Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Independence Day 2019

I'm afraid this is not a happy Independence Day. As several people have pointed out, we have tanks in DC and concentration camps on the nation's Southern border, both at the insistence of Donald Trump. The cruelty of the camps is the point; it's a feature, not a bug.

Most years for Independence Day, I post some videos, but this year, I thought I'd link a great poem I just discovered, "A New National Anthem," by Ada Limón. Follow the link for the full poem, but this may be my favorite section:

And what of the stanzas
we never sing, the third that mentions “no refuge
could save the hireling and the slave”? Perhaps
the truth is that every song of this country
has an unsung third stanza, something brutal
snaking underneath us as we blindly sing
the high notes with a beer sloshing in the stands
hoping our team wins.


It's a great piece and timely. Check out the rest.

For me, one of the best and most hopeful American traditions is the conscientious critique: MLK, Pete Seeger, Dorothea Dix, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez, Frances Perkins, and countless more. (Add Ada Limón to the list.) There's always room for improvement; we can treat each other more kindly and do better as a nation.

That idea dovetails with a 2006 piece by E.J. Dionne I've featured before, "A Dissident's Holiday." My favorite bit:

...The true genius of America has always been its capacity for self-correction. I'd assert that this is a better argument for patriotism than any effort to pretend that the Almighty has marked us as the world's first flawless nation.

One need only point to the uses that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. made of the core ideas of the Declaration of Independence against slavery and racial injustice to show how the intellectual and moral traditions of the United States operate in favor of continuous reform.

There is, moreover, a distinguished national tradition in which dissident voices identify with the revolutionary aspirations of the republic's founders.


Dionne's views stand in sharp contrast with Trump's, who views Independence Day as an opportunity to play with tanks in the style of a Soviet May Day parade and invite adulation of himself. Donald Trump, like many other American conservatives, is an authoritarian. And he and his most ardent followers are cruel, gleeful bullies.

The conditions in the camps are horrible by design, because of bigotry and to maximize profits. At least the camps' grotesque reality is being increasing exposed, by visiting Democratic members of Congress, pediatricians and reporters, despite efforts to prevent the public from knowing what's really going on. We're seeing the ugliest attitudes in America, in a continuing dark tradition. But we're also seeing conscientious resistance and a push for reform. That impulse is always worth supporting and celebrating.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

National Poetry Month 2019

April is National Poetry Month, and it's never too late to enjoy some poetry. As usual, I'll link the wonderful Favorite Poem Project, although its summer institute has been dissolved, alas.

This year, I thought I'd feature a great poem I just discovered earlier this year:

The Rider
By Naomi Shihab Nye

A boy told me
if he roller-skated fast enough
his loneliness couldn’t catch up to him,
the best reason I ever heard
for trying to be a champion.
What I wonder tonight
pedaling hard down King William Street
is if it translates to bicycles.
A victory! To leave your loneliness
panting behind you on some street corner
while you float free into a cloud of sudden azaleas,
pink petals that have never felt loneliness,
no matter how slowly they fell.


This is from Nye's 1998 collection, Fuel, if you want to read more of her work.

Feel free to link a favorite poem in the comments.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

St. Patrick's Day 2019

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Ireland has a wealth of songs. This year, I thought I'd feature "The Parting Glass," which has Scottish origins but also a long history in Ireland, with the melody used for another Irish song. Several musical groups have used this one to end concerts, and it's also a popular pick for funerals.

The High King's version is very good:



Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem's version is quiet and lovely:



The Celtic Women use it for a rousing finale:



Face Vocal Band delivers an a cappella rendition:



Lastly, here's a whiskey ad with memorable use of the song:



Feel free to mention and link any favorite Irish tunes in the comments.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

2018 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, delayed this round. In addition to this section, there's The Top Four, Noteworthy Films and and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

2018 had some good smaller-scale films in addition to two notable blockbusters, but was not a particularly strong year for film overall. As for the Oscars, the best news was that the Academy reversed a dumb decision to award some categories during the commercial breaks due to intense backlash. (Credit for correcting a mistake.) As Guillermo del Toro, put it, "If I may: I would not presume to suggest what categories to cut during the Oscars show but – Cinematography and Editing are at the very heart of our craft. They are not inherited from a theatrical tradition or a literary tradition: they are cinema itself."

Did The Oscars suffer from not having a host? Not really. It meant no opening monologue, which is a good host's chance to shine, but also fewer pointless time-wasters. Many of the presenters would have made good hosts, though, including the early trio of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph. (A friend suggested the best idea I've heard: have Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie and Wayne Brady from Whose Line Is It Anyway? host the Oscars.)

The most spectacular presenter was easily Melissa McCarthy dressed as Queen Anne from The Favourite, complete with stuffed rabbits on her dress and a rabbit puppet. Sound awards presenters James McAvoy and Danai Gurira had fun playing with vocal dynamics. John Mulaney and Awkafina were also funny, presenting some of the shorts.

The winners were better organized the most years, with clear assignments for who would say what. Best Animated Feature winners for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse make neat remarks about how pleased they were that the film resonated with a diverse audience, as they intended. Anyone who thinks the short categories should be eliminated should consider that the people who make shorts often go on to make features they love. They should also watch the excitement of the winners for Skin. (I haven't seen the film, but I appreciate the enthusiasm.) Or thrill along with the young winners for Period. End of Sentence. who exclaimed, "I can't believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!"

Bohemian Rhapsody featured some great sound work (I've included links with my review), but I would have given Best Sound Editing to First Man for the tension-ratcheting sounds of its space program and Best Sound Mixing to Roma for its lovely (and occasionally disturbing) soundscapes. (Had They Shall Not Grow Old been eligible, it would have been a superb nominee for Best Sound Editing as well, as well as Best Documentary Feature.) I believe the tales that John Ottman's film editing saved Bohemian Rhapsody, and kudos for that, but I'm not sure he deserved the award. Vice's amazing prosthetics work justifiably won Best Makeup and Hairstyling. I probably would have given Best Costuming and Best Production Design to The Favourite – they play key roles in the film – on the other hand, it was a nice change of pace to see the elaborate Black Panther win both awards over a period piece. I'm not a big fan of Lady Gaga nor "Shallow," but the song was more central to its movie, the fourth (!) version A Star Is Born, than any of the other nominees, and there's no denying that Gaga and costar (and director) Bradley Cooper threw themselves into their performance.

I like Spike Lee's films, but I didn't think BlackkKlansman was his best work and wasn't sure it deserved Best Adapted Screenplay. I didn't object strongly, either, given how some of his other work has been shafted. Plus, he gave a spirited speech. I thought The Favourite deserved Best Original Screenplay over Green Book for its acid dialogue and greater originality. (I've heard good things about If Beale Street Could Talk and First Reformed, respective contenders, but haven't seen either yet.) I saw far fewer of the Oscar-nominated performances than usual. Mahershala Ali was excellent in Green Book and seemed like a worthy repeat recipient, regardless of one's other thoughts about the film. Sam Rockwell was funny as George Bush in Vice, but it's a much slighter role. I thought Simon Russell Beale deserved a nomination for The Death of Stalin, but alas, too few people saw it. I missed Regina King's Best Supporting Actress performance and saw the other four, which were all excellent, but I've liked King in other roles and buy that she deserved it. (Amy Adams is overdue for an Oscar, and she's great as usual as Lynne Cheney, but she's had better roles and surely will again.) I thought Rami Malek was the best thing about Bohemian Rhapsody and made the film. He gave a heartfelt acceptance speech. I didn't see Glenn Close in The Wife – I've heard it's another good performance in a not-so-great film –but I thought Olivia Coleman was tremendous in The Favourite – funny, terrifying and pitiable by turns. During Coleman's acceptance speech, she was overwhelmed, awkward, gracious, self-effacing and utterly charming.

The montage of death had a nice accompaniment this time – the LA Philharmonic, led by Gustavo Dudamel, playing music by John Williams.

Roma deserved all its awards, although there's a controversy about writer-director Alfonso Cuaron accepting sole credit for its cinematography as well as taking an editing credit.

