidnaps him, then he breaks loose (he’s really good at that) and kills everyone. Body parts fly, gallons of blood are spewed all over Cage’s face and he tastes some kind of LSD-type drug that further fuels his mania. Next he visits some guy in the woods who clues him in on where the cult is. Then it’s revenge time!

This all sound outright bananas. And you’re right. It is. But director/screenwriter Panos Cosmatos makes it all work. I’m not saying it’s a great movie, but I couldn’t pull myself away from it. He and cinematographer Benjamin Lieb do great work with colors and framing. Riseborough has these big eyes which they use to great effect. There are several scenes that are just breathtakingly beautiful (that’s before the mayhem begins).

Cage maybe has 3 pages of dialogue in the whole movie, unless you count grunting and screaming as dialogue. His acting is all in his face, and it’s surprisingly good.

Two days after seeing MANDY, I still don’t know what to make of it. The plot is ridiculous and frankly time-worn. I got a definite, “I’ve been here before” vibe. But the visuals and haunting music turn this into something more than your average revenge-slasher movie. And that is all about the insane vision of Cosmatos.

A STAR IS BORN (2018)

a star is born

by Alan Yudman

I’ll start with a confession. I have never seen any of the previous three versions of A STAR IS BORN. So, I’m coming at this with a nearly fresh take. Yeah, I know what the story was before I walked in. Aging music star, battling addiction discovers a vibrant young singer. They fall in love. And it doesn’t end happy. So what about the 2018 version directed and produced by, and starring Bradley Cooper?

First the music is right in my wheelhouse. Alt-country, Americana… whatever you want to call it… is probably my go to sound at this point in my life. The songs were written or co-written by Lady Gaga, Cooper, Mark Ronson, Lukas Nelson (Willie’s son) and Jason Isbell just to name a few. That is quite an all-star list for this type of music. But there are also Lady Gaga pop songs in there, and I gotta tell you I am a fan. Ok, enough for now about the wonderful soundtrack because that isn’t even the best part of this movie. I came for the soundtrack and got so much more.

Cooper stars as Jackson Maine. He’s the drug and pill addicted singer who is also dealing with tinnitus. And he’s not dealing with any of it very well. He walks into a drag bar one night in search of a drink and stumbles across Lady Gaga’s Ally. She’s a waitress with dreams of music industry stardom. And man does she have the chops, which Jackson quickly realizes. After Ally punches a cop in a cop bar, they wind up in a supermarket parking lot where they talk and Ally starts singing a song, seemingly improv’d on the spot. I almost broke down in tears just listening to Lady Gaga sing acapella. He flies her to a gig and nearly drags her onstage for her breakout, YouTube moment. That is the first single from the soundtrack “Shallow” which is immediately a frontrunner for a best song Oscar.

Their love affair grows, her career begins to outshine his and Jackson alternates between drinking into a stupor and battling to stay sober for Ally. His struggle is real and heartbreaking. Meantime, she is off on a shooting star. Saturday Night Live appearances, Grammy nominations and huge tours. And Jackson just keeps screwing up by popping pills and downing booze.

This whole film is just outstanding. Cooper is such a solid actor and he totally pulls off the perpetually drunk, stumbling around gruffness required for Jackson. And he can really sing and play guitar. He’s got chops. The amazing part is that he does this while directing his first movie. So you’d expect some things falling through the cracks. But it just doesn’t happen. This has got to be one of the best first-time directing jobs I’ve ever seen. Sure, other directors first time in charge have been excellent, but not on a stage as big as this or with the stakes this high. I’m more than impressed.

Two of the supporting actors are excellent. The legendary Sam Elliot plays Jackson’s older brother/tour manager and brings an emotional depth I’d never seen from him before. Also outstanding is Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father.

