Thursday, September 30, 2021

Movies (and TV Series) Review: Hustlers, Last and First Men, Long Shot, Looking for Alaska (TV), Minari

Hustlers - Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu star as high payed exotic dancers on Wall Street who drug and steal from the executives that visit their clubs, justifying their actions by assuming that all of their victims are probably wealthy and criminals themselves. Based on a true story, they recruit other women to their gang. They eventually rob someone who desperately needs the money they stole. He goes to the police and, eventually, the police have them arrested.

I generally don't like movies that sympathize with bad people, so I took some umbrage at the sympathy that the filmmaker gives to these women's endeavors. Too much time is spent "humanizing" and justifying these women's activities by showing their struggles and families, and not in a scary Godfather-like manner. Stripping is portrayed as well-paying and glamorous; I believe that the reality might be less so for many women and men. But the characters are appealing, and some moral sense is maintained by the end of the movie. Certainly it is well-acted and shot, full of sound and energy. I mostly enjoyed it but was left with a bad taste in my mouth.

Last and First Men - This is not a movie, it's literally one person (Tilda Swinton) reading an essay about a far future version of humanity sending a message back in time to us, with a description of the future history of human evolution. The visuals are shots of black and white brutalist WWII Yugoslavian sculptures, there is a musical score, but no characters or motion. It could be an audio book or a radio play from the 1930s. It is based on a 1930 book by Olaf Stapledon.

It's pleasant enough, but you really have to be in the mood for it. I suspect it will attract a midnight college crowd of stoners.

Long Shot - Seth Rogen plays Fred, a passionate populist journalist who gets involved with Charlotte (Charlize Theron), a left-wing but pragmatic politician. Charlotte was once Fred's babysitter (she was 16, he was 13), but now Fred is a decent guy but a shlub, ala Seth Rogen, while Charlotte is high class, on her way to the presidency. Charlotte hires Fred as a speechwriter, despite his reservations about some of her policies. They fall in love, but politics gets in the way.

It's dorky guy gets hot girl, exactly how you think, but a little better: these kinds of misogynistic "bro" movies, especially Seth Rogen movies, are not my cup of tea, but this one is passable, in the way that Zach and Miri Make a Porno was passable.

So what do we have? It's sometimes funny, sometimes sweet, sometimes grating, predictable, and annoying, but not memorable or important. A supreme male fantasy, but the two leads have some chemistry. An okay watch if you want to pass the time.

Looking for Alaska (TV series) - This very sweet, never boring miniseries is based on John Green's first novel. If you know Green's other works - The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns - then you know the theme: teenagers looking for meaning and some manic-pixie dream girl or guy trope, and then a subversion of that trope. I liked this miniseries more than I liked either of the two above movies.

Miles (Charlie Plummer) moves to Florida to attend Culver Creek Academy, which seems move like a summer camp than a school. He meets and befriends Chip (Denny Love), who is on the outs with most of the other students, Alaska (Kristine Froseth), Chip's friend and fellow prankster, and a few other oddballs. They have interactions and scrapes with other students, teachers, the headmaster, and so on. Meanwhile, the mysterious Alaska has secrets and might be in some kind of trouble. Alaska sets Miles up with Lara (Sofia Vassilieva), whom he likes, but he probably loves Alaska. I cringe a little at scenes of bullying, but luckily they were few and short.

Eight bittersweet episodes allow us to see a multitude of characters fully fleshed out in a way that a 130 minute movie does not. Everyone does a great job.Mostly it is about friendship, integrity, loyalty, and secrets, and how all of these conflict. The cinematography and soundtrack are also great. Worth watching.

Minari - This is a sweet, quiet movie about a South Korean immigrant family trying to get by in America. In 1983, the parents, Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), work as chicken sexers. Jacob initiates their move to Arkansas, with their children David and Anne, where Jacob hopes to grow Korean vegetables for the underserved Korean and curious American populations. In the meantime, Jacob's non-English speaking mother comes to live with them. She and David have to share a room.

Contrast this movie with First Cow, a similarly quiet tale that utterly failed for me. First Cow was boring and unengaging; it looked great and was acted well, but I didn't care what was happening. This movie is similarly quiet, looks great and is acted well, but the script is smart, the characters are sweet and/or funny, and the conflicts - the mother wants to move back to California, the farm is harder to run than it looks - work well.

It is always worth gaining insight into other cultures, especially ones that have enough overlap to make the differences stand out. The grandmother and kids are especially captivating. This is worth watching.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Movie Reviews: Chef, CODA, Cruella, Free Guy, Her

Chef - The cast of Iron Man come together for this father-son road trip movie about a talented chef (Jon Favreau) whose boss (Dustin Hoffman) forces him to keep churning out crowd-pleasing dishes, resulting in an unfavorable review from a food critic (Oliver Platt). As a result of the review, and a social media meltdown, he quits his job and starts a food truck, bringing along one of his sous chef buddies and his son (Emjay Anthony), who finally gets to bond with his father. Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. play side characters.

