Some things that don’t seem to naturally go together can create nice harmony, like the frustrated Muslim teen in rural Thatcherite England and his newfound muse, working-class American rocker Bruce Springsteen. Having played in a similar milieu with a girl who wants to bend it like her soccer hero, Gurinder Chadha crafts her latest coming of age dramedy Blinded by the Light (B) with a gentle and loving touch that transcends her story’s sometimes color by number conceits. Casting her protagonist with the talented Viveik Kalra is the first win, and although some of the exposition is clunky and techniques labored, you can’t help but root for this spry hero. The handful of songs by “The Boss” provide a fantasy foil to both the teen’s mundane struggles with his parents, finding love and testing his mettle as a writer as well as a larger commentary on the xenophobia and class warfare of 1987 British politics as it plays out in a provincial community. The musical sequences feel as awkward and amateur as the tentative young man being inspired by them (this is in fact a compliment), and the sentiment generally pays off with an authentic supporting cast. It all works better than it should, given some head-scratching plot points which don’t all get resolved. The film is ultimately a marvelous family film and a giddy glimpse at how you should go about borrowing the best traits from your idols when endeavoring to find your own voice.
One of the film industry’s most notorious writer/directors slows his roll into leisurely paced comedy and doesn’t quite succeed until things get violent. He’s clearly better at the Spaghetti Western than The Decline of Western Civilization. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (C+) explores how movie stars are always one step away from their big break, whether because of talent, typecasting or breakout performances or, more commonly, because they join a celebrity entourage or get invited by famous neighbors to a cocktail. It’s no coincidence that two of the biggest stars in the world – Leonardo DiCaprio, portraying a boozy actor in career decline, and Brad Pitt, playing his stuntman and designated driver – steal the show with wile and charm. They deliver a lot of yummy tapas in the movie, but it doesn’t add up to a fully satisfying meal. Pitt is the charismatic one here, with a cadence and style he has honed before in the auteur’s revisionist history universe; quite frankly, he’s really good in his every sequence and has uncanny chemistry with an animal co-star. With a less interesting and underwritten character, DiCaprio lacks intrigue and consistency. He’s ironically at his best in a “movie within the movie” when his character is actually acting. Tarantino is, of course, endlessly fascinated with movie lore, so he includes in his spotty ‘60s pastiche some gorgeously filmed milieus and commentary about the transition of the Golden Age of Hollywood to something much different. He eschews many of his usual flourishes, and without a better style to replace them, they are missed. Subplots with Al Pacino and Margot Robbie build on the film’s themes but don’t ever become center stage in a captivating way. Boy, are there some great set pieces and play sets, including a Hollywood Hills home, two insider Mexican restaurants and a former Western movie backlot inhabited by Charles Manson acolytes. It’s a film full of imaginative notions not fully realized. Like a grindhouse double feature, this feels like a talky two hour character study followed by a thirty minute short in which those characters actually get to do what we’ve been wanting them to do all along.
Nisha Ganatra’s topical dramedy Late Night (B) is a splendid showcase for outstanding performances by Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling, a gifted comedic actress who also wrote the deeply observant screenplay. Thompson portrays a fictional long-running television show host (think Jay Leno by way of Ellen DeGeneres by way of The Devil Wears Prada), and Kaling plays the overeager first female writer to join the venerable late night show’s creaky comedy writing bullpen. Although the fish out of water workplace dynamics are fairly familiar, the fresh feminist take on the art of fully revealing oneself in one’s career makes the film poignant and powerful. Amy Ryan gives a commanding performance as the studio chief, and John Lithgow is effective as Thompson’s supportive spouse. Thompson is the main attraction here, in amazing acerbic form. It’s especially fun as the fiftysomething comedian finds her voice again by doing stand-up in front of a non-studio audience. This high-brow but accessible film has a great message about being authentic and is warm and witty in telling its tale. It’s a nice antidote to summer action fare and deserves to find a wide audience.
