The Irishman (2019): Painting Houses Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The_Irishman_poster.jpgNOTE: I’m never too concerned about spoilers but just be warned I’m talking about The Irishman, which will come out in November. If you want to be surprised maybe wait to read this…

The opening moments caused an almost immediate smile of recognition to come over my face. There it is. An intricate tracking shot taking us down the hallway to the tune of “In The Still of The Night.” We know this world well.

Martin Scorsese does too. Because it’s an instant tie to Goodfellas. In some sense, we are being brought back into that world. Except you might say that The Irishman picked up where the other film left off, filling up its own space, coming to terms with different themes. This is no repeat.

A day ago if badgered about the film I would have said it’s about a hitman named Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who had ties with the Buffalino crime family (Joe Pesci) and worked alongside Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The famed union teamster disappeared without a trace, only to become one of the most mythical unsolved cases of all time.

And yes, I had to take a few moments to get used to a de-aged Robert De Niro, although I think it might have been the blue “Irish” eyes, so I quickly accepted it and fell into the story. On a surface level, these are the initially apparent attributes. However, it’s a joy to acknowledge it’s so much more. Because all the greatest films offer something very unique unto themselves — and to their creators — in this case the world of organized crime.

We’re so used to having Scorsese and De Niro together; it’s staggering to believe their last collaboration was Casino (1995). Meanwhile, Joe Pesci came out of his near-decade of retirement to join with De Niro again and continue their own substantial screen partnership together. Some might be equally surprised to stretch their memories and realize Pacino and Scorsese have never worked together. Both have such deep ties to the American New Wave and the crime genre. The pedigree is well-deserved on all accounts.

But there’s something ranging even deeper and more elemental, resonating with us as an audience. This is not Sunday school truth but a type of hazy mythology with flawed titans going at it in a manner that feels almost bizarre. There are no pretenses here. If you are familiar with Scorsese’s work from Mean Streets to Goodfellas, this is an equally violent and profane work. And yet how is it we begin to care about characters so much that their relationships begin to carry weight? Especially over 3 and a half hours.

It is a monumental epic and that opening tracking shot I mentioned leads us to a white-haired, wheelchair-bound man who has seen so much over the course of his lifetime. Voiceover has a hallowed place in the picture akin to Goodfellas, but again, the man at the center of it all has such a different place in the story.

What’s more, The Irishman really is a full-bodied meditation on this lifestyle of organized crime. Yes, it’s placed in a historical context, but Sheeran is a man we can look at and analyze. He is a sort of case study to try and untangle the complexities of such an environment.

Steven Zaillian’s script lithely jumps all over a lifetime woven through the fabric of popular history, aided further by the music selections of Robbie Robertson (of The Band acclaim) and real-life touchstones ranging from the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy Assassination, Nixon, and Watergate.

Thelma Schoonmaker makes the action accessible and smooth with ample artistic flourishes to grapple with the societal tensions and cold, harsh realities. Still, the majority of the picture is all about relationships. Everything else converges on them.

Sheeran didn’t know it then, but the day he met Russell Bulfino (Pesci) on his meat trucking route, would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Because he’s a man with clout and connections. Everyone comes to him, he expects other people to pay deference to him, and he looks kindly on those who carry out his favors.

In his company, Sheeran has a formidable ally, and he starts rising up the ranks even running in the same circles of the acclaimed Jimmy Hoffa. Being “brothers” as it were, it’s as if Sheeran and Hoffa understand one another intuitively and in a cutthroat world, they have a deep-seated, inalienable trust in one another.  Who is the man Hoffa comes to have in his room to be his friend, confidant, and bodyguard if not Frank? You can’t help but get close to someone in that context.

Al Pacino just about steals the show blowing through the film with a phenomenally rich characterization of the famed teamster, because he willfully gives a tableau of charm, charisma, warmth, humor, mingled with a ruthless streak and utter obstinacy. His loyalists are many as are his enemies. It’s facile to be a mover and a shaker when you’re an immovable force of nature.

