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

Catching Up With Recent Watches


Catching Up With Recent Watches by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Even though Writing 101 warns that we should never open a message with an apology, I apologize on behalf of FilmZ for falling behind on entries to this blog.  Edith Piaf and I have no regrets, though.  First, we write 'em when we're ready, and besides, no one has been beating at our electronic door asking where we've been.  Well, we have seen a few movies over the past few weeks, and thanks to laziness, ennui, or both they never got write-ups.  So, we're going to give each one a thumbnail sketch and a grade.  I'll write them up in the order in which they were seen.

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016, streaming)
If you aren't familiar with the work of New Zealand writer/director/actor Taika Waititi, let me introduce you.  He was one of the creative forces behind Flight of the Conchords and What We Do in the Shadows and director of Thor: Ragnarok, arguably the most entertaining Marvel movie to date.  The Hunt for the Wilderpeople brings Waititi's signature humor with heart and a touch of the absurd to the dramatic adventure.
Ricky (Julian Dennison), an angry outcast teen sent to the backwoods to live with foster parents, the gleefully enthusiastic Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband the cranky and barely housebroken Hec (Sam Neill).  After some unfortunate events, Child Services decides Hec is unfit to raise the boy (indeed, Hec was never excited about the prospect, anyway).  Rather than return to an orphanage, Ricky runs away with Hec in reluctant pursuit.  Vile social worker Paula (Rachel House) insinuates that Hec may be abusing Ricky, setting off a nationwide manhunt.  As the chase unfolds, orphan and foster dad run into obstacles, dangers, and an odd assortment of forest residents.  And despite their mutual resistance, they begin to bond as two sides of the same coin.
7.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale

Blindspotting
Director Carlos Lopez Estrada makes a meteoric impact in his first feature film, but Blindspotting belongs to Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, who wrote, co-produced, and star in this drama set in their hometown of Oakland, CA.  Their drama crackles on-screen, at times wildly hilarious, suddenly terrifying; the dialogue is quick and incisive, veering off into hip-hop riffs and rants (and those of you who know me are aware of my dislike of that genre, so if I like it, that's saying something).  Back on track: this is a movie that moves.
Diggs is Collin, a Black ex-con serving his last three days of parole, a situation jeopardized by his childhood best friend, White wild man Miles (Casal).  The two work for a moving company, where the dispatcher, Val (Janina Gavankar) was once in a relationship with Collin.  Now though, Val keeps Collin at arms length and avoids Miles completely.  Both on and off the job, the men watch their neighborhood become ever more gentrified, and the influx of young, affluent professionals brings an increased police presence to ensure safety and security.  One night as he hustles home to beat curfew, Collin is stuck at a red light when he witnesses an act of violence that tears at him throughout the rest of the story.  Meanwhile, Miles' reckless behavior only makes the situation worse, endangering both his family and Collin.  As events unfold, we learn how Collin became a felon, why Val wants nothing to do with him, and why she detests Miles.  And, in a remarkable climactic moment, one of the most suspenseful since the gas station scene in No Country for Old Men, we see film elevated to art form.
8.5 out of 10 on Entertainment and Artistic Scales

The House with a Clock in its Walls 
Let's make this clear: this is a movie aimed at children.  This is not what one would expect from Director Eli Roth (Cabin FeverHostel) but Eric Kripke adapted John Bellair's 1973 young adult fantasy and keeps under the PG umbrella.  An intriguing cast helps buoy it; any movie that has Cate Blanchett is worth seeing, and Jack Black and Kyle MacLachlan are always good. 
Young orphan Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is still grieving his parents' fatal accident.  He is sent to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Black), a warlock whose Victorian home has paintings that move and change prophetically, monsters in closets, and a forbidden door. Jonathan introduces Lewis to his kindly neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman (Blanchett), a powerful witch.  Enchanted, Lewis begs them to teach him magic, and he learns that the house contains a secret: a clock hidden in the walls by a now-deceased evil wizard named Izard (MacLachlan).  Between good-natured insults, Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman team to find the clock before it ticks down to a horrific event.  Meanwhile, in hopes of overcoming his outsider status at school, Lewis uses his new skills to impress the cool kid, Tarby (Sunny Suljic), and in the process unwittingly helps the evil wizard toward his goal. 
The movie's 1955 setting provides the canvas for a colorful aesthetic that takes us back to a coolly weird caricature of the Eisenhower era. The special effects, with lightning-bolt spells, menacing pumpkins, and automaton dolls, are fun.  On the down side, the dialogue is clunky, jump-scares substitute for real suspense, and the jokes trend toward the juvenile.  Adults will tolerate the film, but more back story for Mrs. Zimmerman and Jonathan would have given us more connection to the characters and raised the substance a bit.
7.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale

Fahrenheit 11/9
Michael Moore is a muckraker, and what slimier muck to rake than recent events in America?  It may surprise many viewers that Moore lays blame on both parties--albiet Republicans as presented are more proactive, while the Democrats range from neglectful to complicit.  Moore also cites the media, and he even blames himself. 
Of course, he begins with a humorous hook, positing that Trump's election is Gwen Stefani's fault.  When NBC paid her more for The Voice than Trump was offered for The Apprentice, he threatened to make a presidential run.  Using archival footage, he covers the run-up to the early morning hours of November 9, 2016, when Trump's election shocked the world.  Moore then turns serious, asking how this came to be.  He spends surprisingly little time on Russia and barely makes a wave at the four pillars of the Culture War: racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and antiLGBTQ+.   One theme does course through Fahernheit 11/9: the danger of unfettered capitalism.  Most prominent is the example of Rick Snyder, ex-CEO Michigan Governor and cold-blooded perpetrator of the Flint water crisis.  Moore also spends time with the heroic Parkland students as they confront the NRA and its bought-and-paid-for politicians.  He moves on to West Virginia, with its statewide teachers strike over health coverage and the Democratic Party's betrayal of the state's voters.  He also features the influx of progressive working class, minority, and female political candidates who promise to shake up the Establishment. 
Making the point that democracy is an ideal rather than a fait accompli, Moore lauds the our growing grassroots activism.  But he ends the film on a cautionary note, drawing parallels between Nazi Germany and the current Washington power structure.  Most effectively, Moore features 99-year-old Ben Ferencz, the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremburg Trials, who tearfully tells us that the US must be alert to the danger of fascism.  This warning might have seemed sensationalism two years ago, but strikes us as all too possible today.
8.0 out of 10



Operation: Finale Mini-Review


Operation: Finale mini-review by FilmZ

A comment to Holocaust deniers out there: it happened.  Find any legitimate history source, and a late chapter will include Adolph Eichmann.  This fact tasks Operation: Finale with a responsibility: The burden of history is on the filmmakers to earn credibility through accuracy.  Hey, you want to throw in a love subplot, OK, but just a little; and make sure you explain why El Al balked at helping Mossad.  Yet, at the same time, a film has to, as they say, put butts in seats, so the challenge is to make it exciting and fresh, especially a story that has been filmed several times in the past.  O:F succeeds, for the most part.  It is a procedural spy/crime story that starts with a chance meeting that leads to a leak, which sparks a mission that breaks international law, some ill-timed snafus, and ends with an international trial of the century.  Great films will find a way to still bring tension and anticipation to familiar material.  That is the main problem with O:F: while we learn particulars of the mission and are reminded why it is important, we rarely get a sense of tension or urgency.

Ben Kingsley plays a soft-spoken, taciturn Eichmann--as he evidently was, in reality.  Historically correct, but not Hollywood-effect; some might prefer the "Architect of the Final Solution" to be larger than life.  Credit and blame Matthew Orton's script.  His Mossad pursuers are led by Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll), but the focus here is on Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac).  He carries the emotional weight of his beloved sister having been murdered by Nazis, yet he is the one who gets what he wants by connecting on a human level with Eichmann.  Other methods are considered, up to and including murder, but this is also a morality tale, with the balance of empathy and sociopathy struck in the conversations between Malkin and Eichmann.  The team also includes, among others, Dr. Hanna Elian (Melanie Laurent), and ethical anesthetist; Isser Harel (Lior Raz), a government facilitator.