Now to the big controversy: Best Picture. I'd say Green Book is a good movie when taken on its own merits, an odd couple road movie with two strong lead performers with great chemistry, which is rarer than we'd like and nothing to dismiss. But the film also has problems, and it shouldn't have been nominated for Best Picture, let alone won. Four of the Best Picture nominees dealt with race pretty prominently: Roma, BlackkKlansman, Black Panther and Green Book. Even superhero movie Black Panther deals with race more incisively than Green Book, a throwback film that places racism safely in the past and centers on a white protagonist learning a valuable lesson.

Of the nominees, I'd have given Best Picture to Roma. It told a story we don't see often in cinema, and did so with a natural grace. My other favorites weren't even nominated: First Man, The Death of Stalin and They Shall Not Grow Old. I thought BlackkKlansman was decent, with a few excellent scenes, but if you know the Colorado KKK wasn't nearly as dangerous as depicted, the stakes feel much lower. The strongest scenes by far were the documentary footage used to end the movie, which Spike Lee choose to include but weren't written or directed by Spike Lee. I'd rank Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Get on the Bus and 25th Hour as his best films, and BlackkKlansman a tier below. I wouldn't have been upset if BlackkKlansman won, but I would have seen it more as a lifetime achievement award for Spike Lee; I didn't feel he got robbed. (I did note, as did many others, that he keeps losing to movies about chauffeurs.)

Likewise, although Do the Right Thing was one of the best films of 1989, by no means was it clearly superior to all the rest. Whereas 2019 wasn't a strong year for film, 1989 was. Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture that year. Few people would knock Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman as performers or Bruce Beresford as a director, but it seemed like the safest of picks, and disappointing in that regard. The other nominees were pretty good: Born on the Fourth of July is a pretty gutsy film about war, disability and fake versus true patriotism; Oliver Stone won Best Director. Dead Poets Society is one of the great films about both teaching and love of the written word, featuring a memorable performance by Robin Williams and dealing with suicide, among other things. Field of Dreams is a fantasy, but one that's awfully hard to dislike; Burt Lancaster's scenes alone make it worthwhile. My Left Foot is an acting tour-de-force by Daniel Day-Lewis (winning him the first of his three Oscars) and also won Best Supporting Actress for Brenda Fricker. Good films that weren't nominated included Do the Right Thing, but also Glory, Henry V and Crimes and Misdemeanors. It was a year the five-film nominee limit seemed particularly frustrating. Glory was more impressive for its time than it is now – it'd be nice to spend less time on the white officers, for example – but the battle scenes have some admirable realism and the film justifiably won Denzel Washington his first Oscar. I'm personally fond of both Dead Poets Society and Field of Dreams. But in terms of innovation and cinematic achievement, I'd probably list three films as the best of 1989: Do the Right Thing, Henry V and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

First, Do the Right Thing. It's got an undeniable energy and attitude, and Spike Lee is innovative with his camera, having characters speak directly to the camera, leading to many of the most memorable scenes: a montage of bigoted insults, and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) explaining hate versus love. It's got more craft than a casual viewer might realize – Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) and local DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) serve as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the action. The movie explicitly tackles bigotry, and does so primarily from a black point-of-view, delivering insights and perspectives that many previous films on race didn't necessarily have. It's a confrontational movie, and thus not easy viewing for all audiences, but the film is also a question and a discussion rather than a statement, ending with contrasting quotations from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. That's some of the good stuff. As for the bad: Spike Lee plays the central character, Mookie, and he's not a great actor (although he's probably better in Do the Right Thing than in Malcolm X and Mo' Better Blues). Reportedly, Spike Lee wanted Sal (Danny Aiello) to have less dimension and be more racist, and Aiello fought to give the character more nuance. (We see a good side, but he's still pretty bigoted.) Women aren't given much of a role. All that said, it's a good film, and I'm looking forward to revisiting it when Criterion comes out with its edition later this year.

Second, Henry V: it's one of the best Shakespeare films ever, but it's also just a great film. Director Kenneth Branagh, who was a mere 29 at the end of 1989, delivered one hell of a first film. His own lead performance is stellar, with the most rousing rendition of the famous St. Crispin's speech I've yet to see. The other performers are impeccable, giving master classes in inflexion, particularly Brian Blessed and Derek Jacobi, but there's also Ian Holm, Paul Scofield, Michael Maloney, Emma Thompson and Judi Dench (plus a very young Christian Bale). It's got a stacked cast. If you're a Shakespeare buff, the film makes a striking contrast with Laurence Olivier's 1944 version; Olivier was rallying the war effort, and his Henry is great because he transcends any human frailty; Branagh's Henry is great because he suffers and gets dirty, and struggles through his trials. The score by Patrick Doyle is fantastic, and Doyle worked closely with Branagh during filming (and has a small part). Cinematically, Branagh stages one of the great medieval battle scenes, with a fantastic use of editing to build tension during the French charge at the start, and then uses a lengthy unbroken tracking shot over the battlefield at the very end. It would be hard to overstate how impressive Branagh's Henry V is; it's a staggering achievement. Its successes may be less innovative than, say, Do the Right Thing, but if we're talking sheer craftsmanship, I'd have to say Henry V was the best film of the year.

Third and last, we have Crimes and Misdemeanors. Regardless of what one thinks of Woody Allen as a person, he's made some notable films (if not for all tastes). Crimes and Misdemeanors is exceptionally well-written and features a moral complexity rarely seen in cinema (or even novels). It's shot by the great Sven Nykvist (best known for working with Ingmar Bergman), and a nighttime crisis of conscience scene during a thunderstorm is particularly stunning work. Martin Landau gives a fantastic lead performance as Judah Rosenthal, a highly successful man considering dark deeds, and Woody Allen gives him one of the greatest character lines ever: "God is a luxury I can't afford." It's amoral, and bullshit, but it exemplifies the character and his perspective. The film packs in a ton of wisdom, but also asks more questions than it answers. I've taught the film before, and have colleagues that have used it since, and it possesses a depth and complexity that spurs great reflection and discussions. It's not a flashy film, but it's a great one.

Back to Spike Lee: he's a good filmmaker and I'm glad he's making movies. I think he probably deserves more Oscar nominations than he's gotten, but I don't think he was robbed by not winning Best Picture in either year. He was given an honorary Oscar in 2015, and those are essentially lifetime achievement awards, and also a way for the Academy to honor people who haven't won competitive Oscars (or not as many as perhaps they deserved). I have friends who think honorary Oscars don't count, but I strongly disagree – I think they matter more, because they can amend past losses and they represent a longer view at a person's career. A great performance might occur in a so-so film. The same is true for great technical work; a great sound job on an otherwise bad movie tends not to win, if it even gets nominated. A performance that might have won one year might have stiffer competition the year it was eligible. And so on. Peter O'Toole had epically bad luck and never won a competitive Oscar, despite being nominated eight times and one of great film actors. Robert Altman never won a competitive Oscar, either. Akira Kurosawa had won Oscars for Best Film in a Foreign Language, but his honorary Oscar was a well-deserved lifetime achievement award. Audrey Hepburn won Best Actress, but also received honorary Oscars later. Stanley Donen gave what was probably the most gracious acceptance speech ever when receiving his honorary Oscar. I was happy to see all of them get their awards, and yes, they matter.

Side note: 2018 had a welcome trend of women playing tech geniuses or at least proficient hackers, in Black Panther, Incredibles 2, Ready Player One and Ocean's 8.

On to the reviews. As usual, I try to label spoilers, but also follow a simple rule: if it's in the trailer, it's not a spoiler.

2018 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Four

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition that comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, Noteworthy Films and and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).
Roma: If you've been longing for a film in the style of Italian Neorealism, Roma has you covered. Named after a neighborhood in Mexico City, it's a semi-autobiographical film from writer-director Alfonso Cuarón focused on Cleodegaria Gutiérrez, "Cleo" (Yalitza Aparicio, in her film debut), one of two live-in servants for an upper middle-class family. The father, Antonio, is a doctor; he and his wife Sofía (Marina de Tavira) have four young children, and Sofia's mother Teresa also lives with them. The family can be kind to Cleo, but Sofia does yell at her occasionally. The children adore Cleo, though, occasionally fighting for her attention. On one of their days off, Cleo and Adela (the other live-in servant) meet up with their boyfriends. Cleo's boyfriend, Fermin, studies martial arts and prizes appearing strong. (A deadly serious kata he performs winds up being hilarious; you'll see.) But when Cleo tells Fermin she might be pregnant, he vanishes. Despite worrying about being fired, Cleo confides in Sofia, who promises to help her out.