Lady Gaga is a force of nature, she always has been. I first fell for her during an SNL performance where she was in one of her usual Gaga costumes, but sat down at a piano and belted out a song that had my jaw on the floor. Now she is acting and I just don’t know where this comes from. She is outstanding. Granted, this character might not be too far from her own story. But the raw emotion and feeling she brings to the role just carries it to another level. This is THE breakout performance in this film, and maybe of the year. It’s weird calling it a breakout performance for an artist who has been around this long. Fans of her music and performances already know how captivating she can be. But you have never seen Lady Gaga like this.

There is so much to love here. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique is perfect. Every shot is framed to enhance the two stars personas. The adaptation of Moss Hart’s original story by Cooper, Eric Rpth and Will Fetters is just great. Jackson’s backing band is Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real. If you haven’t heard their music, search iTunes or Spotify. The movie even has an adorable labradoodle! I mean c’mon!!!

A STAR IS BORN is kind of meta as a title for this movie. Gaga is born (or re-born or maybe Born This Way) as a movie star. Cooper is born as director. And they both have given birth to one of the best movies of 2018.

THE SISTERS BROTHERS

the sisters brothers

by Alan Yudman

What would you do for your brother? Would you give up your dreams to protect him and keep him safe? That is the question at the heart of THE SISTERS BROTHERS, the new western from director Jacques Audiard.

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly are Charlie and Eli Sisters. They are notorious assassins, chasing a man through southern Oregon and northern California in the 1850’s. The work for a mysterious man known only as the Commodore. When someone steals from him, he sends the Sisters Brothers are sent to recover whatever it is and kill the thief. They are very good at their job, if a bit extreme. This time they are after a chemist colorfully named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) who has a formula for extracting gold from rivers. A tracker is also after him (Jake Gyllenhaal), acting as a ghoulish advance man for the Sisters Brothers murderous task.

The brothers are both brutal, but in different ways. Charlie is a blunt instrument, killing without much remorse or consideration for conscience or his soul. Eli is more thoughtful. He has thought about getting out and how that happens. He is a sensitive soul who seems to only be in it to protect his brother from the revenge that is surely in their future. Phoenix is great. His slightly crazy eyes play perfectly into Charlie’s personality. As good as he is, Reilly is better. He is tortured and exasperated by some of what Charlie has done. He pines for a woman and is not happy that Charlie makes fun of him for it. As angry as he gets at Charlie, Eli would never abandon him, even though he threatens to. And when Charlie is horribly injured, Eli takes charge of the partnership to care for his brother and end their commitment to the Commodore.

The supporting performances from Ahmed and Gyllenhaal are also strong. Every character is more layered than he appears. Ahmed talks about a socialist utopia, while Gyllenhaal writes like a man who has too much education for his job and who is escaping his own demons.

While the film takes place in the American west Spain and Romania stand in for Oregon and California. I really didn’t notice much of a difference. The score by Alexandre Desplat is brooding and ominous, perfectly fitting the tone of the film.

THE SISTERS BROTHERS is a thoughtful meditation on brotherhood, brutality and the society of the 1850’s American Frontier. It’s what a good western can be in the right hands.

EIGHT GRADE

eighth grade

by Alan Yudman

Bo Burnham became famous making YouTube videos, so it makes sense that is the plot device around which his first movie, EIGHTH GRADE, is centered.

Kayla is in eighth grade. She is at the end of eighth grade and getting ready for the completely new experience of high school. She is not quite average. She is just kind of moving through school. Not many friends. Not popular, but not unpopular. She is one of those kids who is kind of wallpaper or furniture, People move around her but don’t really notice her. The one thing she does to set her apart is that she makes advice videos on YouTube (now you see the Burnham connection). Much like her, no one notices them. They have almost no viewers.

And that is kind of what the movie is about. Kayla wants to be more, but isn’t. She is not especially happy and wants to be cool, but it just isn’t in her cards. She gets invited to one party, only because the girl’s Mom wants to hook up with Kayla’s good looking single dad. It’s a pool party and Kayla shows up and walks through the crowd being ignored. It’s kind of a brilliantly shot scene. Burnham follows her from the back and all you can see is her slumped shoulders moving through the party. She wants to be noticed, but her body language says otherwise.

