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

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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

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.

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 gone mad. Those who have seen this Sundance hit say the grIm suspense is unremitting.

RBG Documentary

RBG Quick Review by Guy S Malone, Researcher

On the surface, Ruth Bader Ginsburg seems too quiet, mousy even, to be one of the leading minds of American jurisprudence for more than a half-century.  Indeed, if confronted with that truth, she might drop her eyes for a moment, blush, and go silent.  We don't know if RBG ever read Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, but she seems to be a living emblem of Taoist philosophy:

Silence is a source of great strength.  This diminutive woman comes across as so soft-spoken and unassuming it is hard to believe that she was arguably the strongest influence during the seminal days of the women's movement.  In the 1970s, as Director of the Women's Rights Movement of the ACLU, she argued six landmark cases before the US Supreme Court, winning five.

When the best leader's work is done, the people say, 'we did it ourselves.'  Even many of RBG's most ardent fans are not aware of her standing at the summit of women's rights--or her many other accomplishments.  It is only in retrospect that her achievements are recognized.

Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.  She wasn't even one of Bill Clinton's top choices for Supreme Court nominee.  As he worked down his list of candidates and met her he was even less impressed--until she spoke.  She sold him in minutes, and then she sold the Senate Committee; even Conservative Orrin Hatch ended up singing her praises, despite deep philosophical differences.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.  She graduated first in her class at Cornell in 1954.  One of the first women accepted into Harvard Law School, she became the first woman to be named to the Harvard Law Review (top 25 out of more than 500 in a hostile, male-centric program).  When her husband Martin took a job as a New York tax attorney, she transferred, finishing first in her class at Columbia Law School where she later became the school's first tenured law professor.

Being deeply loved gives you strength; loving someone deeply gives you courage.  As impressive as is her legal career, equally so is the love story of Ruth and Martin.  They were college sweethearts, Ruth was quiet and reticent while Martin was a gregarious jokester, both were as driven professionally as they were smitten with each other--potentially a recipe for disaster, in reality a story of strength and courage rooted in love.

At 1:38, RBG might seem long for a documentary.  It's not.  Serfing Dude, Don Swedanya, FilmZ, and I joined a near-capacity crowd in our art house cinema.  At times during the film, spontaneous applause broke out; other times, tissues dabbed at eyes.  In the end, in these divisive times, it was a wonderful shared experience to see what an American hero and true patriot looks like.
8.5 out of 10

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