Like many Italian Neorealism films, Roma is less about plot and more about characters and moments. The storytelling is unhurried, episodic and lyrical, with great black and white cinematography and a lovely, subtle sound design layered with the everyday sounds of life in a home, a city and the countryside. Most of the film consists of simply following Cleo, who's kind, patient and maintains a quiet dignity despite a series of setbacks. Films about servants, let alone an indigenous woman, are fairly rare, and I found Roma interesting and refreshing in that respect. The film's got a political aspect simply by telling Cleo's story; she's got relatively low social status, isn't always treated well, but occasionally seems prized by others. Scenes range from the funny to the surreal to the harrowing and powerful; the climactic scene is gripping stuff, with a strong performances by Aparicio and a long, unbroken camera shot given escalating power by the sound design and situation. Art house films in this style aren't for everyone, and I still prefer many of the Italian Neorealism classics, but I enjoyed this one and found it a welcome change of pace from typical Hollywood fare.

First Man: If you're looking for a conventional biopic or a rah-rah America film, you'll want to skip First Man, which juxtaposes the personal life of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) with the race to the Moon. Even in an age of stoicism, Armstrong stands out as being intensely, even aggressively private, pushing away people who try to reach out to him after the tragic death of his young daughter to illness. Meanwhile, in his professional life as an astronaut, Armstrong endures extreme conditions while appearing mostly unflappable to others, even if we're privy to his sweating and fear. The flight and test scenes are often riveting, with great sound effects work ratcheting up the tension.

This is not a good choice for a first space race film, but a rich one for audiences who know the basic story and have already seen, say, The Right Stuff. Apollo 13, Hidden Figures, From Earth to the Moon or 2019's superb documentary, Apollo 11. Director Damien Chazelle and writer Josh Singer eschew triumphalism (which earned them some criticism), focusing instead on Armstrong's internal struggles. Brit Claire Foy gives a strong performance as Janet Armstrong, Neil's no-nonsense wife; Neil probably fears tangling with her more than any of the dangerous rigs he climbs into. (Foy's accent is a bit dodgy but the tradeoff is more than worth it.) The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, with Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler and Shea Whigham being standouts. Meanwhile, Gosling gives a fine, subtle lead performance as someone trying to be stoic, with occasionally strong emotion being held under ferocious control; the dynamic gives even mute moments a charged energy. Chazelle and Gosling last worked together on La La Land (reviewed TEXT), and this is an impressive change of pace. I understand why some audiences didn't care for First Man. But I found several of the flight scenes gripping and some of the personal moments moving.

The Death of Stalin: The Death of Stalin is not for all audiences, but a certain crowd will adore this jet-black satire based on real events. If you have the fatalistic Russian sensibility to see the dark humor of seemingly random reprieves from a totalitarian regime's capricious arrests and executions, this is the movie for you.. Director Armando Iannucci, known for The Thick of It, Veep and In the Loop (the fifth film reviewed TEXT) casts comedians in most of the roles and has them use their own accents, reasoning that the Soviet Union had many regional accents.

The plot: The opening sequence is a concert performed under duress for Soviet leader Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), which amazingly, really happened much as depicted. Shortly thereafter, Stalin has a stroke, sending the upper leadership of the Soviet Union into a panic. Deputy Premier Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is insecure and a bit of a dolt, so into the power vacuum steps Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Stalin's nefarious, scheming chief of secret police and member of the central committee. Beria's chief rival is Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), who races to recruit allies against the dangerous Beria. The ensuing struggles among central committee members, Stalin's two adult children and the military feature competitive ass-kissing, the absurdities of bureaucratic infighting, and astounding contortions to maintain ideological purity in shifting circumstances. (A speech by Molotov, played wonderfully by Michael Palin, is an absolute gem in the last category.)

I was a bit skeptical of Steve Buscemi playing Khrushchev, but he's fantastic, with the energy and fast tongue to keep the whole affair moving. Shakespearean actor Simon Russell Beale is another standout as the menacing, canny Beria, and I thought he should have gotten a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. (He also reminded me a bit of Dick Cheney, both physically and in style.) Jason Isaacs makes a memorable late entrance as macho General Zhukov, no fan of Beria. But the entire cast is great, with memorable performances by the aforementioned Tambor and Palin, as well as Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine and Rupert Friend. Some of the scenes are intentionally disturbing – this is a world of executions and potential coups, after all. You're also more likely to appreciate it if you know a little Soviet history. But if you like both Orwell and dark comedy, you'll probably enjoy this one.

They Shall Not Grow Old: They Shall Not Grow Old serves as a superb primer on World War I for unfamiliar audiences and offers welcome depth through first-hand accounts for audiences who know something about the subject. The Imperial War Museums of Britain contacted WWI enthusiast Peter Jackson about making an unconventional documentary with their unreleased footage. Jackson's team first did some tests to see if the footage could be restored digitally, and found that it could, in some cases quite radically. Jackson and his team then went through over 100 hours of footage and 600 hours of BBC interviews with WWI veterans to choose the pieces to craft the movie. They even consulted forensic lip readers to figure out what soldiers were saying in some clips. The narrative shows young British men being recruited and trained, going to fight in the trenches in Europe, and a sobering advance over the field of battle. You'll also learn a lot about what they ate, small pleasures and the harsh realities of life in the trenches; only a few interviewees offer an everything-was-dandy account. Much of the footage is colorized, and some of the restoration makes the faces look somewhat washed-out and plastic, but overall, it's a very effective approach. The storytelling is so smooth it's easy to take for granted the tremendous amount of work it took to pick the right footage and the right audio clips in the right order; the film has no conventional narration. In the making of doc, Jackson briefly mentions all the wonderful stories they couldn't fit in; the naval experience; the experience of women on the home front working in factories for the war effort; the experiences of racial minorities; and the stories of nationalities besides Britain (British commonwealth countries get a little screen time). You can just watch They Shall Not Grow Old and get sucked in, but I found myself marveling at the craftsmanship throughout. The sound design alone is masterful and helps pull us in (chatter, nature sounds, sound effects recreated from real WWI guns and artillery pieces), but this is impeccable work all around. It's also valuable, digestible history built on first-hand accounts versus official, sanitized versions. Unfortunately, They Shall Not Grow Old was released too late in 2018 to be eligible for the Oscars and because it's a 2018 film will not be eligible with 2019 films. But everyone involved with it should be proud of this achievement.

Personal notes: I wish World War I was studied more in the U.S. and better remembered; we prefer to remember WWII because we were more clearly the good guys, and WWI lacks such a storyline to distract from its horrific battles and many unconscionable political and military decisions. When I went to see They Shall Not Grow Old in the theater, I was heartened to see the audience had a wide age range, with elderly couples, middle-aged viewers and also a college-aged crowd. One young man in his 20s had seen it already and dragged his friend to it; they were talking about enthusiastically afterward. When the film started, Peter Jackson introduced it and stated they would play a making of documentary after the film itself. Nearly everyone stayed for what was about 45 minutes more. That's both a recommendation and encouraging.

2018 Film Roundup, Part 3: Noteworthy Films

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition that comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, The Top Four, and and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).
The Favourite: The Favourite makes a strong addition to the genre of period films with wit and ribaldry, with the added novelty of a trio of scheming women at its core. It's the early 18th century, and Queen Anne of England (Olivia Colman) faces war abroad and great personal tragedy – her husband has died, she's had a number of miscarriages and stillbirths, and none of her children have survived, either. (She's obtained rabbits she's named after them.) She's extremely temperamental, generous and charming one moment and savage and demanding the next. Her health is poor and doesn't help her mood any; at times, she's in agony and can't even walk. In this era, parliament wields increasing authority, but the Queen is still a powerful and influential figure. Anne's best friend and confidant is Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who can be supportive but also quite the bully, although she would claim in Anne's best interest. Along comes Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a distant relative of Sarah's who's fallen on hard times and wants to improve her state. Sarah is initially helpful to Abigail until she starts shaping up as a rival for Anne's favours.