The genius of the film is in how average Kayla is. She thinks she isn’t, but she is just an average, anxious teenager. Brunham and Elise Fisher (Kayla) are in some kind of perfect symbiosis. The videos are ostensibly for others, but really act as Kayla working out her problems out loud.

Burnham’s script captures the oeuvre of being a teenager more perfectly than any movie I can think of outside of a John Hughes movie. EIGHTH GRADE special movie by a very talented storyteller. Should be one of the best movies of the year, ya know, it ya want… or not. Whatever.

A SIMPLE FAVOR

a simple favor

by Alan Yudman

Can you do me A SIMPLE FAVOR? Go see this movie. It is the best combination of comedy and noir, mystery-thriller. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. It is in reality a mystery-thriller that has some funny parts.

Anna Kendrick is a Mommy-Vlogger who meets Blake Lively, the mom of one of her son’s classmates. Kendrick’s Stephanie Smothers is kind of the Mom every other parent hates. She bakes stuff, volunteers for everything and is excruciatingly bubbly. She meets Blake Lively’s Emily when their sons demand a playdate. Emily is an uber-successful public relations executive for a New York designer. That’s who they both appears to be on the surface.. but the theme of this movie is that everyone has secrets in their past. And they all come bubbling to the surface as Emily disappears and Stephanie becomes an amateur sleuth, obsessed with finding her “best friend”.

The best part of this movie is Lively. She is a modern day Barbara Stanwyck or Lauren Bacall. Yeah, I know that’s quite the high bar. But trust me, she lives up to the comparison. She is amazing. Lively is glamorous, sharp-witted, sexy and mysterious. Without her outstanding performance, I’m not sure this movie would have worked as well.

Kendrick is the best version of herself. The slightly manic pixie, but toned down, more serious and slyly smart. The comedy mostly comes from her character and her timing is flawless. She is an outstanding comic actor. But that shouldn’t short sell her overall ability.

A SIMPLE FAVOR is directed by Paul Feig and written by Jessica Sharzer. The script is good. The directing is wonderful. Feig, who is known for comedies like SPY and BRIDESMAIDS shows he has more tools in his toolbox, arrows in his quiver… however you want to describe it. He gets all the right shots to enhance tension and set the noir tone. There are several scenes that Hitchcock would be proud of. Maybe they were cribbed from the master, but if you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best. The Mommy Vlogger thing isn’t just Stephanie’s job, it becomes an integral part of the story and it’s resolution. It’s an example that really nothing is dismissed as trivial by Feig. And watch for one scene near the end involving a Prius. I laughed out loud and quite inappropriately.

I don’t want to pass by the music. It is mostly French pop and it works perfectly in setting the tone for the film. It was a great choice Feig and Music Supervisor Erica Weis.

I’ve read some reviews that say the movie falls apart at the end. I don’t think it falls apart at all. It becomes a twisty, Hitchcockian thriller where everyone is more than you thought they were. You may not like the resolution or how they get there, but that doesn’t mean if “falls apart”. It’s just a different choice. In this case, I think the choices were perfect. A SIMPLE PLAN is a fabulous movie.

BLACKKKLANSMAN

blackkklansman

by Alan Yudman

I have read plenty of reviews that BLACKKKLANSMAN is the triumphant return of Spike Lee. Where did he go? Nowhere. He was here all the time producing, directing, going to Knicks games. You know.. being Spike Lee.

Maybe those critics say that because this is a shocking return to movies like DO THE RIGHT THING.. funny, dramatic and insightful films that wear their point right there on their sleeves. If that’s what these critics are saying, then ok, I get it.

BLACKKKLANSMAN is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American on the Colorado Springs, Colorado police force. He winds up infiltrating the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan with the help of a white, Jewish detective named Flip Zimmerman.

This is the early 1970’s.. so Ron has to deal with all kinds of racism… external and within the police force (Fredrick Weller turns in an underrated performance as the most racist cop you may ever see). In his first assignment, Ron has to infiltrate a speech by Kwame Ture (expertly played by Corey Hawkins). In a movie filled with powerful scenes, this is one of the most beautifully shot. Ture is speaking about revolution and the beauty of Black people. Lee chooses not focus much on Ture, instead on the audience in a series of close-ups that simply support Ture’s thesis. It is quite moving and one of the best things I’ve seen on film this year.