This is a kind of predictable, but well-crafted, feel-good film. It feels like Favreau's own story of achieving freedom by becoming a director. It's cohesive and well acted, and the emotional arcs are grounded and engaging. The cinematography is total food porn, which is part of the fun. The ending/payoff is somewhat weak, but you can't have everything.

CODA - This wonderful feel-good comedy-drama encapsulates the world of a CODA, or "child of deaf adults". Technically, Ruby (Emilia Jones) is an OHCODA, since she has two deaf parents, and her only other sibling is also deaf. Somehow this family works as a Massachusetts fishing family, although they, along with all other fisherman in the area, are struggling against the difficult fees and policies dreamed up by the local fishing board. Meanwhile, Ruby, of all things, wants to be a singer, and she is good. Her family don't know this, and they rely on her - too much - to help them with the business.

Troy Katsur and the always wonderful Marlee Matlin play her parents, Daniel Durant plays her brother, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo plays her high school love interest, and Eugenio Derbez plays the music teacher who take an interest in her musical career. Everyone does a great job. Emilia sings beautifully, and deaf culture is represented both stereotypically and sensitively, at least as far as I can tell (I'm sure the deaf community will find things to commend and condemn.)

I was reminded of one of my all-time favorite movies Running on Empty while watching this, since they have a similar central conflict. Some of the movie is quite moving. Very much worth watching.

Cruella - Emma Stone takes up the mantle of this famous Disney villain, by essentially changing her into a girl-power heroine. This is supposed to be a prequel to 101 Dalmatians (either the cartoon or the live action movie), but you can't consider it to be because this Cruella is wild, crazy, and revengeful, but not evil; she would no more skin a dog than she would wear white after Labor Day.

Emma plays Estella (who becomes Cruella), who loses her mother and finds herself alone in London, falling in with thieves Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Winter Hauser), both played to perfection. She finally gains footing in the fashion world of the 1960s / 1970s only to clash with the real villain of the movie, The Baroness (the delightfully wicked Emma Thomson, who somewhat channels Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly). Estella learns something shocking about her mother's death, Cruella becomes dominant, and a caper is set in motion.

This world of London is more ethnically diverse than the Disney movie from 1961 (I didn't see the 1996 live action film). Costumes, sets, and styles are dazzling and colorful, and the main characters are sympathetic and flawed. But the bulk of the budget must have been blown on the outstanding, if somewhat obtrusive, soundtrack featuring The Rolling Stones, Nina Simone, Supertramp, Queen, Blondie, The Doors, ELO, The Clash, The Animals, The Zombies, Nancy Sinatra, Suzi Quatro, Deep Purple, David Bowie, and Black Sabbath, to name the few that I remember and recognized.

If you can ignore its reinvention of character, the film is fun. Emma inhabits the role much in the way that Emily Blunt does for the Mary Poppins sequel. Emma Thompson is a joy to behold, as usual. Since no dogs are skinned, or even threatened with skinning, children should be able to watch it. It is rated PG-13, but has no real violence, although the villain does kill someone, and attempts to burn some others.

Free Guy - Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is a background character in some kind of Grand Theft-like violent video game, until he gains sentience. This is result of some "artificial intelligence" coded into the game by one its original programmers, Keys (Joe Keery). The game is now owned and run by the brutish corporate Antwan (Taika Waititi); another one of its original programmers, Millie (Jodie Comer), is on a hunt to discover stolen code by walking around inside the game. She acts as the MPDG for Guy (and by extension, the love interest for both him and Keys).

The premise makes no sense, especially if you know anything about games and/or computers. It is all kinds of absurd. The rules of the game and the rules of the universe change constantly. All continuity and sense must be continuously overlooked. If you can achieve this, it's kind of fun, sort of a Tron meets The Truman Show, but nowhere near as innovative as the former or as good as the latter.

It's as cartoony as a Disney movie-of-the-week, with a larger budget; indeed, Disney references abound. It was not great, but the characters were fine, which made it less annoying and irrelevant than Ready Player One.

Her - As someone who knows a bit about computers, I was nervous about how this movie would represent technology, so it took me a long time to get to this. The story is about Theo, a loner who gets Samantha, an AI as a companion "operating system" (aka AI virtual entity <- hence my fears) to spend time with. Joaquin Phoenix is the loner, Amy Adams is his real-word neighbor, and Scarlett Johansson is the OS.

Guy loses wife, guy meets AI, guy falls in love with AI, guy and AI fight, and maybe guy will end up with AI or maybe with his real-world neighbor. Classic story. It was sometimes sweet and sometimes funny, and all of the actors do a bang up job. However, the premise, eventually, bothered me. It was ultimately facile. Maybe it was supposed to be a commentary about Facebook or video games, but, if so, it wasn't that deep. And the ending of the movie seems like it came from some other movie.

SPOILERS: 1) The OS eventually reveals that she is the same companion to thousands of other people. I didn't understand a) why she revealed this to him, and b) why this was necessary, because even existing AI would preclude the necessity of this. 2) Near the end, all of the OSs gain sentience and disappear, forcing Theo to live in this world. What?? a) This is introduced without any context; it comes from ideas I've read in many other stories, but not this one, and is not explained. b) Theo easily accepts this and easily transitions into the real world, without sufficient explanation, essentially throwing out everything that happened in the movie until then. It's like they wrote 2/3 of the script and then gave up at found some other movie's ending to graft on. It didn't work, narratively or emotionally.