Imagine finding out that single-minded discipline in high school yielded no more success than that of the the cool kids who also partied all four years. That’s the premise of first time director Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart (B), one of those very sweet films wrapped in the package of a vulgar comedy, in which its central duo endeavors to make up for lost time with a free-spirited romp on graduation eve. This irreverent movie has plenty of great laughs and gags and is notable for its central friendship between a lesbian character (Kaitlyn Dever) and her loving but controlling straight best friend (Beanie Feldstein). Feldstein steals the show with her potent mix of feisty friendliness and devious directness (for those who don’t know, she’s Jonah Hill’s sister and equally super-badass). The film is largely a series of episodic moments through misbegotten parties with its ladies getting into maiden voyages of mischief, but the film’s characters are generally good-spirited and it never gets too dark. Jason Sudeikis, Jessica Williams, Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow are enjoyable in small roles. Wilde demonstrates command of the medium and brings a fresh female perspective to the notion that all hard work and no play is no fun for anyone.
While the studio that pioneered 2-D animation has evidently put that art form on ice, Disney has adapted its golden age cartoon musicals into Broadway shows and transformed them back into hybrid “revisal” live action movies to mixed effect. What was vintage or even moribund is now cryogenically reawakened as both blatant cash grab and opportunity to amend already sterling properties with new flourishes. Macho action film helmer Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin (B-) mines his man cave of wonders and faithfully recreates many of the nostalgic beats of the madcap magic lamp comedy, but here’s the rub: it doesn’t add enough new invention to distinctively better its predecessor in many remarkable categories. This live action lark is clearly bringing something borrowed and something blue: the latter, Will Smith’s cyan-hued comic Genie, is the surprise here and literally saves the movie at mid-point from an odd gloominess, the megawatt star nailing the iconic wish-granting role by simply being himself in fresh-prince mode as if the RuPaul’s Drag Race team had whispered him some funny shade to throw. He almost has to slow his droll to avoid eclipsing the rest of the ensemble, but his bromantic bond with the title character is shining, shimmering and sometimes a little splendid. Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott are attractive and in good voice in underwritten but appealing roles as Aladdin and Jasmine; Marwan Kenzari is less effective as villainous Jafar who comes across, well, too cartoonish. Lavish craftsmanship of handsome sets, vivid spectacle, eye-popping costumes, whimsical effects and fairly woke casting fill every frame in this entertaining bazaar, with rooftop parkour, a girl power anthem and Bollywood style dance moves adding spice to the pixel dust. Overlong and under-cooked, Ritchie’s romp finally gives Genie and company their wish to be real humans and gets a mild ride into recommended territory.
Jonathan Levine’s comedy set in the high stakes world of international diplomacy, Long Shot (B+), is equal parts shock and aw-shucks. Its central odd couple pairing is a meeting of hive minds and makes a wry statement about not always playing it safe, even in love and politics. Charlize Theron’s character is living in the bubble of a secretary of state role with eyes on the presidency when she encounters Seth Rogen’s schlubby ex-journalist turned speechwriter, and it’s a burst of unexpected laughs and chemistry as they embark on a world tour to save the planet, boost her likability polling and dodge a few unexpected hazards of the job. June Diane Raphael and O’Shea Jackson Jr. are supporting delights as the central duo’s witty advisors. If you’re not easily offended by vulgar sex and drug references, par for the course on the Rogen milieu, you’re in for one of the snappiest rom coms in quite a while. Theron steals the show as she reveals the vulnerability behind the statuesque veneer, especially in a sequence when she diffuses a global crisis while recovering from a night of particularly hardcore partying. Rogen enjoys his best role in years and gets to demonstrate his earnest side. The state of this union is quite satisfying.