The story gets rolling when Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn) tries to impress young Sylvia (Haley Lu Richardson), boasting that his father was a big deal during WWII.  This comes on their first date when Klaus takes Sylvia to a Nazi rally in then-Fascist Argentina.  Frightened, the half -Jewish girl runs out and tells her father (Peter Strauss).  Word travels to post-War Germany and on to Israel.  And the game is on: how will Mossad forces spirit Eichmann out of a hostile nation and bring him to justice?  Director Chris Weitz delivers an involving if not compelling story, and, although there are action scenes this is not an action film, even the suspenseful escape at the airport pales in tension to a similar scene in Argo.  Still, an excellent cast delivers an intriguing story depicting an important page in 20th Century history.
7.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.0 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale

BlacKkKlansman


BlacKkKlansman Review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Because of conflicts, we weren't able to get a quorum to see Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman until Wednesday.  This only whet our appetite even more for one of our most anticipated movies of the year so far.  Afterward, we all had the same reaction anyone who knows our gang would expect: we found it culturally relevant, a film that will be held up in the future as an accusing finger at the political leadership in 2018 America.  Possibly our favorite movie of the year, so far.  That's why we like to wait a few days after the film to let it marinate in our mind before writing a review.  Stepping back provides clarity and perspective.  Given that, and reading a little about Ron Stallworth, we do see a few blemishes that temper our enthusiasm.  To be clear, though, our gang unanimously enjoyed the film.

The set-up:
It's 1972 Colorado, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is sworn in as a rookie cop, the first African-American on the Colorado Springs force, fulfilling his lifelong dream.  Ron is enthusiastic and ambitious, agitating to work undercover.  His Chief (Robert John Burke) finally gives in, sending him to monitor a speech by Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), who has changed his name to Kwame Ture. Ron becomes smitten with the event organizer, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), in full Angela Davis mode.  Romantic conflict: she hates cops.  Later, as the men in the operation debrief, Ron gets the support of Det. Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi), cementing their mutual trust.  Soon after that (almost seven years, actually), Ron sees a Ku Klux Klan recruitment ad.  On a whim, he calls, and to his surprise, they want to meet him.  There's only one problem: Ron's skin tone.  So, they hatch a plot to have Flip become Ron for the face-to-face meetings, leading us into a standard undercover operation, punctuated by typical Spike Lee lampooning of small-minded yet dangerous bigotry.  We meet a slew of klansmen, from affable group leader Walter (Ryan Eggold) to the psychotic Felix (Jasper Paakkonen).  But Lee saves the best ironies for phone conversations between Ron and David Duke (Topher Grace), the Grand Wizard himself.  As the investivation evolves, the investment of the force intensifies, especially Flip, Jewish by birth only, who learns to appreciate the significance of his culture.  Meanwhile, through his evolving relationship with Patrice, Ron learns more about the Black Power movement.  But the investigation also unwittingly draws the most dangerous elements of the Klan toward Patrice.

Among the many talents Spike Lee possesses is his ability to elicit a visceral response from the audience.  BlacKkKlansman has many such moments, but three stand out: during the stirring Kwame Ture speech (with content taken from actual Carmichael speeches, I am told), the camera scans the audience's faces, fading from one as it focuses in on another, closing in on the pain recalled and the victory foretold; later, Harry Belafonte, an aged activist, with a group of young people relates vividly the horrors of growing up in the Jim Crow South; and an epilogue that jumps forward to the violent 2017 Unite the Right march in Charlottesville and quotes from the President.  Rightfully, Lee portrays Klansmen on a spectrum ranging from buffoonery to vile bigotry; somewhat ideally, he shows African-Americans always in a righteous light.  We have to give him major props for sending a strong message that good cops are the rule, bad ones the exception.

The moral lessons Lee presents are, at times, heavy-handed, the soliloquys overtly inflame our passions; some characters are caricatures. Are these bad things?  They could be in the hands of a charlatan who wishes to indoctrinate through misleading propaganda; Spike Lee, is not a charlatan, nor is he misleading.  True, he is a grand story-teller who uses fictional elements to dramatic effect, but not at the price of the truth.  Ron, for example, performs a climactic heroic act that never occurred in real life, but that vignette is part of the drama that drives the suspense and the story; it's not a twisting of the history.  And if there is one person who shows true bravery in the film, it is Ron's partner, Flip, the Jewish cop who went face-to-face with the Klan, risking exposure every day.  This is in stark contrast to Lee Daniels', The Butler, which implies that a White House servant was responsible for most Civil Rights gains from Kennedy through Reagan; Nor is he Ava Du Vernay, who in Selma falsely portrayed LBJ as anti-Civil Rights.  Spike Lee's dramatic elements do not bend the truth; they provide the glue that binds the facts, driving the cohesive and compelling narrative.   He holds a 40-year old mirror up to America, and it reflects America today.
8.5 on an Entertainment Scale
8.5 on an Artistic Scale (this one will be in the hunt for many post-season awards)

September and October Movie Guide



Early Fall Movie Guide by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

The first two-thirds of the year mete out enough good movies to see us through, along with a few dry spells and a lot of mediocrity.  The last third gives us a glut of films, more than we can see, in fact, with the quality building to a crescendo, like the end of a fireworks display.

We thought about posting the fall and winter film offerings in one fell swoop, but reconsidered for several reasons:
1 - For just the first two months, we feature 30 movies, enough to boggle anyone's mind;
2 - The picture of worthwhile awards contenders (and their release dates) will become more clear by the end of October, so we will publish he Holiday Film Guide then;
3 - We aren't exactly sure what a fell swoop is, so it would be irresponsible to post a film guide in one.

So, below please find our movie guide for September and October.  As usual, we acted out our petty prejudices, refusing to bring the movies of Nicolas Cage and Chloe Sevigny to these parts.  Still and all, there will be enough trash to sift through before you find the gems, but recognizing that one person's Adam Sandler bobble-head is another person's Oscar, we tried to be comprehensive.

Enjoy,
GSM,R

SEPTEMBER

07 The Nun - Horror
The Vatican thinks it's a good idea to send a priest (Demian Bechir) with a checkered past and a novice nun (Taissa Farmiga) to investigate the apparent suicide of a young nun.  In Romania.  Ah jeez, I guess the Church has made worse decisions.

07 Peppermint - Action
Jennifer Garner dips her toes in revenge-porn as a mom who loses everything and comes back to take everything away from the bad guys.  John Ortiz

14 A Simple Favor - Thriller
Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks) directs this story of a mother and blogger (Anna Kendrick) who follows a twisty mystery of her best friend's (Blake Lively) sudden disappearance.  Linda Cardellini, Henry Golding

14 Bel Canto - Romantic Thriller
Ann Patchett's best-seller about a world renowned opera singer (Julianne Moore) invited to perform for a wealthy industrialist (Ken Watanabe) at a South American estate.  A pleasant evening becomes a nightmare when the people in the house are taken as political hostages.

14 Operation Finale - Historical Bio-Drama  
In 1960, Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) leads a team team of Mossad operatives to track down and arrest Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), a major architect of the Holocaust.

14 The Predator - Sci Fi Horror
Writer-Director Shane Black returns to his 1987 creature when a boy (Jacob Tremblay) unwittingly causes the hunter's return, and only a crew of crusty mercenaries and a science teacher (Yvonne Strahovski) can save Earth.  Sterling K. Brown, Olivia Munn

14 White Boy Rick - Crime Drama
In the 1980s, a teen (Richie Merritt) becomes an underground drug informant, assisted by a strong supporting cast. Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie

21 Colette - Historical Bio-Drama
Based on the life of the French novelist (Keira Knightly), who begins writing under her husband's (Dominic West) name, and then must fight her way out from under his shadow.  Eleanor Tomlinson, Fiona Shaw

21 The House with a Clock in its Walls - Fantasy
Young, recently orphaned Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is sent to live with his uncle (Jack Black), a warlock, in his house of magic. They, along with Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), must foil an evil wizard's (Kyle MacLachlan) plan to bring about the Apocalypse via a ticking-down clock.