Most of the film centers on Sarah and Abigail's machinations and counter-machinations, all centered on Anne. The three female leads are all fantastic; they're often entertainingly savage-within-gentility. (We're also sympathetic to all of them at points.) Amusingly, the young men in the film, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) and Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), wear more makeup and are often more sartorially extravagant than the women. I had only a few complaints. There's an extravagant dance done for comic effect that's egregiously not period. Director Yorgos Lanthimos gets good performances, but goes overboard on wide-angle lenses and similarly odd shots that seem a bit self-indulgent and distracting. The film gets darker and nastier near the end, seemingly without good reason. Still, this is a very entertaining movie for audiences who appreciate female leads, social maneuvering and cutting dialogue. Weisz hasn't had a role this good in years, and she digs into it with relish. Stone likewise is having a blast; Abigail is more likeable than Sarah at first, but she has a vicious side. Coleman, meanwhile, is magnificent and multilayered as Queen Anne, by turns funny, pitiable and a terror. (Sarah Churchill was the ancestor of Winston, and the film is loosely based on her memoirs.)

The Sisters Brothers: Westerns, let alone good westerns, are rare these days, so The Sisters Brothers makes welcome fare. It features multiple comic moments, but it's primarily a drama, with some disturbing scenes of violence and injury. Brothers Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are skilled gunfighters and tough guys who work for a local bigwig known as "the Commodore" (Rutger Hauer). To paraphrase Wolverine, they're good at what they do, but what they do isn't very nice. Their big new assignment is to track down Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who supposedly has stolen from the Commodore. Also on the case for the Commodore is John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a detective who fancies himself a civilized man, and takes a liking to Warm despite his job. Warm tells Morris he's invented a chemical process for finding gold, which could be lucrative, and that the Sisters brothers will torture him to get it. Morris is left in a moral quandary. Meanwhile, the Sisters brothers are on their trail, and face a series of misadventures, from dangerous fauna to human beings who want to kill them.

The core of the film is the relationship between Eli and Charlie, and Reilly and Phoenix are excellent together. The brothers bicker and fight occasionally, but they're unfailingly loyal to each other underneath it all. Eli, the older brother, is the more mature one and has a sentimental side; Charlie is more hotheaded and tends to drink too much. They're presented as people with a horrific childhood who became villains by necessity, not choice; Eli chafes against the idea that it's their destiny. The plot is thankfully not always predictable but some developments are memorably grisly. The film is based on the novel of the same name and was made by Reilly's production company; he's one of the listed producers. Director Jacques Audiard, as one might guess by the name, is French (he directed the excellent film Un Prophète, the fifth film reviewed here) and does a nice job in a traditionally American genre. (Not that we should ever forget Sergio Leone.)

Vice:Vice lacks the energy and pacing of Adam McKay's wonderful previous effort, The Big Short (reviewed here), but it's original, often daring and has a great cast. It's an unconventional biopic about Richard "Dick" Cheney, who rose to be the most powerful Vice President of the United States in history. Dick Cheney is finely played by Christian Bale, almost unrecognizable in impressive prosthetics. The always-good Amy Adams plays ambitious Lynne Cheney, his wife (which is much better than Lynne Cheney deserves). Sam Rockwell delivers a nice comic turn as George W. Bush and Steve Carell is surprisingly good as Donald Rumsfeld; he plays the role straight, but his comic chops help him capture the eccentricities of the man. Alison Pill is another standout as Mary Cheney, whose personal life makes for interesting conflicts within her conservative family as the Cheneys claw their way to power.

McKay faces a few challenges and I think makes one significant unforced error. First, Cheney is one of the most secretive men in history, so good accounts of him are scarce. (The opening titles acknowledge precisely this.) Second, he's a powerful but quiet man, which isn't the most conducive dynamic for the lead subject of a feature film. McKay chose an inherently difficult subject. Meanwhile, McKay picked Jesse Plemons to be his main narrator, but Plemons is not a strong voice actor. His diction isn't great, nor is his inflection work, but the main problem is he talks too slowly and sluggishly, robbing the opening of the energy and verve that Ryan Gosling brought to The Big Short. (I kept on wishing I could recast the part.)

McKay does make a number of bold decisions beyond his casting, though, which pay off beautifully in several inspired and memorable scenes: a high-class restaurant fantasy scene where Alfred Molina plays a waiter offering various abuses of power to key Bush administration officials; an intimate scene between Dick and Lynne where they both deliver Shakespeare-like dialogue (think Macbeth rewritten for the Cheneys), and at least one alternative reality fake-out (that had me laughing). Conventional biopics and filmmakers would never make these choices, but McKay, with his comedic background, realizes the absurdist approach sometimes cuts closest to the truth. (I do think the very end, while narratively strong, gives Dick Cheney far too much credit, though.)

I wanted to love this film and only liked it. But I appreciate its ambition, and I'd much rather see McKay swing for the fences and occasionally miss than watch standard, predictable Hollywood fare. Vice is not as good as The Big Short, unfortunately, but that's a high bar. And unless you hate the subject matter, there's plenty of genuinely excellent, original work inVice to make it worth a look.

(If you'd like to know about Cheney, I'd particularly recommend the superb book Angler by Barton Gellman and the 2007 Frontline episode, "Cheney's Law.")

Widows: In Chicago, Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) is shocked to learn that her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) has been killed during a heist along with the rest of his crew. Moreover, Harry stole two million dollars from local crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who threatens Veronica to come up with the money somehow. It's Chicago, and Manning is running for alderman against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), a legacy candidate whose family dynasty over the district could fail due to redistricting. Jack has a contentious relationship with his strong-willed father, Tom (Robert Duvall), a former politician who still wields considerable influence and expects others to obey. Veronica is led to a notebook of Harry's that details a big heist (five million). In desperation, she reaches out to other widows from Harry's crew, notably Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez), and pitches them on the idea of pulling off the job themselves.

This is an unusual heist film in that the heist, while gripping, comes in the last act and is secondary: most of the film is a drama, dealing with peril, but also with grief. Veronica in particular not only misses her husband but begins to question how well she really knew him. All of the main characters are struggling internally as well as externally. Alice decides to try working as an escort to pay the bills, but is shamed by the other women for doing so. Jack doesn't much like the family business in politics and seems to be fairly self-loathing as well, but he still wants to win, and is competitive and jealous. Rodriguez doesn't have that much range, but this is a good role for her; she's convincing as a tough gal (as in Cynthia Erivo as Belle). Davis, Farrell and Debecki are the standout performers in a strong cast. Director Steve McQueen based Widows on a 1980s BBC series written by Lynda La Plante, who consulted with McQueen and screenwriter Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) to explain character motivations and other details. 2018 saw two all-female heist films, Widows and Ocean's Eight (reviewed below), making for an interesting contrast. Ocean's Eight is a fun Hollywood heist, but I found Widows far more intriguing because of its realism and the character depth. A few more points in the…
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Green Book: Taken on its own merits, Green Book is a good movie, if a throwback with significant blind spots. It should not have won Best Picture or even been nominated and was not built to sustain that scrutiny. First, the movie itself. It tells the real-life story of black classical/jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who decides to tour the South with his trio in the early 1960s. He hires a white driver to do so, Italian-American Frank Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), who goes by "Tony Lip." The movie's title refers to the The Negro Motorist Green Book, which advised black travelers about safe places to stay and locations to avoid when traveling, especially important information in the South, where Jim Crow laws were still in effect. Tony is given a copy by Don Shirley's manager and had no idea such a thing existed. Tony works as a bouncer and runs low-level scams; he's a good fighter, cunning, but also has a racist streak. He's not crazy about working for a black man, but he needs the money. His wife Delores (Linda Cardellini) is not happy that Tony might miss Christmas.