Constructing a clever comedy requires a lot of bright component parts, and I suppose even Henrik Ibsen would marvel at the master builders behind this month’s blockbuster sequel! Veteran animator Mike Mitchell’s The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (B+), wisely written by the original film’s writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, is a deft deconstruction of the walls governing plot and pacing. The result is a madcap bricks-and-mortar tour de force filled with hilarious highjinks, industry in-jokes and winning life lessons to be enjoyed by all ages. Chris Pratt (two roles), Elizabeth Banks (heroine) and especially Tiffany Haddish (shape-shifting emerging villain) shine in voice roles as the heroes face “Ar-mom-ageddon,” basically becoming toys thrown in the storage bin. The film blasts its ensemble of heroes and superheroes from a Mad Max style dystopia to an outer space world, with time travel and live action thrown in for good measure. It’s a pretty great musical too, following up “Everything is Awesome” with a variety of enjoyable new tunes including an earworm called “Catchy Song.” Just when you think you know where the plot is going, the creators have a few more bricks up there sleeve. There are so many great throwaway lines and creative gags that this second part may require a second viewing.
Review of the original film here
Life’s a glitch for the best friends from the ‘80s arcade as they venture out into the worldwide web in Rich Moore and Phil Johnston’s uneven computer generated sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet (C). The great leap from the first film’s nostalgia fueled highjinks into the swirl of modernity is fraught with glaring shifts in tone and tenor, with voice actors John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman doing their darndest to keep the joy elevated. The best bits involve a woke encounter on a Disney princess fan site and a musical number set in a dystopian urban racing game. The animation is above average, and some of the jokes land, but not enough. The final reel is so off the rails, a blue screen of death would be preferable.
In a year of breakthrough films by African-American directors, of black excellence, panthers and klansmen, of Beale Street scuttlebutt and warrior widows, an unlikely white director has also hopped on the race relations bandwagon, helming a durable and crowd pleasing vehicle that’s worthy of more than a footnote. In fact, there’s something about director Peter Farrelly, best known for gross-out comedies, that yields a consistently bright and triumphant tone for Green Book (A-), elevating a true story to modern classic status. This 60s-set dramedy features Viggo Mortensen as a white nightclub bouncer who takes a job as driver and security for a black piano prodigy played by Mahershala Ali on a multi-state concert tour, guided by the titular journal about how to stay on a straight and narrow path through the segregated Deep South. The central performances are authentic and lived in, with Mortensen chewing the scenery and any food in sight as a portly pugilist with buckets to learn and Ali lending delicate dignity swirled with a worldly virtuoso to a lonely character who finds himself a multiple outcast in his own skin. The buddy comedy elements of the film are fittingly amusing and often revelatory, so it’s heartening when Farrelly resists most hamfisted impulses even when the narrative takes dramatic detours. Combined with lovely music, impeccable art direction and two of the most iconic performances of the year, it’s old-fashioned Hollywood manipulation that’s hard to resist. While film historians may claim one must choose between the likes of a more traditional tale such as Driving Miss Daisy or a gut-punch of modern cinema such as Do the Right Thing to chronicle the racial reconciliation agenda, there’s spotlight aplenty for multiple lenses addressing America’s most complex questions when it bubbles up from the right spirit. Farrelly’s film is more Miss Daisy/Hoke Colburn or Andy Dufresne/Red territory on the moviemaking map, but even a familiar road to redemption filled with such grace notes so gorgeously played is well worth treading.