21 Life Itself - Romantic Drama
Dan Fogelman (This is Us) wrote and directed this examination of the drama of the lives of a college romance (Olivia Wilde & Oscar Isaac) that follows through to parenthood.  Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart

21 Love, Gilda - Documentary
Archival footage and a slew of Saturday Night Live veterans pay homage to the sweet and inspirational funny woman who died way too young.

21 Quincy - Documentary
Chronicle of the life of Quincy Jones, musical icon whose impact on popular culture has spanned 70 years.  Rashida Jones,

21 The Sisters Brothers - Western
Amid personal crises, two bounty-hunter brothers (John C. Reilly & Joaquin Phoenix) track down a prospector (Riz Ahmed) at the height of the 1850s Gold Rush.  Jake Gyllenhaal

21 Tea with the Dames - Documentary
Dames Eileen Atkins, Judy Dench, Joan Plowright, and Maggie Smith quaff tea and discuss life and films.  This might not even make it outside major cities, but it looks like eventual must-see TV.   

28 Night School - Comedy
Dysfunctional adults returning to school to attain GEDs is the backdrop of comedy for the likes of Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Mary Lynn Rajskub.

28 The Old Man and the Gun - Crime Bio/Drama/Comedy 
A 70-year old (Robert Redford) breaks out of San Quentin and goes on a crime spree that baffles the cops but enchants the public.  Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover

28 Smallfoot - Animated
A Yeti begins to believe that humans exist.  Voice talents of Zendaya, Channing Tatum, James Corden, Gina Rodriguez, Danny DeVito, Common, LeBron James


OCTOBER

05 A Star is Born - Musical Drama
Re-re-re-make of a classic--say it all together: A famous musician (Bradley Cooper) helps a rising star (Lady Gaga), and as her career takes off, his fades.  Sam Elliott, Dave Chapelle, Cooper also directs.

05 Venom - Sci Fi/Horror
Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) acquires the powers of a symbiote, and his alter ego threatens alternately to save and destroy him.  Michelle Williams, Woody Harrelson, Jenny Slate, Riz Ahmed

10 The Happy Prince - Bio-Drama
Rupert Everatt wrote, directed, and stars in this labor of love depicting the last days of Oscar Wilde, who fended off his sad end with wry humor.  Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson

12 Bad Times at the El Royale - Crime thriller
A group of strangers meet at the El Royale, a disreputable Tahoe hotel.  Each individual with secrets, each wanting something, but maybe not the craziness they find.  Jeff Bridges, Chris Hemsworth, John Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Offerman

12 Beautiful Boy - Drama
Fact-based (on father-son memoirs) chronicling a young man's (Timothee Chalamet) drug addiction, his cycling recoveries and relapses, and the tests it places on his parents (Steve Carell & Maura Tierney).

12 First Man - Historical drama
A look at America's ambitious and dangerous mission to put a man on the Moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the first man to set foot on the lunar surface on July 20, 1979. Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler

12 The Kindergarten Teacher - Drama
The eponymous pedagogue (Maggie Gyllenhaal) becomes obsessed with nurturing a child she deems to be a prodigy (Parker Sevak). Gael Garcia Bernal

19 Can You Ever Forgive Me - Bio/Comedy/Drama
A celebrity biographer resorts to stretches and fabrications to sell her memoirs.  Based on a memoir (are we to believe it)?  Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Jane Curtin

19 The Hate U Give - Crime Drama
Starr (Amandla Stenberg) straddles two worlds: her poor Black neighborhood and her White prep school.  Both worlds crash down when she witnesses a White cop shoot her best friend, and she must stand up for what is right.  Anthony Mackie, Regina Hall, Common

19 Halloween - Horror
Laurie Strode's (Jamie Leigh Curtis) last (yeah, right) confrontation with Michael Myers (Nick Castle).  Judy Greer, Will Patton

19 What They Had - Drama
As a woman (Blythe Danner) fades into Alzheimer's, her son (Michael Shannon) summons his sister (Hilary Swank) to cope with grief and the determination of their father (Robert Forster) to keep his wife near.

19 Wildlife - Drama
Paul Dano directed and adapted (along with Zoe Kazan) the Richard Ford story of a boy (Ed Oxenbould) witnessing his parents' (Carey Mulligan & Jake Gyllenhaal) marriage disintegrate when his mother finds another man (Bill Camp).

31 Slaughterhouse Rulez - Comedy, Horror
Teachers at a British boarding school discover, much to their dismay, that nearby fracking near has opened a sinkhole to Hell.  Expect Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to revive their Shaun of the Dead and The World's End sensibilities.  Michael Sheen, Asa Butterfield



Leave No Trace


Leave No Trace review by FilmZ

Director Debra Granik has made only three feature films in her 21-year career, which is unfortunate because she has a unique voice and eye, and she is a true feminist filmmaker.  Her tone is naturalistic, not quite documentarian, but her films elicit the sense that lives are unfolding before our eyes.  We are omniscient observers, close-up voyeurs, witnessing young female protagonists, dirt-poor and on the fringes of American society, as they strive to overcome existential threats.  They are in sink or swim situations, but where most modern films create viscerally satisfying fight scenes or bombastic verbal confrontations, Granik avoids such cheap externalized thrills.  Her heroines' tensions and turmoils are internal; they don't talk a lot; they don't act tough; they don't rush into danger with fists flying or guns blazing.  Granik's heroines sidle forward slowly but inexorably; as their challenges grow so do they, and they have grit and determination, quietly refusing to lose.

In Leave No Trace, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) is a 13-year-old living with her father Will (Ben Foster) in a public forest on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon.  They live in a tent for two, foraging for food, and scrimping pennies--they use a flint to start kindling to cook their meals instead of wasting precious propane.  They only walk into town when necessary, they move campsites frequently, and they practice evasion and concealment drills in case rangers show.  We learn that Tom's mother is no longer around, but back story is not what LNT is about; in fact, we only learn gradually that Will suffers from PTSD--a nightmare of a helicopter, strained reveries in private moments, selling his meds for the cash they need, and, of course, his withdrawal from society.

Then one day they are caught, and the two are separated as police and social workers try to sort out the situation.  Tom is questioned and tested by Jean (Dana Millican), a caring social worker who discovers that the youngster is intelligent and well-cared for by a loving father.  Meanwhile, Will, is undergoing a grueling battery of questions meant to assess his stability and parental adequacy.  At this point, the obvious plot move would be to have the system try to take Tom from Will, but LNT is not the obvious film.  Here, Jean sets up a job for Will, public schooling for Tom, and a pre-fab home.  Tom naturally takes to socialization, even meeting a boy, (Isaiah Stone) and going to a 4-H meeting; at the same time, Will's internal struggles deepen.  Forced interpersonal relationships and work responsibilities are bad enough, but his trauma reaches the tipping point when he is handed a stack of legal documents that will bind him and Tom to their new society.  After work one day, Will packs up and informs a reluctant Tom that they are fleeing back to the wilderness.  It is here where their paths begin to diverge.

In her directorial debut, Granik headed a team of writers and directed Down to the Bone.  That film gained recognition at Sundance and with the Film Independent Spirit Awards and brought then 29-year old Vera Farmiga to prominence.  Her performance caught the eye of Martin Scorsese, who cast Farmiga in The Departed.  It was six more years before Granik directed and adapted the screenplay with Anne Rosselini for Winter's Bone, which did even better on the awards circuit and was nominated for four Academy Awards--Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (John Hawkes), and it catapulted Best Actress nominee Jennifer Lawrence to stardom.