The core of the movie is an odd couple, road trip, drama-comedy; Shirley is intelligent, cultured, refined and reserved, whereas Tony is outgoing and a lout, often gleefully so. Director and cowriter Peter Farrelly is best known for comedy, and he's at his best in these scenes. Ali and Mortensen have great chemistry, and all their scenes have energy. As Don Shirley, Ali shows some range by playing a character far different from his Oscar-winning turn in Moonlight; he makes Shirley very precise and deliberate, a man who both has a large vocabulary and chooses his words carefully. Mortensen, always versatile, performs an astounding transformation; he could have stepped right off the set of The Sopranos. Mortensen impressively goes so deep his performance is utterly convincing and never reads as caricature. Although Tony initially takes the gig for money, he sees how Don Shirley is ill-treated and becomes increasingly protective and sympathetic. Shirley also helps Tony write letters home to Delores, in a little Cyrano action, making Tony appear much more eloquent and romantic. The two men gradually move beyond a business relationship and become friends of a sort. The scenes of racism probably won't be unsurprising to seasoned audiences, but are fairly effective for showing Shirley trying to maintain his dignity and Tony's growing sense of injustice.

Now for the flaws and controversies: I had to wonder why the film was being told from Tony's point of view and not Don Shirley's. It turns out the lead screenwriter was Nick Vallelonga, Tony's son, so the screenplay was based on Tony's account of the trip. Nick also interviewed Don Shirley, who reportedly asked him not to make the film while he was still alive (Shirley died in 2013) and not to contact anyone else in his family; Nick Vallelonga and Peter Farrelly did work with Shirley's estate. Shirley's family sharply criticized the film, particularly its suggestion that Don Shirley was estranged from the rest of his family. However, they also claimed that Don Shirley and Tony were not friends and had solely an employer-employee relationship, which is contradicted by Shirley himself in a documentary interview. In Nick Vallelonga's account, he acceded to Don Shirley's wishes. The best article I've found to date about the controversies is this Vanity Fair one. It includes discussion of the fried chicken scene, which has made some audiences cringe, but made sense to Kappeyne van de Coppello, who manages Shirley's estate. (I don't buy that Shirley wasn't familiar with Aretha Franklin and other black popular music of the day, though.) Meanwhile, some of the most extraordinary scenes actually happened, such as a jailhouse call. (Although I think he's too generous, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a thoughtful piece defending the film and artistic license.)

I'd suggest that Green Book has more merit than its harshest critics would allow but still possesses significant problems and could have been a stronger movie. Mahershala Ali did give feedback on the script, particularly on Don Shirley's responses in several scenes to give him more agency, dignity, and self-worth; based on what I've read, Ali definitely made the script better. It's to Farrelly's credit that he actively solicited that feedback and listened to it. But I still think this movie would have better with at least one black screenwriter on the team and probably a black director. (Having Octavia Spencer as an executive producer surely helped, but it wasn't enough.) The Green Book of the title seldom comes into play. The movie might serve as a good introduction to the history of Jim Crow laws to younger white audiences, but better documentaries and narrative films exist for more sophisticated audiences. As I wrote in the year-in-review post, four of the Best Picture nominees dealt with race pretty prominently: Roma, BlackkKlansman, Black Panther and Green Book. Even superhero movie Black Panther deals with race more incisively than Green Book, a throwback film that places racism safely in the past and centers on a white protagonist learning a valuable lesson. It's a feel-good movie, and Ali and Mortensen are so good I still think it's worth watching, but it shouldn't have won best picture. (Last tidbit: NPR has a good piece on Kris Bowers, who played most of Shirley's piano parts in the movie, and the visual effects used to make it all work.)

BlackkKlansman: Loosely based on a true story, BlackkKlansman tells the tale of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, Denzel's son), who in the 1970s becomes the first black police officer hired by Colorado Springs. Not all of his fellow officers are welcoming, and some are openly racist. He's granted a request to do undercover work, and winds up assigned to attend a rally by black activist Kwame Ture (previously known as Stokely Carmichael). He's intrigued and attracted to Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), president of a local black student union, no big fan of cops or the establishment. Stallworth next investigates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and decides to call them, pretending to be white over the phone. To handle in-person meetings, he recruits a fellow officer, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who's Jewish. Some of the scenes are pretty funny, especially when Stallworth has then-Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) confiding to him over the phone about their clear superiority as whites. Other scenes bristle with menace, particularly those with Zimmerman meeting with the local klansman. A few members seem inept, but Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen) is legitimately intimidating and suspects something fishy. The stakes increase as Duke plans to come to town and the KKK seem to be planning an attack.

Some of the scenes strain credulity. Stallworth makes a big pitch to his boss about being able to talk "white" and demonstrates this in his first call to the Klan, but then doesn't always keep it up for all his subsequent phone conversations. He gives the Klan his real name and a police station number. (The real Stallworth wrote a letter instead, but did use his real name, so that part is true if nuts.) Zimmerman's baritone voice is markedly different from Stallworth's tenor, and although they explain this discrepancy to the Klan as the result of a cold, their cadences are way off, too. Stallworth and Zimmerman have at least one scene where they're coordinating stories, but there's not nearly enough of them trying to match voices; it feels like writer-director Spike Lee just didn't try very hard to convince us of a central aspect of the con. The threat posed by the KKK in Colorado also seems significantly inflated for dramatic effect.

I like Spike Lee's work, and generally find it interesting even when I don't think it's entirely successful, but he also has a tendency for odd, bad or self-indulgent choices that can detract from the whole. He includes his very noticeable voice shouting in the Kwame Ture rally, for example. The score is often heavy-handed, overpowering and distracting (a trend in his films). As I wrote in the year-in-review post, I thought BlackkKlansman was decent, with a few excellent scenes, but if you know the Colorado KKK wasn't nearly as dangerous as depicted, the stakes feel much lower. The strongest scenes by far were the documentary footage used to end the movie, which Spike Lee choose to include but weren't written or directed by Spike Lee. They're genuinely powerful, but feel much more urgent than the story of a minor Klan chapter in the 70s, so their inclusion made me want to see a film about them instead – maybe a documentary instead of the narrative we'd just been offered. (The one strong throughline is seeing present-day David Duke. I should note, though, that some audiences felt the ending documentary footage strengthened what came before rather than making it suffer in comparison, so your mileage may vary.) I'd rank Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Get on the Bus and 25th Hour as Spike Lee's best films, and BlackkKlansman a tier below. I wouldn't have been upset if BlackkKlansman won Best Picture, but I would have seen it more as a lifetime achievement award for Spike Lee; I didn't feel he got robbed. (I did note, as did many others, that he keeps losing to movies about chauffeurs.) All that said, BlackkKlansman remains worth a look and more memorable than most Hollywood fare. (The best pieces I've found about its accuracy to date come from Slate, History vs. Hollywood and Time.) A little more in the…
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Black Panther: Black Panther is an above-average installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and was a cultural phenomenon, widely popular, but especially beloved by black audiences. T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is the king of the African country of Wakanda, which is secretly a technologically advanced nation owing much of its wealth and advances due to vibranium, a meteorite metal with special properties related to (you guessed it) vibration. In a prologue flashback, T'Challa's father T'Chaka (who was killed in Captain America: Civil War), confronts his brother, N'Jobu, about stealing some vibranium and selling it to an arms dealer. In the present, T'Challa must deal with the fallout – villainous Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who has a vibranium-powered sonic weapon, and Erik "Killdozer" (Michael B. Jordan), who has an important connection to Wakanda.