The performances in general are fantastic. John David Washington (you may know his dad Denzel) is solid as Ron Stallworth. Adam Driver plays Flip.. has Driver ever turned a performance could be considered average? I can’t think of one. He is one of the most consistently outstanding actors working right now.

The movie is bookended by two scenes. One is Alec Baldwin as a racist Klan leader trying to record a filmed message for his followers. He stumbles and misspeaks throughout the whole thing. Not sure of the intent. Maybe to portray these guys as buffoons.

The end is a montage of video and photos from the deadly 2017 protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. I get what Lee is trying to do. Just because Ron is successful in busting the Klan in Colorado, doesn’t mean it is the end of racism. In fact naked racism is seemingly more virulent than ever. It is a shocking, gut punch ending and completely effective.

It Spike Lee in fact did go anywhere (spoiler alert.. he didn’t) then I for one am glad this Spike Lee is back.

(Oh spoiler alert.. I lived in Colorado Springs for a year. The scenes in the city are not Colorado Springs. Not close. But that’s just my little pet peeve.)

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU

by Alan Yudman

GET OUT was last year’s ground breaking movie that was of a genre but really a biting social commentary. It was so good it won Jordan Peele a Best Original Screenplay Oscar.

This year that torch has been passed to SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. Where get out was chiefly about race and racism, S.T.B.Y. touches on a smorgasbord of injustice. Boots Riley hits racism, sexism, classism… really all the “isms”. It addresses being “othered” unlike any movie you’ve ever seen.

Every performance is standout. Lakeith Stanfield (ATLANTA and GET OUT) is wonderful as underachieving Cassius Green. But he seems to be underachieving because of outside forces. His girlfriend is an artist expertly played by Tessa Thompson. You have to watch her scenes just for the social protest earrings she wears all the time. Every scene is a different commentary through her accessories. Those are the stellar, breakthrough performances.

Armie Hammer, Danny Glover, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, Steven Yeun and Terry Crews are all wonderful.

The movie address the rights of workers, the inherent racism of a workplace, discrimination against lower classes and the evil of mega corporations. So, a full plate. But it is never oppressive with its message. You get it.. it gets that you get it and moves on.

Boots Riley has had a full career as the leader of the Oakland Hip Hop collective The Coup. This is his first movie that was years in the making. It was well worth the wait. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is fun, funny and through provoking. And sometimes it is just flat out bonkers. It’s a movie that sticks with you and that you want to see again in case you missed something the first time. If it doesn’t receive the same recognition as GET OUT, Hollywood’s nods to inclusion are complete bullshit.

THE INCREDIBLES 2

by Alan Yudman

The Parrs are back. And the world is better for it.

THE INCREDIBLES 2 picks up where the first movie left off. Superheroes are still illegal and the Parr family is still using their powers despite the risk. Now there is a billionaire mogul who wants to change the law and wants to use Elastigirl as the face of his public relations campaign.

There’s a new villain, but that person isn’t revealed until about two-thirds of the way through the movie in a well hidden twist.

The real star of the movie is Baby Jack Jack. At the end of the first movie we learn that he may have powers. Those powers are allowed to breathe here. And in one of the movies best scene, Jack Jack has it out with a pesky raccoon.

There is also a very modern family dynamic. Helen has to go off to support the family, making Bob the stay at home Dad. He struggles with questions about his manhood, his ability to support his family and how little he actually knows about being a parent.

The script and direction are superb. What else would you expect from Brad Bird? The animation is familiar because it is so similar to the first film, but the technology allows for more detail which enhances the experience.

The voice acting is also stellar from Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Bob Odenkirk, Katherine Keener, Sarah Vowell and Samuel L. Jackson.

Here’s hoping it’s not another 14 years before we see the Parrs in a movie again.