It follows that, in just two films, Debra Granik became known as something of an actress whisperer.  So, it should come as no surprise that comparison are drawn between McKenzie, an 18-year old New Zealander, and her predecessors. Comparisons may be unfair at this juncture, but the quiet intensity of her performance is certainly places her somewhere on the continuum with them.  But Granik pulls quality performances from all of her actors.  She is known to use non-actors to fill minor roles that bring texture and realism to her films, and she does the same here for scenes about beekeeping, and Christmas tree cutting.  She also brings along Dale Dickey an old hand from Winter's Bone to play Dale.  And in a combination of the two, Granik pulled Isaiah Stone, an Ozark local who played a part in Winter's Bone to play Isaiah here (Granik likes to call people by their names).  We've been saying for a couple of years now that Ben Foster risks typecasting as the hair-trigger crazy man, so teaming with Granik was a smart move.  Foster's Will is a man quietly being eaten from the inside out.  The only thing Will has in life is Tom, but as she grows, his protectiveness becomes a millstone to her, and he knows it.  Thus lies the crux of Leave No Trace.  As a film, it falls a little short of the rural noir classic Winter's Bone, but that's no insult.
8.0 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale

Mission: Impossible - Fallout, an Essay


Mission: Impossible - Fallout, an Essay by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

We have written this before, but it has never been more valid: regardless of what you think of Tom Cruise as an individual, the guy makes hellaciously entertaining action movies.  Mission: Impossible - Fallout is one of the best action films you will see this year, and it is arguably the best of the M:I series.  But before we talk about his latest hit, let's take a moment to talk about spy movies as a genre and provide you with an entertaining and informative link.

Spy movies come in two flavors: "Action" and "Cerebral."  Both can be excellent, but moviegoers need to be prepared beforehand for what they are about to see, especially "action" fans who show up at a "cerebral" spy film.  It's like walking into an arena, psyched to see the Warriors, and finding Bobby Fischer methodically working a chess board.   Suddenly, one must forego the expected adrenaline rush and engage patience, concentration, and "mind" in order to get the reward.  Some undeservedly well-placed film critics seem only capable of handling action type films, and they grade them on a much more lenient scale than they do a cerebral film--unless informed beforehand that said cerebral film is based on a classic book--and for reasons we've discussed in other essays, a critical mass of the filmgoing public turns off a movie if it requires them to turn on their brains.  One of the rarest creatures is a film that succeeds on both action and cerebral levels; the Matt Damon Bourne trilogy comes to mind.  Excellent films that have skewed toward the cerebral, like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; A Most Wanted Man; and Red Sparrow have suffered at the domestic box office--although it should be mentioned that all three of those films were highly successful overseas.  Draw your own conclusions.  In fact, all domestic top-grossing spy movies have been action-oriented.  Among that group are, naturally, the Bond, the Mission: Impossible, and the aforementioned Bourne films, most deservedly so, but ranked at number four on that list is the awful, The Fate of the Furious, whose $226 million doubled the combined domestic gross of the three cerebral films mentioned above.  Collider has compiled their rating of the best spy movies of the 21st Century so rar.  Follow the link below and then return for more about Mission: Impossible - Fallout:
/http://collider.com/best-spy-movies-of-21st-century-so-far/

All right, we're back.  Mission: Impossible - Fallout is most decidedly an action-type spy movie.  Christopher McQuarrie (who also wrote the screenplay) is the first director to return for an encore engagement in the M:I series after helming Rogue Nation.  In another series first, Fallout is a direct sequel to that film.  This is good news.  Fallout brings back Alec Baldwin as Alan Hunley, now Ethan's boss as head of the IMF, and Sean Harris as turncoat British Agent now terrorist Solomon Lane; even better, Rebecca Ferguson reprises her role as MI-6 operative Ilsa Faust, who provides both kickass counterpoint to Cruise's Ethan Hunt and also adds sexual tension to the mix.  They join in the fun with Ethan's core team, now winnowed down to two: Benji (Simon Pegg) a geeky tech expert, and Luther (Ving Rhames), a gruff tech expert.  Still around but pushed to the background is Ethan's erstwhile wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), whose presence provides our protagonist's inner conflict, angst, and grounding.

Since Rogue Nation ended with Solomon Lane in custody, worldwide law enforcement and intelligence agencies have depleted the numbers of his Syndicate.  What's left is a hardcore group that calls itself the Apostles and has adopted the catchy slogan, "The greater the suffering, the greater the peace."  Three plutonium cores have gone missing, and the fear is that the Apostles want to bring that slogan to fruition, prompting the "mission, should you decide to accept it" tape to Ethan.  As the IMF swings into action, they are halted by the CIA Director (Angela Bassett), who informs them that her top assassin, August Walker (Henry Cavill) will be joining them.  And so they're off, Ethan and Walker--equal parts animosity and distrust between them--jump out of a plane at 30,000 feet into a thunderstorm, dropping in on a Paris fundraiser hosted by part-time arms dealer, full-time vamp, White Widow (Vanessa Kirby).  But first, they have to dispatch the guy that's supposed to make the plutonium swap with her, John Lark (terrific stunt man Liang Yang), in the process getting their butts handed to them in the best bathroom brawl this side of Bourne. Complicating matters, Ilsa shows up, refusing to tell Ethan why she's involved and refusing to tell Walker anything at all.

All of the chess pieces are now on the board and the plot is laid out, so we can continue in a series of crosses, double-crosses, IMF-patented false identities, good guys who are bad, bad guys who are good, and tracking devices.  Everything unfolds at a breakneck pace: car and motorcycle races the wrong way on one-way streets--is there any other way--through Paris, chases across rooftops in London, dogfights in helicopters between the mountain peaks of Kashmir.  Meanwhile, Ilsa saves Ethan's bacon while simultaneously attempting to fry it, Walker skulks nefariously, White Widow confounds, and Luther and Benji display their whiz-bang technology and problem-solve acumen, various law enforcement agencies are props, and if it weren't for the White Widow's stoogish brother Zola (Frederick Schmidt) we wouldn't be able to differentiate between her associates and the Apostles.  But that doesn't matter any more than the logic behind the solutions Benji and Luther come up with or how, after a series of random events--including a vehicle accident--Ethan can fall into his partners' waiting laps.

We don't have time to reflect on all of that, though; as soon as we get through one roller coaster loop we're banking into another.  We buy it because we want to buy it, because it is ingenious trickery, because so many cool and/or beautiful people are performing insanely fun stunts with such good-nature, but mostly because Ethan Hunt is the can-do iteration of Tom Cruise, who puts his 56-year old body through impressive tortures just to give us two hours and twenty-seven minutes of enjoyment.  He doesn't do it alone, of course.  His supporting cast is talented, and somehow, whether they have been around for a while or are new, all seem to develop chemistry with the star.  Off-camera, Eddie Hamilton's smash-cut Editing never misses a beat.  Rob Hardy's Cinematography captures both interior and exterior settings of Paris and London that travelogues either miss or overlook for their off-kilter beauty, and the outdoor location photography from Norway, New Zealand, and Kashmir make this a must see on the big screen.  Most impressive, though, are the filming of the parachuting plummet and the helicopter chase; those scenes had to be as dangerous to film as they looked.  The cherry on top is the pulsing Lalo Schifrin score that takes us back decades even as it immediately immerses us in matters at hand.  Finally, as the Czarina observed, be sure to check out the Fellowship of the Ring-type ending.
8.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale

Avoiding Dogs in the Dog Days


Avoiding Dogs in the Dog Days by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

We enter the second half of summer, and the list of decent movies dwindles as studios and distributors gear up for the fall and winter awards season offerings.  Still there are some good ones, along with some that will arrive with much hype but little substance (Skyscraper).