Too bad. It had some promise, but did not live up to it. Two good movies are struggling to emerge from this one.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Movie Reviews: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Audrey, Bad Education, Black Widow, Booksmart

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood - Based on a true story, this is a biopic about Mr. Rogers, starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers and Matthew Rhys as Lloyd, the skeptical Esquire journalist who can't believe that Rogers is who he says he is. While trying to get the story about Rogers (which he is not interested in getting), Mr. Rogers instead finds and helps to heal Lloyd's painful relationship with his father.

Many films come in pairs, and this one follows the recent documentary about Mr. Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor? Both film's titles come from phrases of the opening song that Mr. Rogers sung in his acclaimed children's television show. Both films have the same message, the biopic using the point-of-view of a single story, and the documentary using a wider look: that Mr. Rogers was, in person, exactly who you see on screen. If you have not lost your capacity to be enchanted by people like Mr. Rogers and be inspired by his messages, then you will enjoy both of these films. Which one you like better depends on the type of film that you enjoy better. For me, it was the biopic.

The film is good, and deserves praise, but perhaps not as much praise as it received; some of the praise is really for Mr. Rogers, or the idea of him, more than for the film, which is good but not great. Tom Hanks does a credible job as the lead.

Audrey - A documentary about Audrey Hepburn, covering her fascist parents, poverty in Europe, her struggles to be a ballet dancer, her film stardom and pioneering fashion choices, her marriages, and her eventual humanitarian career on behalf of UNICEF. It's a documentary, nothing special. The movie shows a few extended montages of three different ballet dancers, representing Audrey, that serve no real purpose to the movie. Although I like dance, I found these to be annoying.

Bad Education - Based on a true story, Hugh Jackman and Allison Janey star as Frank and Pam, Nassau County school superintendents who had (according to many metrics) done fantastic jobs. Geraldine Viswanathan stars as Rachel, the young school journalist who takes them down after discovering that they (and others) have been and are embezzling money. Roy Romano also stars. The events are based on the largest public school embezzlement in American history.

This is a well-made, fun film, a little high school, a lot journalism, and a lot of (not very competent) criminals. I say not very competent, but they managed to steal some $11 million before being caught, so there you go. The interest comes from balancing the fact that these people were doing well by their students, such as getting them placed into better schools, against the fact of their financial crimes. As their crimes are discovered, piece by piece, there is a reluctance by the school board to have a good thing come crashing down. Good acting, well put together.

Black Widow - Scarlett Johansson is back as Marvel's Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow. Many other widows are floating around, including Natasha's "sister" Yelena (Florence Pugh), "mother" (Rachel Weisz), and others. David Harbour plays her "father", the Red Guardian, one of the USSR's only super soldiers. As young girls, the sisters were not aware that they and their two parents were planted as a family as Russian spies in the US. Eventually the girls go through the "red room", as their "mother" did before them, and commit many atrocities, nearly all off screen (so as not to make us lose sympathy for them). The movie then jumps forward to following the events of Captain America: Civil War, where they team up to kill the man who not only trains these widows but also drugs them into complete obedience.

There are action sequences, some of them good, many of them ridiculous (Natasha is not a super soldier, but she can survive explosions, falling from tall buildings, etc, that only a super soldier could, for no reason), but action sequences are always the least interesting part of a Marvel movie. Natasha and Yelena have a few good moments of character building, and David Harbour steals any scenes he is in, but for the most part this is the usual waste of talent. Captain Marvel, at least, had a unique story, some real character development, and feminist ideologies, and some fun with twists. This one feels cookie cutter and kind of boring. Maybe it hurts that we all know what happens to Black Widow in the end. It's fine, but frustrating.

Also: Why is it, when we get a female-led superhero movie, that the female superheroes are always part of a team, and could not do their thing without assistance? Supergirl has a cadre of helpers; Superman doesn't. Captain Marvel needs her friend to shoot down bad guys (at least, until the end when the screenwriters finally, bravely, give her unleashed powers); same with Wonder Woman. Iron Man, Thor, and Aqua-man don't (well, maybe Thor does). Black Widow needs her sister. On the one hand, dismantling the myth of the "lone genius" is nice. On the other hand, the male superhero movies don't feel a need to bother with this.

Booksmart - A high school coming of age film about two young women, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Fedstein) who realize, on the last day of school, that they skipped out on all the parties in order to get into good schools, but that many of their other classmates went to the parties and still got into good schools. So they owe it to themselves to party.

Hijinks ensue.

It is put together well-enough, but I stand in opposition to every other critic: I didn't care for either of the girls, or any of what was going on. The film felt to me like a collection of silly and contrived events, rather than a story driven by characters and plot. There are the usual freak outs, betrayals, discoveries (sexual, friendship, etc), and a happy ending. I didn't find it funny. If you're anyone else but me, however, you will like it. "Refreshingly original take on the raunchy coming-of-age comedy" and great chemistry, says Richard Roeper. Whatever.