Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Quick hits: If Beale Street Could Talk, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

We're at the point in the year that the movies are coming fast and furious (no not that movie).  We don't have time to do full reviews, and you don't have time to read them.  Many of the films we'll be discussing deserve more time, but you will be able to get the gist of them from our one-paragraph summaries.

If Beale Street Could Talk

Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) is 19 and pregnant.  She breaks the news to Fonny (Stephan James), a 22-year-old wrongly imprisoned by a racist cop on a rape charge.  Barry Jenkins' (Moonlight) latest is based on James Baldwin's novel about a young couple's struggle against racial injustice in 1970s Harlem.  The performances ranged from good to excellent, with Regina King as Tish's mother the standout.  We liked the non-linear structure, flashing back to Tish and Fonny as childhood friends, and the evolution of their relationsip against the backdrop of prejudice and suspicion.  The jazz and soul soundtrack complemented the lush period photography.  The most sparkling moments were when the families were onscreen, which leads us to the flip side: as interesting as the families were, they only had a couple scenes--most of the story was the young couple, and a lot of their screen time was them staring at each other with mooneyes.  This resulted in glacial pacing (Captain HE said the story could've been told in an hour);  The shift in tone, at times, was jarring--one moment, the couple is walking along in what looks like a scene out of La La Land; the next scene, they are talking about how horrible the ghetto is. In sum, we recommend Beale Street, but not with the enthusiasm an 87 score on Metacritic would indicate we should.
7.5 out of 10

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

At the entrance to this movie is a sign warning off epileptics before they enter.  We were leery enough about taking the family to what seems like the zillionth Spider-Man entry since 2000, and now we see them marginalizing a niche minority.  As the Czarina pointed out, it is the flashing lights in this most animated of animated action-comedies that might trigger seizures.  In this entry, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a gifted Brooklyn teen, is sent by his cop-dad (Brian Tyree Henry) to an academic prep school when he really wants to be a graffiti artist like his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali).  Of course, that radioactive spider bite derails all plans; newly "Spidey"-sensed, Miles is drawn into the battle against the villain Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) who wants to shred the time-space continuum, revealing other planes of existence, each of which has its own version of Spiderman: Earth's Peter Parker (Chris Pine) of course, Bizarro-World-type Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), gritty Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage); there's even a porcine Spider-Ham/Peter Porker (John Mullaney) and a very cool resurrected and superpowered Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld).  It's fun and funny, but with heart and empathy coursing throughout.  And everything is splashed across a backdrop of terrific sounds and an even brighter canvas that looks like actual comic book pages--the singular comics page-print and font design, written "Biffs" and "Pows" inside explosive bursts, the weird angles, the coloration technique, and occasional panes.  It sold us completely.
9.0 out of 10


Vice -- Review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Although our reviews are typically tardy, submitting a review on a film we had seen weeks ago is ridiculous. Sometimes our excuses are lame, but this one is genuinely lame: The Czarina's best friend smuggled in a vat of real absinthe for the holidays, and we just woke up an hour or so ago.

We loved Adam McKay's last film, The Big Short, so as we accompanied FilmZ and his youngest, it was with high expectations, and they were fulfilled for the most part. McKay's background is as a comedy writer, so no one should be surprised by the humor in this film about Dick Cheney, the most powerful Vice President in US history; in fact, we can't imagine how depressing and ponderous a story about Cheney would be if it weren't leavened by humor.  Our fellow-traveler, Don Swedanya, actually beat us to the box office on this one and related that he was "impressed and depressed by the film." We agree, and both emotions hung with us long after we left the theater.  And we were angry, too, as we could imagine viewers on both left and right could be.

McKay states up front that it is difficult to garner facts from one of the most secretive politicians in history, but he claims that what is portrayed is factual, and while McKay draws on historical fact to show Cheney the politician as Machiavellian, he portrays Cheney the husband and father as loving and compassionate, prompting one Conservative pudit to label W's Veep, "America's Dad."  How factual is it?  The basic outline of Cheney's career, his political alliances, and his policies are matters of record, starting in 1963, as we see the young Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) as a wild-child who flunked out of Yale.  His then-girlfriend Lynne (Amy Adams) reads him the Riot Act, and the next thing we see, Cheney is a Congressional intern who opportunistically latches onto a crass young US Representative Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell).  "Rummie" is impressed by Dick's quiet, fierce loyalty.  McKay skims through the Reagan years and skips past the '90s quickly, highlighting Cheney's career in and out of politics, emphasizing his stint as CEO of energy industry giant Halliburton.  We slow to close scrutiny with the run-up to the George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) campaign and administration emphasizing Cheney's Vice Presidency.

It is here, the years 2000 through 2008, where we view the most inflammatory scenes, as McKay charts the Florida vote recount, 9/11, the Patriot Act, Afghanistan and Iraq, Halliburton's no-bid contracts, the torture issue, and the vindictive outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame.  Condoleeza Rice (LisaGay Hamiton) and Colin Powell (Tyler Perry) are introduced as ethical pros.  The associates that join Rumsfeld in Cheney's inner circle receive more caustic treatment: Paul Wolfowitz (Eddie Marsan), David Addington (Don McManus), Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk).  At home, we see Cheney's love and support of his daughters, Liz (Lily Rabe), who is following her own political aspirations, and Mary (Alison Pill), who comes out as being gay.  It is here where Cheney is most humanized.  FilmZ's son said, "I bet you didn't learn anything from the movie because you told me most of this stuff already." We agreed, of course, because, much is a matter of historical record.  What isn't are the inner workings, the private discussions that lurked behind to facts.  Just between us, we did learn some things: We didn't know Lynne Cheney was such an ideologue and so powerful, we didn't know that the Right came up with the term "Climate Change" (we thought it was the Left).

As he did in The Big Short, McKay offers his trademark asides to explain concepts that might not be common knowledge, such as the "Unitary Executive Theory."  Look for a Shakesperean bedroom exchange between Dick and Lynne, a dinner menu conversation with Alfred Molina as the waiter, offering Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Addington menu specials of heinous wartime acts, and the lewd "Cheney could sell any idea, no matter how crazy" riff.  As always, Bale's transformation is incredible, and Sam Rockwell is perfection as "W."  We had trouble jiving Carell with Rumsfeld, though as the film rolled, the actor became the character.  Amy Adams, as always, is impressive as the strong, ambitious Lynne Cheney (In another article, Adams joked that this was the third movie where she got to scream at Christian Bale: The Fighter, American Hustle, and Vice).  Jesse Plemons grounds the film as its narrator and surprise contributor to the Cheney story.  Vice may meet some revisionist criticism that hurts it at awards time, and, in truth, it's a sliver below The Big Short, but the core actors deserve recognition, and the film itself is a contender.
8.5 out of 10

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