Below, we've listed 19 movies by genre.  None will be to everyone's tastes, but sift through and you're sure to find a few to your liking.  Films are in bold and italicized, with best bets in ALL CAPS, preceded by their reputed release date--remember, some of the smaller films may come to a theater near you a week or two later than the date shown.


ACTION

07/13  Skyscraper - In this Die Hard/Towering Inferno mishmash, Dwayne Johnson leaps tall buildings, this time as a war vet with an amputated leg and a tough past. Neve Campbell, Pablo Schreiber.
  
07/20  Equalizer 2 - The main attraction to this revenge-porn flick is Denzel as Robert McCall, delivering very satisfying vigilante justice, but what if it's someone he loves? Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, Pedro Pascal.

07/27  MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT - All together now: Ethan and his IMF team race against time in a mission gone wrong.  Rebecca Ferguson is back, does the plot matter? Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Simon Pegg.


ANIMATED

07/13 Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation - Drac receives a vacation on a monster cruise so he doesn't have to serve others at his hotel.  Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez, Andy Samberg, Steve Buscemi.

08/03  CHRISTOPHER ROBIN - Adult Christopher (Ewan McGregor) reunites with Pooh (Jim Cummings' voice) who helps him to enjoy simple pleasures.  Hayley Atwell; voices of Chris O'Dowd, Toby Jones, Brad Garrett..



COMEDY

07/13  SORRY TO BOTHER YOU - Sundance favorite, Telemarketer (Lakeith Stanfield) finds success using a "White voice," then things become absurd.. Tessa THompson, Terry Crews, Danny Glover, Armie Hammer

07/20  EIGHTH GRADE - Bo Burnham story of a put-upon middle schooler toughing out the end of 8th grade before moving on to high school.

08/03  The Spy Who Dumped Me - Comedy, two best friends (Mila Kunis, Kate McKinnon) become embroiled in international intrigue when one of the women discovers her former boyfriend was a spy.

08/10  BLACKkKLANSMAN - True story of Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer who goes undercover to infiltrate the Colorado Ku Klux Klan.  John David Washington, Adam Driver

08/10  Dog Days - Various Los Angelenos' lives are changed as they are brought together through their mutual love of dogs.  Nina Dobrev, Vanessa Hudgens, Eva Longoria, Lauren Lapkus, Adam Pally, Finn Wolfhard

08/17  CRAZY RICH ASIANS - An Econ prof (Constance Wu) travels to her boyfriend's (Henry Golding) hometown of Singapore to find she is the target of an army of gold diggers who want her man.  Michelle Yeoh.


DRAMA

??/??  LEAVE NO TRACE - Debra Granik drama, a father (Ben Foster) and his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie), living off the grid outside of Portland, OR are pulled into urban social services and fight to get back to the wilderness.

07/13  DON'T WORRY, HE WON'T GET FAR ON FOOT - Gus Van Sant dramedy/biopic, Joaquin Phoenix as a man using art to rehab from a life-changing accident.  Rooney Mara, Jonah Hill

07/20  BLINDSPOTTING - Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal co-wrote and star in this dramedy about race and class clashing in a gentrified Oakland, CA.

08/03  THE WIFE -  A wife (Glenn Close) gives up her career aspirations to support her Nobel Laureate husband (Jonathan Pryce). Also, Elizabeth McGovern, Christian Slater.  Close finally scores an Oscar.


MUSICAL

07/20  Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again - Against our better judgment, we mention this, and we believe they had this sequel's name before they made the original. Meryl Streep, Lily James, Amanda Seyfried.


SCI-FI/FANTASY

08/03  The Darkest Minds -  Based on Alexandra Bracken's YA dystopian thriller, four teenage plague survivors develop strange skills and must escape bounty hunters. Amandla Stenberg, Mandy Moore, Gwendoline Christie.

08/10  The Meg - Guilty pleasure as Jason Statham pursues a shark that makes Jaws look like a minnow to save folks trapped in a submersible.  Bingbing Li, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose.

08/31  Kin - Earthly and alien forces pursue an ex-con and brother, who are in possession of a strange weapon. James Franco Dennis Quaid, Zoe Kravitz, Carrie Coon.




Ant-Man and the Wasp


Ant-Man and the Wasp review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) gets a lot more right than it does wrong, and in Ant-Man and the Wasp it hits on all cylinders.  The third movie from the studios this year, it is also the most modest.  It isn't the mega-blockbuster that gives us a whole new nation and MCU's first person-of-color lead, nor is it a mega-superhero apocalypse.  But it is the first Marvel Studios movie with a female character in the title--Evangeline Lilly's "Wasp" AKA Hope Van Dyne--and it's arguably the funniest film in the canon, thanks to Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, a regular guy and ex-con who is the most ill-suited superhero (thank goodness his "Ant-Man" suit sizes change at the push of a button).  Rudd also wrote the script, along with Erik Sommers, Chris McKenna, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari.  The writers and Director Peyton Reed inject enough heart to keep the story grounded but not so much that it's schmaltzy, and they add just enough humor to enhance the strengths of a gifted array of actors, keeping the exposition and sciency talk light and palatable.

As the movie opens, Scott is still under house arrest for becoming one of "Cap's" outlaw allies in Captain America: Civil War, which also explains why Ant-Man is missing from Avengers: Infinity War.  Those exploits, unfortunately, also put Hope and her father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) on the run, but they are also on a mission.  Harking back to the first Ant-Man, when Scott entered the Quantum Realm and returned unscathed, father and daughter rekindled hope that Hope's mother, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) might still be alive after entering that subatomic realm some 20 years earlier.  Using Hank's size-changing technology, they stay on the move with a laboratory that can shrink to suitcase size, complete with travel handle and wheels.  As angry as they are at Scott, they find that they need him in their quest, an adventure Scott doesn't want with only three days remaining on his two-year house arrest.

With that set-up, a mind-boggling array of characters and subplots complicate matters: Scott wants desperately to be the father his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) deserves and to work together with ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her new husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), a cop, to bring it off.  Speaking of cops, FBI Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) makes a habit of surprise house checks, trying to catch Scott violating his house-arrest.  And, along with his former prison mate, Luis (Michael Pena), Scott is trying to get a security business off the ground with partners Dave (T.I.) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian).  Meanwhile, Hank and Hope purchase black market quantum technology from Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a profiteer who double-crosses them.  Hank solicits help from Dr. Bill Foster, (Laurence Fishburne), who left Hank's lab years ago under a shadow of suspicion.  And we haven't even gotten to the big villain yet--"Ghost"/Ava Green (Hannah John-Kamen), who wants Hank's Technology for her own ends.

There was a point, about one-third of the way in where we thought, there's too much going on; like a juggler with too many balls in the air.  But by the midway point, the tangents started connecting, and by the last act, everything fit nicely.  This is a credit to both Reed and the writers, who deftly intertwined all of the moving parts.  One of the smartest moves was one of the most original: having Scott and his family, including the man who took his place, be mutually supportive.  This convention-defying plot element gives Scott a stable base amid the chaos that surrounds him.  The writers do a marvelous job of setting Walton Goggins up to play the cheerfully verbose baddie he excels at.  Randall Park is equally effective as Scott's socially and emotionally conflicted watchdog.  It seems odd to mention comic relief in what is essentially already a comedy, but Michael Pena's manic enthusiasm, with T.I. and Dastmajian playing off of him, create a team that rivals the Marx Brothers for zany antics.  On the more serious side of the movie is our "villain": Hannah John-Kamen is electric.  We first saw her playing a terrorist in season 2 of The Tunnel, and she is a force on-screen.  Like Killmonger in Black Panther, Ghost has reasons for what she does, and we can sympathise, to an extent.  But it is Evangeline Lilly as Wasp/Hope, who steals the movie.  She has trained all her life, and when Hank lets her take wing (literally), she does so with passion and gusto.  Rounding out the cast with Douglas, Pfeiffer, and Fishburne, we are hard put to think of a better ensemble in the MCU.  See this one on the big screen for the full visual treat.
9.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale


  

Incredibles 2


Incredibles 2 review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

First, we have to mention the Pixar short, Bao, that preceded Incredibles 2.  It's the story of a Chinese mother coping with becoming an empty nester.  A tearjerker for parents and a giggler for kids; we are convinced it's going to win awards.  Everyone in the theater loved it, except Guy S. Malone, Researcher.  Needless to say, we think GSM,R needs to get out of the dungeon more, or stay in it more, we're not sure which.