Black Panther has several notable elements. The almost all-black cast is one of them, but writer-director Ryan Coogler and many other key members of the production team are black as well. It's the biggest-budget and most successful film ever in that category. The film is full of good secondary female characters: Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), a spy and T'Challa's former girlfriend; Okoye (Danai Gurira), the fierce head of security; dignified Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Basset); and impish tech genius and T'Challa's younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright). The chief villain, Killdozer, is given strong motivations and is arguably right in some of his positions; that hasn't always been the case for other Marvel villains. This means the struggle between T'Challa and Killdozer is physical, but also philosophical and political, making it pretty interesting. The core of the film is Boseman's strong performance as T'Challa, a man of honor and dignity (playfully undercut by the women in his life). He'll do what is right over what is easy. There's not much to dislike here; Daniel Kaluuya was good in Get Out but feels weak here, mostly furrowing his brow. Nakia becomes a damsel-in-distress briefly. But Winston Duke as M'Baku, a rival chief, is fantastic – boisterous, funny, and key to two of the movie's best scenes. Martin Freeman is fine as a CIA agent, although it's a little odd to hear him play an American. (As some folks joked, he and Serkis are the movie's Tolkien white guys.) Black Panther shares similarities with last year's Wonder Woman (reviewed here) in being an above-average superhero movie with considerable cultural impact. I liked Black Panther much more, though, mainly because I thought its final showdown was much stronger. A little more in the…
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Avengers: Infinity War: Infinity War delivers a solid summer blockbuster and also represents an unprecedented achievement in cinematic planning, with a staggering 18 films building toward this one and its sequel. Let's start by taking a look at the film itself.

The Earth – nay, the universe! – is in peril due to big baddie Thanos (Josh Brolin), the mad titan. He feels the universe is overpopulated, and the only solution is killing half the population. To this end, he seeks all six infinity stones, powerful artifacts that would allow him to control reality itself and accomplish his goal. At the start of the film, he has one; trying to acquire each of the others presents challenges. We see Thanos take out Thor and the Hulk early on, so we know he's big, fast and tough. His lieutenants, the Black Order, seem pretty nasty, too (one of the film's few flaws is it doesn't identify them well).

Opposed to Thanos, are, of course, Earth's mightiest heroes, the Avengers, as well the Guardians of the Galaxy and anyone else who can answer the call. The key players in this film are Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and of course Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), plus many, many more. According to the filmmakers (directors Anthony and Joe Russo, and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely), Infinity War juggles about 26 heroes. This does make it episodic, but the writing is tight enough that, although a character might not get a long scene, he or she gets a good moment or vignette. (A short scene between Rocket Raccoon and Thor, who's grieving but trying to put on a brave face, is a standout.) Each struggle for an infinity stone has a different dynamic, preventing the film from feeling too repetitive. We get some epic battles, but also good one-on-one and small team fights. We get plenty of moments of strong emotion based on characters and their relationships. There's an emotional core to all the key scenes.

As for flaws for the film, the biggest ones relate to its villain. Give Marvel credit for making Thanos more interesting than most comic book movie villains, but he's also pretty incomprehensible, and the filmmakers shy away from showing his full deviltry. Thanos somehow ignores that if he has godlike powers, he could easily provide resources for the universe's population instead of killing half of them. A deleted scene between him and Gamora delves into this a little, but it's a glaring issue that really should be at least touched on in the movie. Meanwhile, the filmmakers choose not to show Thanos devastating the planet Xandar to obtain his first stone, nor his extremely cruel maiming of a character played by Peter Dinklage.

As to Infinity War as an achievement in film, it's the cinematic equivalent of a comic book crossover series – one of the good ones, that is, because there have been some real stinkers. No one's ever done anything quite like this before. And although some of the Marvel movies squeezed in the infinity war storyline or other crossovers a bit awkwardly, most did a surprisingly good job. The Marvel movies to date haven't all been masterpieces, but even the worst are still decent and the best are excellent. Delivering solid stand-alone films that also build on each other is a pretty remarkable feat, and shouldn't be taken for granted.

Finally, anyone who read the original comics had an idea of the ending, but it came as a genuine surprise to many viewers, which is a minor coup. Here's hoping the next film, Avengers: Endgame, is awesome and sticks the landing. More in the…
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Stan & Ollie: Stan and Ollie chronicles the later days of famed comedy duo Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly). They're not big stars anymore, and are touring the British Isles while they hope to clinch a potential movie deal to launch a comeback. Stan and Ollie have been partners so long they're like an old married couple – they know each other's quirks and preferences, and can also squabble over seemingly petty things. My chief complaint is that I wanted to see more of their comedy sketches recreated – we get to see a few, and they're great, but more sketches would make the film funnier and would also heighten the stakes between their on-stage brilliance and backstage conflicts. Still, both Coogan and Reilly are superb; they capture the mannerisms of Laurel and Hardy (and the prosthetics work on Reilly is great), but the performances go deeper than caricature or mere imitation. The film is often more a drama about comedians than a comedy, and it exaggerates some of their professional setbacks and interpersonal conflicts. But it's a good film about long-time partners, particularly long-time performers, and the intimacy that can create. Your mileage may vary, but because of that storyline and being a big fan of Laurel and Hardy, I found the final set of scenes quite touching; the film resonated and moved me more than many other films of the year.

2018 Film Roundup, Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition that comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, The Top Four and Noteworthy Films.
Incredibles 2: The first film remains one of Pixar's best, and the sequel isn't as strong, but if you like the characters, you'll want to check it out. In this one, wealthy Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) loved superheroes as a kid and has a public relations plan to win back the rest of public to the idea. He's assisted by his tech genius sister, Elaine (Catherine Keener). In the first film, Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) has the starring role, but here he must adjust to be the at-home parent while Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) goes on the first missions (she's less likely to break things). While Helen tries to track down a menacing new foe, the Screenslaver, Bob has to deal with young Jack-Jack's burgeoning powers. Dash (Huckleberry Milner) struggles with his math homework, and Violet (Sarah Vowell) is justifiably upset that her potential boyfriend had his memory wiped to preserve their secret identities and can no longer remember her. Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) and mad scientist fashion designer Edna (Brad Bird) are back, too, of course. The film does a nice job during the last act of giving all the characters something to do. This installment's not a classic, but it's still a fun outing.

Deadpool 2: It's not as good as the first film (notice a trend?), but if you liked that, you'll enjoy this one. This time, Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) has to deal with personal tragedy and defends awkward teenaged mutant Russell Collins/Firefist (Julian Dennison) from Cable (Josh Brolin), a mutant cyborg from the future intent on killing Russell for horrible actions he performs in the future. Deadpool gets an assist from the preternaturally lucky Domino (Zazie Beetz). As you'd expect, the film is mainly an excuse for Ryan Reynolds to riff, ham it up, mock himself and others, and push the boundaries of taste, but he was born to play this character and the movie's often entertaining. This is definitely a rated "R" movie, with gratuitous violence to make you laugh and cringe. You probably know if this flick's for you.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: After Infinity War, maybe you were in the mood for a… smaller movie. Paul Rudd is back as Scott Lang, trying to creatively spend time with his daughter Cassie and not violate probation. This means occasionally facing off with FBI agent/probation officer Jimmy Woo, played by comic actor Randall Park with an amusing straight-man approach. But Hope (Evangeline Lilly) and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) come calling for help in possibly rescuing Hank's wife and Hope's mother, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Scott feels compelled to try. Hope finally gets to suit up as the Wasp, and she and Scott are doing well until they run into the Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a high-tech thief who appears to phase through solid objects. Hank winds up seeking help from his old, semi-estranged partner, Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne). And of course, Michael Peña returns as Luis, the most memorable of Scott's business associates. The structure of the film is surprisingly tight, and I enjoyed it more than I expected. The Ant-Man films are funnier than most of the Marvel movies, but this one also makes some pleasantly unexpected choices, and Rudd remains good as the main character. Make sure to watch the end credit sequence (if you're a Marvel completionist).

Ready Player One: Steven Spielberg directs the adaptation of Ernest Cline's 80s geek nostalgia book, with entertaining but not overwhelming results. It's the future, and corporations rule the world even more than they do currently; most people live hardscrabble lives. They spend most of their time in the Oasis, a vast virtual reality consisting of entire solar systems. There's competitive gaming in the Oasis in any historical, fictional or fantastical world you can think of — and the best gamers can get rich — but school and other mundane activities are also handled in the Oasis. The Oasis' creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), decides to create a will leaving ownership of the Oasis to whoever can solve a series of riddles and find the ultimate gamer hidden Easter egg; that person would become one of the richest and most powerful people alive. "Gunters" are egg hunters, competing against IOI, an evil, powerful corporation led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who's a ruthless CEO, yet also a skilled gamer with a staff of uber-geeks to help him and his IOI troops find Halliday's Easter egg.