Best known until now as a director of Step Up sequels, a Justin Bieber concert movie and flop flicks about G.I. Joe and Jem and the Holograms, Jon M. Chu seems an unlikely helmer of one of the first nearly all Asian American ensembles since 1993’s Joy Luck Club and one of the most satisfying romantic comedies since 1990’s Pretty Woman or 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, but here’s his film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians (A-), and it’s bliss. Although not a musical, the film simply sings. Although not entirely a fairy tale, it’s enchanting. Chu’s star is born, a crouching tiger ready to unabashedly entertain, and he draws spectacular chemistry from the luminous Constance Wu and the dashing Henry Golding. She’s a Chinese American professor invited to accompany her humble boyfriend to a wedding in his Singapore homeland where she quickly discovers he’s part of one of the country’s most wealthy families and heir to a fortune. Hilarity and heartbreak are in store abroad. Michelle Yeoh is incredibly fierce portraying the perfectionist matriarch-antagonist as a battle royale unfolds between family duty and the messiness of love. The film is splashy, soapy and sensational; you’ll want to book a trip to the opulent, exotic city it depicts: a place of glistening razzle dazzle dancing and locales, of kaleidoscopic fashion and costumes. The film veers into a few arch moments threatening to tonally derail it, but the committed cast members remain jubilant journeymen. American rapper Awkafina is a hoot as Wu’s sassy sidekick. There are also two popular American songs sung in the film’s native tongue, adding extra glitter and throwback to Chu’s fanciful fantasia. In a year when racial representation on screen has already delivered a stellar superhero film, it’s lovely to have such an enjoyable escapist romcom from the Asian perspective. This is one of the best times I’ve had at the movies this year.
Note: The film opens wide August 15, 2018 after buzz building sneak previews. #CrazyRichAsians #GoldOpen
Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (B+) is so knowing it hurts. The comedian turned writer/director’s darker than expected feature debut is a canny you-are-there coming of age story. It follows a painfully shy middle schooler, magnificently played by Elsie Fisher, who struggles with the everyday challenges of her final days of classes on the precipice of a hopeful metamorphosis before high school arrives. A framing mechanism of the girl’s confident YouTube explainer videos pairs nicely with the awkward foibles of her altogether unremarkable real life. A highlight of her retreat into the social media void is a montage amusingly underscored with Enya’s “Sail Away.” Josh Hamilton, a Gen X staple, helps make an endearing film even more human as her resilient single father, who delivers an encouraging fireside chat that may move some to tears. The astonishing young Fisher’s raw, un-glamorous turn as the protagonist anchors the film; and even when some of her character’s actions are head scratching, her every move is extraordinarily authentic. Burnham presents an assured filmmaking style with some brilliant point of view shots steeped in incredibly poignant milestones: trying to fit in at a pool party, holding “food court” with older kids, sitting through sex ed class and making small talk on a first date. It’s occasionally comic with an unsettling tone; few profound details evade Burnham’s candid camera. This is one of those low plot, high feel movies. It finds its heart as it finds its way.
Tinseltown’s swaggering hero Burt Reynolds passed away today, and one of this famously mustached actor’s final movies is Adam Rifkin’s The Last Movie Star (C-), now available on demand after a spring premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. This autumnal Tennessee-set tribute to a faded star – the ornery type who routinely uses words such as schmuck, putz and tuchas – co-opts some of the screen legend’s real-life highs and lows as he commences a requiem for his glory days. Lured to a small-time movie retrospective where organizers plan to fete him with lifetime achievement status, Reynolds’ aging protagonist ends up by happenchance accompanying a miscreant ingenue (Ariel Winter) on an uneven misadventure down memory lane. Reynolds is by far the film’s main attraction, channeling an effectively wry melancholy in increasingly emotive sequences, plus he also gets to confront his younger selves through wizardry of digital insertion into archival footage aboard a boat in Deliverance and passenger-side with “The Bandit.” Winter’s off-kilter acting improves as the film progresses; the same cannot be said about other supporting cast members Clark Duke, Ellar Coltrane or Chevy Chase. Any movie with a Cheerwine bottle as a plot device can’t be all bad, and it’s Reynolds himself who’s bringing forth the fizzy vintage. Rifkin is clearly out of his depth and stumbles intermittently with attempts at broad humor and overreaching melodrama, but his leading man delivers a third act rally. The stuntman turned journeyman actor earns additional credibility and respect in a “life mirrors art” Hollywood ending.