The original Incredibles was released in 2004 to critical acclaim, huge box office, and awards recognition--it was nominated for four Oscars and won two, including "Best Animated Feature Film."  In other words, it produced the kind of results that would normally have inspired Hollywood to drop a dozen sequels, prequels, and spinoffs by now.  But here we are, a decade-and-a-half later, finally getting Incredibles 2.  It's a mystery of the faith.  Fortunately for us, the sequel is nearly as good as the first, and though the plot may lack originality, it more than makes up for that in striking at the heart of the zeitgeist.

Fourteen years later, and superheroes are still illegal, but writer-director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, Ratatouille) is about to change that, thanks to his imagination, a terrific cast of voice actors, some, erm, incredible, eye-popping animation, and a very cool jazz soundtrack.  He has brought back the Parr family: Bob "Mr. Incredible" (voiced by Craig. T. Nelson), Helen "Elastigirl" (Holly Hunter), and their kids, Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huckleberry Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), and, yes, the Parrs' best friend, Lucius "Frozone" Best (Samuel L. Jackson).  Incredibles favorite Edna Mode (Brad Bird himself) returns, but her part is disappointingly small.

The reason our superheroes are not allowed to use their powers is, a la The Avengers, their crime-busting tends to wreak a lot of collateral damage on the town.  As they eke out a living in a seedy motor court, their ennui is broken when the Deavor siblings Winston (Bob Odenkirk), salesman extraordinaire, and Evelyn (Catherine Keener), tech whiz, approach them with a proposition.  Great admirers of the Incredibles, the Deavors want to give them the opportunity to redeem themselves and all superheroes--specifically, they want to give Helen the opportunity.  When Bob protests, Winston points out that Mr. Incredible  is particularly destructive of municipal property; besides, as Evelyn points out: Girl Power.

So it is, Bob is to stay home with a sulking Violet and her boy problems, Dash and the challenges of learning new math ("Who can change math?" Bob grumps), and Jack-Jack, just as he begins to display an array of powers that would be the envy of an entire Avengers team.  The crime-busting is left to Helen, powered by a super motorcycle and a bodycam to record her derring-do.  A new, mysterious supervillain, "Screenslaver" and one or two plot twists challenge even the flexibility of Elastigirl.  Family, friends, foes, and a few new superheroes with impressive (some, hilarious) gifts join in on another riotous adventure, leading to a "Marvel"-ous conclusion.

Incredibles 2 is certain to be one of the enduring hits of the year.  As we expect from Disney, it is family-friendly.  Bird is a gifted storyteller; he realistically portrays family love and devotion, even as they drive each other a little nuts, especially as each deals with the double-edged sword of super powers.  He also supplies ample self-aware humor that will appeal to adults.  The animation is mesmerizing: Helen's first motorcycle chase delivers the exhilaration of a roller coaster, and other scenes bring almost overwhelming kaleidoscopic effects.  As is the case with all Bird films, Incredibles 2 is a treat for senses; perhaps our favorite aspect is returning collaborator Michael Giacchino's score, which both complements and enhances the film.
8.0 out of 10 on both Entertainment and Artistic Scales.


American Animals


American Animals review by FilmZ

A brief aside before we begin: This film had our very own Quincy Wagstaff Googling Transylvania University, hoping for Vlad Tepes references, but he realized to his disappointment that only Jefferson Davis, two Supreme Court justices, and a ton of statesmen count among its alums.  Also, after the film, Guy Malone, Researcher, hustled out the door, saying he had some business to conduct at the Franklin and Marshall College Library.  We haven't seen him since, hence my name on the review.

American Animals has nothing to do with any of that.  Documentary filmmaker Bart Layton wrote and directed this account of four college students who planned and executed (we use the term loosely) the heist of rare books from the Transylvania University Library.  It opens with the disclaimer: "This film is not based on a true story"--and then the words "not based on" are lifted from the sentence.  True to his original calling, Layton's story is a docudrama with a twist: as the film unfolds, the director cuts away from the story and to the actual robbers who annotate the events we are watching actors dramatize.  This gives the film layers that critics who disliked it seemed to miss.  But we'll get to that.

Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), a laconic teen from a solid upper middle class family is entering Transylvania (KY) University as an art major.  On Spencer's campus orientation tour, librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd) takes his group into the rare book room and shows them an original edition of John James Audubon avian paintings.  The book, worth $12 million, is kept under a locked glass case, inside the secure room, all of which is under Ms. Gooch's close watch.  The seed of temptation is planted.  Spencer tells his best friend and loose wire Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), a disaffected jock from a disintegrating family.  Warren interprets this information as an invitation to join in on a daring heist. As much as Spencer denies he meant to suggest they steal the book, he isn't sure about that; either way, the idea takes hold, and as Warren's excitement builds, Spencer becomes swept up in it.

The conspirators watch heist movies, they draw up floor plans, Warren Googles how to pull off a robbery, and they even locate a "fence" on a trail that leads to New York and Amsterdam.  As they begin to develop fine points, Warren decides that they need two more men to pull off the heist: pensive accounting major Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and the aggressive, entitled Chas Allen (Blake Jenner).  But as the plan becomes more complex, their impatience leads them to go lax on details.  And what to do about Betty Jane Gooch? As heist films go, we are accustomed to slick jobs, performed with Swiss watch timing by experienced crooks, each with a particular set of skills.  This ain't those movies.  These are kids, amateurs feeling their way.  Juxtapose this film with the slick, high-budget Oceans 8 that we discussed a few weeks ago, and you have two opposites; in Oceans 8, the plan is pat and foolproof, and whenever a glitch arises coincidence and deus ex machina combine to ensure that everything falls into place.  The heist works, but the film doesn't because there is no sense of risk.

 Amplifying the sense of risk in American Animals are the aforementioned cutaways to the actual robbers, now in their 30s, and their parents. The real Spencer and Warren relate their own memories about how it all went down, and in some areas their recollections don't match, but we never get the sense that they are whitewashing their culpability.  Eric, perhaps more than the others, expresses a wistful sadness over his dashed dream of working with the FBI, and Chas just wonders how they could have been so stupid.  Layton captures their personalities, their reflections, and especially the introspection that Spencer expresses.  Most revealing is the conviction held by all four that they were raised to think they were destined to become something special and the dawning realization that, in order for it to become actualized they would have to make it happen. These documentary interludes are what makes the film work.  The men mention a line they were about to cross that would change their lives forever, no matter the result.  Before that line is crossed, they are fearful, seeing risk as well as reward, and the promise of reward wins out.  After crossing that line, we see regret.  As our own Captain HE put it, "It was a gut check on our moral compass ... a forensic examination of the psychology of morality [that] demands an introspective review of what keeps the majority on the 'right.'"

As you have probably guessed by now, things don't go well, or as Serfing Dude put it, "The execution of the caper by those students was how it would probably go if FilmZ and his merry band would have plotted to steal popcorn from the concession stand."  Keeping things from becoming too tragic are the layered performances by talented actors on the cusp of stardom, especially Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse, American Horror Story), who captures Warren's manic charm and whose wry grin and glint in his eye give low-key enhancement to the films lighter moments,  Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dunkirk) is more nuanced, but equally effective as a pensive fatalist.  The always excellent Ann Dowd (Hereditary, The Handmaid's Tale, The Leftovers) is perfection as the, erm, dowdy, dutiful librarian.  This is one of those films people look back on in ten years and say, "Damn, all that talent in that cool little movie."  The entire gang enjoyed American Animals immensely; in the end, I agree with Don Swedanya's final grade:
8.0 out of 10 on both Entertainment and Artistic Scales.