Our hero is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) known online as Parzival, a poor, orphaned teenager and skilled gamer who spends all his spare time researching Halliday and trying to find the egg. His best friend is Aech (pronounced "H"), who he's never met in real life. They help each other out, and Parzival winds up in friendly competition with, and smitten with, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a great gamer and cool customer who fiercely opposes IOI.

You don't need to get all the references to enjoy the ride, but you'll probably like the movie more if you remember the 80s and its video games, role-playing games, movies, TV shows and other pop culture. (I'll admit some references made me smile.) The book presents the Oasis as central to society, and it's less so in the movie. But the book, while enjoyable, plays heavily on nostalgia and isn't that deep. Its main female characters start out well and then become disappointingly one-dimensional in the final stretch. In the book, Halliday is presented as a genius, but of the Asperger's variety; some readers might see past Wade's hero worship and find Halliday manipulative and a bit pitiable. His contest essentially amounts to an OCD guy forcing people to pore over all his favorite books, movies, TV shows and games looking for clues. Spielberg and screenwriter Zak Penn (Cline is also credited, but Penn was the lead) wisely try to translate the book's contests into cinematic terms, which includes a funny homage/parody of a notable 80s horror film. It was an inspired piece of adaptation, all the more enjoyable because one character doesn't like horror and goes on to make every horror character mistake imaginable. The single best choice Spielberg made, however, was casting his previous collaborator, Mark Rylance, as Halliday – Halliday in the book might be somewhat cold and problematic, but Rylance oozes humanity, and his Halliday comes off as brilliant, lonely and socially awkward, but truly kind-hearted and well-intentioned underneath it all. In this sense, he's a bit like Hammond in Jurassic Park, who Spielberg transformed from the book's ruthless, selfish capitalist eager to gouge money from rich families into a kindly Santa Claus figure played by Richard Attenborough (who would go on to play Santa Claus). I thought that change made Hammond less interesting, but Spielberg loves the warm-fuzzy family stuff, and I thought the film Halliday was more interesting and three-dimensional than the book version. Rylance is such a fine actor he can make a single word with a small pause or stutter hit you. Meanwhile, the young cast is pretty good, and the women drive the action a bit more than they do in the book. Spielberg deserves particular credit for casting actors with good vocal work, because Parzival and Art3mis especially are animated voices for much of the movie. Simon Pegg, he of impeccable geek cred, is well-cast as Halliday's former best friend and business partner, Ogden "Og" Morrow. Spielberg even gives his villain Sorrento a nice moment of wonder. This isn't a great film, but it's a fun popcorn flick for a certain crowd, especially the ones who still remember how to navigate the maze in the Atari 2600's Adventure cartridge without using the bridge (ahem). You might catch visual or aural references to Excalibur, Monty Python, Clash of the Titans, Krull, War of the Worlds (the 1953 one, not the Spielberg one), among the many, many more obvious ones.

Annihilation: Give Annihilation credit for being genuinely creepy at times. A phenomenon called "the Shimmer" has sprung up around a meteorite in Florida. No one who enters the Shimmer comes back… and it is slowly expanding. But then Kane (Oscar Isaac), the husband of biology professor and military veteran Lena (Natalie Portman), suddenly appears back home after being gone for a year and presumed dead after a covert mission. He doesn't seem fully himself and has potentially severe heath issues. It turns out he's the first person ever to return from the Shimmer. Lena is recruited by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to join her all-female team to enter into Shimmer; Lena hopes to find something to cure Kane (although she and Ventress keep her connection to Kane secret) and none of the rest have family attachments. (The other three are played by Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny.) The Shimmer messes with the team's sense of time, and they encounter a number of dangers, especially strange, hybrid mutations. The standout scene of the movie is a tense and legitimately unsettling one involving a mutant bear; if you've seen the trailer, you've caught a glimpse. At times, the Shimmer is rather pretty and not all of its oddities are menacing, but it seems to affect each member of the team differently. The score, by Geoff Barrow and Jeff Salisbury, is dissonant, jarring and pretty effective for creating unease. The movie's adapted from the first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, which I have not read. I was not a big fan of adapter and director Alex Garland's previous film, Ex Machina (reviewed here), but I thought this one was much more effective. The premise and focus on atmosphere and personal histories reminded me the most of Tarkovsky's Stalker, although that's much more of an art house film, and "explore the odd phenomenon" and "big dumb object" are pretty standard setups in science fiction. More in the…
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Pacific Rim Uprising: The first Pacific Rim film (reviewed here) was a fun outing of humanity fighting giant kaijuwith giant mecha called Jaegers, driven by a pair of pilots in mental synch. It wasn't deep, but director Guillermo del Toro brought his usual zest and flair. This is director and cowriter Steven S. DeKnight's first feature film (although he's directed television episodes before), and it's not nearly as good, although you might like the fights and some of the actors. The stars this time are Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) from the first film, Jake's former partner, Nathan Lambert (Scott Eastwood), with whom he has bad blood, and Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), a teenage street urchin-genius mechanic. Her small, highly mobile mech makes for some entertaining sequences. Returning from the first film are former Jaeger pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who's now head of Earth's mecha defenses, and mad scientists Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day). Better mecha-kaiju stories definitely exist, so the main appeal here is seeing what a big Hollywood visual effects budget can do with the genre.

Solo: A Star Wars Story: Go in with low expectations, and you may be pleasantly surprised. Alden Ehrenreich gives his best shot at playing the iconic Han Solo as a young man. Along the way, we get to see how he met Chewbacca (now played by Joonas Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, who lobbied hard for the role). Woody Harrelson plays Beckett, head of a gang of thieves; Paul Bettany plays Dryden Voss, Beckett's main employer; and Emilia Clarke plays Qi'ra (pronounced Kira), who grew up with Han and who he still loves. The screenwriters, Jonathan Kasdan and his dad, Star Wars veteran scribe Lawrence Kasdan, have fun riffing on many of Han Solo's most famous lines and tweaking them in a way that'll make fans smile and chuckle.
The film has two major problems. One, it's almost impossible to find anyone with the raw charisma and charm that Harrison Ford had playing Han Solo. Ehrenreich gives it a go, even mimicking some of Ford's slouches and mannerisms, but falls short of the sheer wattage needed. Two, Han really needs to be much more a scoundrel. That's always been a key part of his appeal, and this film makes him far, far too nice and self-sacrificing. I'm going to blame that one on Disney suits. Original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired and Ron Howard took over, continuing a trend from Rogue One. Most of the film was reshot and the leaked stories from set were not encouraging. So although Solo could have been better, it could have been far worse.