Three Names and Two Movies to Know - A Short Essay


Guy S. Malone, Researcher, Searches and Researches

Three names to know: Debra Granik, Taika Waititi, and a young lady named Thomasin McKenzie, who ties them together through the films Leave No Trace and JoJoRabbit

Debra Granik should already be well-known, but we can understand if you don't recognize her.  On June 29, the director/screenwriter's Leave No Trace goes into limited release.  It is the story of Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) living off the grid in state game lands near Portland, Oregon.  Theirs is an idyllic life, Will teaching Tom survival skills, Tom learning from an encyclopedia, both free.  When they are caught and brought into social services, they rebel at the alien "civilization," and Will's war-related PTSD kicks up.  Father and daughter become determined to return to the wild, no matter the obstacles that arise.

Leave No Trace is only the third feature film by the 55-year old Granik, unfortunate for us because she has a finger on the pulse of the rural poor, and no one brings noir verisimilitude like her.  She also has a knack for discovering female talent.  In her first film, Down to the Bone (2004), she discovered Vera Farmiga; her second, the slow-burn suspense classic Winter's Bone (2010), was nominated for four Academy Awards, including a Best Actress nomination for then 18-year-old newcomer Jennifer Lawrence.  We don't understand why Granik doesn't make more films because she seems to have a golden touch.

So, you can see why we believe you will be hearing a lot from 17-year old New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie, maybe as soon as next Oscar season.  If not then, it will surely come with her next movie, an exciting gem we found while researching the young actress: JoJo Rabbit, a World War II satire, filming now in Prague. It's based on a novel by Christine Leunens, but here is what ramps up our anticipation: it has been adapted for the screen and directed by Taika Waititi.  If you have seen Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, or Thor: Ragnarok, you know why FilmZ and I are pumped for a new effort by the half-Maori, half-European Jewish auteur. 

About Waititi's film: JoJo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a na├»ve ten-year-old German boy who doesn't fit in.  Bullied by peers, misunderstood by his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), JoJo feels increasingly isolated.  And then he finds out Mom is harboring a Jewish boy in their home.  As he struggles to cope, he resorts to an imaginary friend, Adolph Hitler (Taika Waititi), who offers advice and solace.  Hitler also tries to instill a fanatic nationalism in JoJo, who begins to go down a nasty rabbit hole until a young girl named Elsa (McKenzie) befriends him and changes everything. The dark comedy also stars Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, and Stephen Merchant.  

Thumbnail Sketches: Solo, Deadpool 2, and Ocean's 8


Solo, Deadpool 2, and Ocean's 8 by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

We're not going to spend too much time on these movies because, entertaining as they may be, they don't warrant a lot of keystrokes.  Except Deadpool 2, that is, but even though I could wax poetic about the sheer joy of that film, I'll keep it brief.  After all, these are popcorn flicks, and they do what we want them to: divert us from the grim affairs of the day, light fare to see with a few friends to put you in a good mood before going out for crabcakes and a couple or eight IPAs.  So, let's take them in order from good to best:

Ocean's 8
The main charms of Ocean's 8 are the likability of Sandra Bullock, the scene-stealing performance of Anne Hathaway, and the unparalleled talent of Cate Blanchett (we can argue the merits of this thesis at another time).  Throw in the gifted Sarah Paulson, Helena Bonham Carter, and Mindy Kaling, and round out the crew with Rihanna and Awkwafina--there that's eight.  Throw in Richard Armitage as a foil and writer-director Gary Ross is off to a flying start.  There are problems with having such a large cast, though: first, we only get a surface glimpse of what makes each character tick, which makes it difficult to relate or empathize; second, these are some talented women, and I want to see them be more than caricatures--Bonham Carter is reduced to silly clothes and wide-eyed ditziness.  What about the dozens of superheroes in Avengers movies, you ask?  Well, those films don't need character building because we know them all so well; the writers know them, too; so they can make the most of limited screen time.

Which brings us to the writing.  Ross has made his bones both writing and adapting screenplays, and he has a rich kernel of an idea--a jewel robbery at the Met Gala (complete with some unexpected--and expected (Elliott Gould) cameos).  But heist films are a different animal; they require inventiveness and twists.  Ocean's 8 has a few twists, and enough inventiveness to keep our interest; however, it relies too much on deus ex machina and other contrivances.  Whenever a hurdle springs up, our heroines have some coincidental convenience that gets them around it rather than developing a novel way of leaping it.  At one point, an unanticipated plan-buster arises--that is, until Rihanna's character makes a call and the problem is preposterously fixed, spit-spot.  If you're looking for a nice evening at the theater to enjoy popcorn and watch beautiful people plot and cavort in ritzy surroundings Ocean's 8 will do.  If you want an original heist film, though, toggle through the index and find The Italian Job, The Inside Man, Charade, Inception, Reservoir Dogs, A Fish Called Wanda, Heat, Hell or High Water ...
7.0 out of 10 on a popcorn scale, only because of our great affection for the cast and director.
Not an awards player


Solo: A Star Wars Story
Anyone who has followed this blog for a while knows the depth of my cynicism toward the Star Wars franchise.  After starting off as a fan of Episode IV: A New Hope in 1977, my ardor increased with The Empire Strikes Back, then it took a veritable sucker-punch to the groin, thanks to those hirsute little cretins, the Ewoks.  The main achievement of Episodes I, II, and III was to nearly ruin Natalie Portman's industry respect.  In 2015, The Force Awakens gave us the big trifecta: a thinly-veiled remake of A New Hope, an over-emoting Daisy Ridley, and the totally unnecessary John Boyega.  The next year brought Katniss in Space Rogue One. a decent film.  But last year, The Last Jedi arrived and it was ... good!  It was relatively original, Daisy Ridley toned down the grimaces, and we had less John Boyega.  Still, we were skeptical when Solo hit the multiplexes.  After all, they fired their director and brought in Ron Howard to salvage the film. And I asked, "What's the deal with a young Han Solo?  I mean, wasn't Harrison Ford pretty young in 1977?"

Well, shut my mouth.  Solo isn't bad.  Some have complained that, as Solo, Alden Ehrenreich lacks Ford's charisma. True, but he ain't bad.  The film starts off a parsec a minute as Han and his love Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) try to escape the slum planet where they live.  They are separated and Han's motivation throughout is to reunite with Qi'ra.   Of course, what Star Wars movie would be complete without rehashing something that already had been done -- young Han Solo is just a bit too much like one young James Tiberius Kirk.  Anyway, we get to see how Han and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) meet and how both encounter Lando Calrissian (a well-cast Donald Glover).  Han and Chewie join forces with pirates Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his love Val (Thandie Newton), reunite with Qi'ra, and work for and against crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).  As you might have guessed, a major theme here is, "Trust no one."  And one of the very pleasant surprises of Solo is the sheer number of surprises and twists (pleasant and otherwise) that permeate the plot, written by longtime Star Wars scribe Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan.  This is an underrated entry into the series.
7.5 out of 10 on a popcorn scale as the Kasdans and Ron Howard provide a fun ride.
Not an awards player


Deadpool 2
Yes, the best of this trio is in my opinion is Deadpool 2.  Perhaps that is a commentary on something, but best we all drop that thought before it blossoms into a weed we would all like to forget.  First and foremost, do not take children to this movie!  It's a hard "R" folks; you bring your kids, then it's on you when your seven-year old says, "Gimme the f**king popcorn" and jams a handful up her brother's nose.  Deadpool 2 is, of course, the continuing adventures Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) the anti-hero X-Man who isn't an X-Man.  In fact, we finally learn why only a few X-Men ever appear at Prof. Xavier's mansion, and it's not--as Deadpool surmises to the camera--because the studio wants to keep production costs down.  As you can guess, it involves iconoclastic humor and breaking the fourth wall.  Throw in imaginative profanity and a level of violence that lands somewhere between Tarantinoic bloodshed and Road Runnerian mayhem and you get an idea of what to expect.  As directed by stunt expert David Leitch and written with love by Reynolds, Rhett Reese, and Paul Wernick, D2 brings joke-a-minute comedy (Serfing Dude, Ambrose, Captain HE, FilmZ, and I haven't laughed so hard at a movie since Aubrey Plaza's equally raunchy and rollicking The Little Hours), but what sets this sequel a smidge above the original is its unexpected heart.

As we open, our sardonic motormouth is still with the love of his life Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), who coaxes out the best in him--in this case, to have empathy for orphaned outcast teen Russell (Julian Dennison).  As a mutant, Russell becomes Firefist, and when he gets angry, watch out.  A dangerous cyborg named Cable (Josh Brolin) arrives from the future to kill Russell, so Wade sets up interviews with his friend Weasel (T.J. Miller) to build his own team (a bit if a ripoff of the 1999 superhero comedy Mystery Men).  The results are spotty, at best: Bedlam (Terry Crews), Zeitgeist (Bill Skarsgard), Vanisher (you'll see), and Peter (Rob Delaney), just a guy who answered the ad.  And then there is Domino (a charismatic Zazie Beetz) whose superpower--being lucky--at first seems like a dubious strength.  Just watch.  Returning are Colossus (Stefan Kapicic), Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), next-door neighbor Blind Al (Leslie Uggams) and cab driver Dopinder (Karan Soni) and en masse, the gang makes an impressive force--X-Force, in fact, as Wade dubs them, a derivative name, Domino points out.  They are, nevertheless, powerful as they face the real enemies, who reveal themselves to be worse than any cyborg.  As we've come to expect in superhero movies, there is an overextended battle at the end, as Deadpool cynically points out.  But the film's surprises and aforementioned heart give Deadpool 2 the edge over its predecessor.
8.0 out of 10 on a popcorn scale
Not an awards player

June is Busting Out All Over


Movies in June by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

A few days ago, one of my very few friends said, "You know, June doesn't have many good movies.  Most are garbage."  
I answered, "Just because Ethan Hawke is in two them doesn't mean they're all garbage."

Below, I've listed 18 movies, some released in late-May;17 of them are in theaters and one big one on Netflix. None will be to everyone's tastes, but sift through and you're sure to find a few to your liking.  Films are in bold and italicized, with best bets in ALL CAPS, followed by release date in parentheses (remember some of the smaller films may come to a theater near you a week or two later than the date shown):

First, the one on Netflix: Thor: Ragnarok (June 5), one superhero movie that even non-Marvel fans can enjoy.  Chris Hemsworth (Thor), displaying a nice comic touch, plays half of the film off of Jeff Goldblum (in full Goldblum mode), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Bannon/Hulk), and Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie).  The other half is serious mythology, with Cate Blanchett (Hela) bringing Ragnarok (think the Apocalypse) down on Asgard.  Idris Elba, Karl Urban, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Anthony Hopkins round out the excellent cast.

ACTION/THRILLERS
It's all a matter of personal taste in this genre, and I'm not going out on a limb for any of them.  The first two are originals, the third a female version of a proven heist tale, the fourth a remake, and the fifth a sequel.  

Adrift (06/01) - Based-on-true-story about a young couple (Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin) who agree to sail a boat across the Pacific, not counting on crossing paths with a Category-5 hurricane.

Hotel Artemis (06/08) - in riot-torn future LA, Jodie Foster runs a hospital for criminals; Sterling K. Brown tries to save his brother. Jeff Goldblum, Sofia Boutella, Jenny Slate, and Dave Bautista join the action, sci-fi crime fun.

Oceans 8 (06/08) - Female Oceans 11, starring Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Matt Damon.  Hopefully, Gary Ross plus great talent equals the ultimate summer popcorn flick.

Superfly (06/15) - Trevor Jackson in the title role remake of the 1972 blaxploitation movie.  With Jason Mitchell and Michael K. Williams.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado (06/29) - Sequels of excellent movies don't always work if they forget what made the original good.  This looks like twice the killing, half the surprise and intrigue.

ANIMATED
Only one worthwhile entry this in the genre this month, but it's the long-awaited (14 years to be exact) sequel to a huge hit

INCREDIBLES 2 (06/15) - Elastigirl/Helen (Holly Hunter's voice) heads out to save the world, turning  Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson's voice) into Mr. Mom. Voices: Samuel L. Jackson, Bob Odenkirk, Kathleen Keener. 


BLOCKBUSTERS
It's that time of year, and you'll have no trouble recognizing the franchises here.  We'll probably see all three, like two, and love one.

DEADPOOL 2 (in theaters now) - Ryan Reynolds is back as the rowdy, raunchy superhero he was born to to play.  This time, he's up against Thanos, erm, Cable (Josh Brolin).  Morena Baccarin returns as Vanessa, along with a new slew of super and not so super heroes.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (06/22) - Want to know why dinosaurs went extinct?  Oversaturation.  Now, they are rescuing the dinosaurs from a volcano.  Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeff Goldblum, Ted Levine.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (05/25) - Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke help beat Star Wars into the ground, though I bet this cynical remake rakes in $500 million and gets 90+ from RT and EW. 



COMEDY - It's also the time of year for comic popcorn flicks, but there only seems to be one in June worth the drive and the price.

TAG (06/15) - Highly-competitive friends annually play a kids game; John Hamm, Annabelle Wallis, Isla Fisher, Ed Helms, Hannibal Buress try to tag elusive Jeremy Renner.


DOCUMENTARY
It's nostalgia time for, as the saying goes, kids of all ages.  Don't miss this one. 

WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (06/08) - On the heels of the excellent RBG comes our favorite neighbor, Fred Rogers, to take us back to the days when neighbors meant something and kindness ruled the day.


DRAMA
Four films here, all of the art house variety, and probably all worth your time and money.  Leave No Trace might be the top choice of the month.  American Animals looks very cool and entertaining.  Octogenarian Christopher Plummer (Boundaries) is working as hard as ever, but not as hard as Saoirse Ronan (On Chesil Beach) who is seemingly in a couple dozen movies again this year.

LEAVE NO TRACE (06/29) - Debra Granik (director of Winter's Bone who discovered a callow kid named Jennifer Lawrence) brings us a father (Ben Foster) and his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie), living off the grid outside of Portland, Oregon, who are pulled into urban social services and must find a way to escape and return to the wilderness where they were happy.  The 84 Metascore says she may have done it again.

AMERICAN ANIMALS (06/01) - Based-on-fact story of four college students who plan a heist--from a college library.  Ann Dowd, Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan.

Boundaries (06/22) - Pot-dealing dad (Christopher Plummer) is thrown out of his nursing home; what's a daughter (Vera Farmiga) to do?  (Saving Grace, Part 2?)  Film recommended by Babs de la Cine.

On Chesil Beach (05/18) -  Based on Ian McEwan's dramatic romance novel, a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) struggles with love and freedom in 1960's England.  Emily Watson, Billy Howle

FANTASY
When Neil Gaiman is spinning the yarn, we at least have to pay attention.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties (05/25) - Based on a Neil Gaiman short story, Elle Fanning hitch-hikes across the galaxy, lands in a London suburb, and finds love.  A punked-up Nicole Kidman is in pursuit.  Ruth Wilson.


HORROR
Hereditary carries an impressive 86 Metascore, based on 25 reviews (24 positive And one mixed)

HEREDITARY (06/08 - Horror tale of a family--Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro, and Alex Wolff--experience Ancester.com gone mad. Those who have seen this Sundance hit say the grIm suspense is unremitting.








 
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