Bohemian Rhapsody: Bohemian Rhapsody follows the usual rule for biopics: the lead performance is the best thing about the movie, which is otherwise so-so. We follow young Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek), part of an immigrant family in England, who redubs himself Freddy Mercury as he starts performing with the band that becomes Queen. Off-stage, Mercury is somewhat shy, and his pronounced overbite makes him looks a little odd, but he has an astounding voice and creates a flamboyant stage presence. He and guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) collaborate and spar as you'd expect among young bandmates, occasionally creating a big hit, the most unusual and ambitious being the title song. (The recording segments are fun to watch.) Meanwhile, Mercury adores his girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boyton), but he's gay; they resolve to remain friends, and do so, with Austin even moving next to him in London. Queen becomes big, and Mercury enjoys the rock star life of sex, drugs and general excess. The film's final push centers on Mercury meeting love interest Jim Hutton (Aaron McKusker), Mercury's HIV diagnosis and Queen's 1985 Live Aid concert performance. The movie takes historical liberties, is fairly conventional and episodic, and also feels disjointed at times. Still, Malek gives a fine performance and the supporting cast has good moments (especially Lee as Brian May). Personally, I'm not a huge Queen fan (the songs make for good stadium rock but aren't very deep), but it would be hard not to be impressed by Freddy Mercury as a vocalist. Malek isn't much of a singer himself, but the sound team used recordings of Mercury, mixed in a little bit of Malek and used singer Marc Martel to fill in other gaps. (If you're into sound design, it's interesting stuff.) Malek worked with a movement coach, studying footage of Mercury and practicing relentlessly to nail his moves and timing. The overall effect is pretty compelling, and given some painfully bad lip-synching in recent years (Empire, La La Land), seeing it done well is all the more welcome. This film had off-screen controversy due to credited directed Bryan Singer being fired (and his sexual assault allegations); Dexter Fletcher finished directing the film and editor John Ottman supposedly did a tremendous amount of work to save the picture. (I would have given the editing and sound Oscars to other films, but good jobs by the teams.)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: The Coen brothers latest movie wasn't well advertised, and mainly appeared on Netflix. The trailers also don't tell you much, so you might be surprised by a sudden ending and learning this in anthology film, with six tales in all. The quality markedly varies. The first segment is a hoot, starring frequent Coen collaborator Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs, a singing cowboy with preternatural shooting skills. It's basically a tall tale, live-action cartoon. "Near Algodones" stars James Franco and has some memorable scenes and lines, but doesn't have much of a point. The third story, "Meal Ticket," sees Liam Neeson as the promoter for Harrison, an actor with no limbs but strong voice, which he uses to perform "Ozymandius" and other poems and speeches. (He's played by Harry Melling, best known as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films.) You'll probably see where it's going before the end, but the segment's memorable and creates a creepy mood, aided by Neeson's performance: all quiet facial reactions, never speaking. The fourth segment, "All Gold Canyon," stars Tom Waits as a grizzled prospector, and he's well cast, but the story isn't terribly strong. The fifth, "The Gal Who Got Rattled," stars Zoe Kazan and is something of a love story as a wagon train travels through perilous territory. It raised some plausibility questions for me, but I still found it moving. The last segment, "The Mortal Remains," is an absolute gem of writing, directing and performance, centered on five passengers in an evening carriage; the baggage on top includes a corpse. Featuring Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly and Saul Rubinek, it's got a wonderfully spooky feel, and you'll find yourself questioning the true nature of the ride and speculating about its conclusion. It's a segment that would excel as a short story or stage piece as well, and it's so good it's worth sitting through the less impressive vignettes. A little more in the…
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Private Life: A middle-aged couple wants a child and struggle with fertility treatments, adoption and surrogacy in this comedy-drama (emphasis on the drama). Paul Giamatti is well-cast as Richard, weary but trying to be supportive of his extremely hormonal wife, Rachel (Kathryn Hahn, in her most serious major role to date). Relative newcomer Kayli Carter gives a memorable performance as Sadie, Richard's free-spirited, twenty-something niece, who feels closer to Richard and Rachel than her own parents, played by Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch. Almost all the actors chosen by writer-director Tamara Jenkins have comedic chops, and some are primarily known for it, yet Jenkins wisely has them playing their situations straight, rather than going for the joke. Private Life is well-acted and has its moments of levity, but is actually pretty somber and realistic, as Rachel and Richard face a series of setbacks that strain their marriage and other relationships. This is a decent flick, but don't go in thinking it's a light comedy. This film premiered at Sundance and then was distributed by Netflix.

Ocean's 8: This is a good-but-not-great heist film with an all-woman crew. Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) is the sister of Danny Ocean (George Clooney), who's presented as dead at the start of the film, although Debbie and other characters question whether that's true. Debbie targets the annual Met gala, full of celebrities and rich people who are sure to wear expensive jewelry. Debbie works to orchestrate that starlet Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway, basically playing a parody version of herself) will wear the Toussaint, a $150 million Cartier necklace normally kept in a vault. Just as in Soderbergh's Ocean's 11, there's also a personal angle beyond greed: Debbie wants revenge on her ex-boyfriend, Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), an art dealer who helped send her to prison, although pursuing payback could endanger the heist. As in Ocean's 11, the key partner is troubled by this, in this case, Lou Miller (Cate Blanchett, who's unfortunately underused in the movie). The film doesn't have many surprises, but it's enjoyable enough, especially if you like the cast or the idea of a female heist crew. The other members include Helena Bonham-Carter, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna and Awkwafina. For a more serious all-female heist film with much higher dramatic stakes, check out Widows instead.

Crazy Rich Asians: Crazy Rich Asians, based on the book of the same name, is a fairly typical Hollywood romance, except the lead cast is all Asian and the cultural clash is a Chinese-American, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), meeting the Singapore family of her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding). Rachel is a young economics professor at NYU, and has a good relationship with her boyfriend, Nick, who pitches her on a trip to Singapore for his best friend's wedding; he's to be best man. Rachel is surprised to learn that Nick's family is wealthy and powerful. This has its perks, but it also means that Nick's family has significant expectations for him, including taking over the family business (he's the favored child) and marrying someone of high standing, which in their world would not include Rachel .The biggest obstacle is Nick's mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, in a rare semi-villain role), but she's far from the only one opposing their union. Crazy Rich Asians has some comedy – Awkwafina's scenes are particularly funny – but this is often more a romantic drama than a comedy. The leads are both pretty and pretty likable. Young is best known as a model, and Wu is best known as the mother on the sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, where she's quite funny – this is a much more serious role. There's little surprising here, but it's a solid pick if you're in the mood for a romance or find the cultural angle appealing.

Life of the Party: Just after Deanna (Melissa McCarthy) and Dan (Matt Walsh) drop off their daughter at their alma mater for her senior year of college, Dan announces he wants a divorce and has been seeing another woman. Deanna is devastated, but then decides she should return to school to finish her degree – she dropped out when she was pregnant with Maddie (Molly Gordon). Maddie is close with her mom, but a bit apprehensive about her crimping her style at school. Deanna is definitely uncool and is the object of ridicule from some, but she's authentically kind and Maddie's sorority sisters wind up liking her quite a bit. Various affirming moments and setbacks ensue; some really strain credulity. McCarthy's a comedic talent, but often doesn't get good scripts – and I'd say that's the case here. Apart from a great restaurant scene that's also genuinely funny, there aren't many surprises. Life of the Party is a feel-good movie more than a comedy; mother and daughter express their love for each other at least a dozen times. McCarthy's also playing a naively sweet woman, and even her most confrontational scenes are pretty good-natured; there's none of the biting, acerbic wit she flourishes in her best films, such as Spy, The Heat and Bridesmaids (reviewed here, here, and the 13th film here, respectively). All of Maya Rudolph's scenes are good, and not coincidentally, she also occasionally gets to be mean (and goofy, and raunchy). Deanna could have used more range as well. (I was also reminded a bit of Legally Blonde – Elle Woods is also an unconventional student but nice, so that approach can work, but I think her character's better written and Legally Blonde is a stronger film.)

Uncle Drew: This is a silly but enjoyable summer sports comedy centered on senior citizen, former basketball stars competing in the Rucker Classic, an annual New York street basketball tournament. Dax Winslow (Lil Rel Howery) has put together a team and paid the entrance fee, in hopes of winning the $100,000 grand prize. But his star player and team, and then his girlfriend, Jess (Tiffany Haddish), are stolen by his old nemesis, Mookie Bass (Nick Kroll), who blocked Dax from taking the winning shot in a key game when they were kids. The despairing Dax stumbles upon Uncle Drew (Kyrie Erving), an old man and local legend who still has incredible moves. Dax pleads with Drew to play for him in the Rucker, and Drew agrees, on condition that he gets to pick the team, which will consist of his old buddies. Those include Lights (Reggie Miller), who can't see, and Boots (Nate Robinson), who can't walk. Rounding out the group is Preacher (Chris Webber), who has to flee his wife Betty Lou to go (Lisa Leslie), Maya (Erica Ash), Boots' granddaughter and a Dax love interest, and Big Fella (Shaquille O'Neill), who's running a dojo and bears a large grudge against Uncle Drew for something in their past. The basketball stars are given funny one-liners and situations and not asked to do much; the exception is Erving, who as Uncle Drew has to carry some scenes and is surprisingly funny. (Although if you take a drink every time he says, "youngblood," to Dax, you'll get alcohol poisoning.) The wigs and old-age makeup are pretty obvious and sometime ludicrous (old face but young hands, for instance). The film's predictable throughout, but still fun if you're in the mood for this kind of flick; you know what you're getting here.