Even as Sheeran is busy, mainly on the road, his first wife and his kids (and then his second wife) are always present and yet somehow they never get much of a mention, rarely a line of dialogue, always in the periphery. This in itself is a statement about his family life.

One recalls The Godfather mentality. Where family is important but so is the family business and never the twain shall meet. Womenfolk and children are protected, shielded even, and the dichotomy is so severe it’s alarming.

In that film, the cafe moment is where Michael (a younger Pacino) makes a life-altering decision. For Frank, that mentality somehow comes easily for him. Michael was the war hero and thus stayed out of the family business for a time. Frank’s involvement in “painting houses,” as the euphemism goes, is just an obvious extension of the killing he undertook in Europe.

It’s curious how everyone mentions his military experience, the fact that he knows what it’s like, and how that somehow makes what he’s called to do second-nature. Again, it’s business. It’s following orders. If you do a good job, if you do the “right thing,” you get rewarded.

There are some many blow-ups and hits and what-have-yous, it wears on you to the point of desensitization, especially when you’re forced to laugh it off uneasily. This is very dangerous but again, it’s anti-Godfather, which was a film where these were the moments of true climax and meaning and import for the psychology of the characters. Where Michael evolves and takes over the territory. Where his older brother Sonny is killed and his other brother Fredo gets killed. There’s meaning in every one of them.

In the Irishman, it could care less. Everything of true importance seems to happen around conversations, in dialogue, between people. To a degree that is. Because dynamics are set up in such a way and the culture and the unyielding ways of men make it inevitable, opposing forces will rub up against one another.

The complicated realms of masculinity, pride, and respect make minor tiffs and bruised egos the basis of future gang wars and vendettas. Phone calls are testy and people are pulled aside to get straightened out before more serious action is taken. It’s a social hierarchy where go-betweens come to mediate everything.

As time goes on, we come to realize Sheeran is the wedge bewteen two of these unyielding forces, and he’s caught between a rock and a hard place. Between his “Rabbi” Russell, as Hoffa calls him, and the man he’s been through the trenches with — the man he asks to present his lifetime achievement award to him. He’s deeply loyal and beholden to both.

Is this his hamartia — his fatal flaw — that will become his undoing? We never quite know if he was able to make peace with any of it. All we know is something has to give…But I will leave it at that.

The unsung surprise of the film is the load of humor it manages end to end. Everyone is funny. The exchanges get outrageous to fit the larger-than-life characters and situations. It’s the kind of stuff you couldn’t make up if you tried. But the jokes play as a fine counterpoint to the grim reality of these men and their lifestyles.

In the later stages of life, as he prepares himself for death, Sheeran meets with a priest, which prove to be some of the most enlightening moments in the film. When asked if he has remorse, he matter-of-factly admits, not really, but even his choice to seek absolution is his attempt at something.

Scorsese continues in the stripe of Silence with some deeply spiritual and philosophical intercessions in what might otherwise seem a temporal and antithetical affair.  The truth is you cannot come to terms with such a life — or any life — without grappling with the questions of the great unknown after death.

In another scene, Sheeran seeks out a casket and a resting place for his body muttering to himself just how final death is. That it’s just the end. It’s curious coming from a man who knocked off so many people, but somehow he’s just coming to terms with it himself. Perhaps it’s what old age does to one.

This is not meant to be any sort of hint or indication (we want more films), but if this were to be the last film this group of luminary talents ever made, I would be all but content. The film taps into content and themes that have been integral aspects of Martin Scorsese’s career since the beginning. Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and even Harvey Keitel are all synonymous with the crime film — they share a common thread — a communal cinematic context and language.

My final thought is only this. The Irishman feels like Martin Scorsese’s Citizen Kane. I don’t mean it in the sense it’s his greatest film or the greatest film all time. Rather, in a thematic sense, they are kindred. Although Scorsese’s version includes crime and violence, the ends results are very much the same.

You have a man with a life crammed full of power and money and recognition, whatever, but at the end of the day, what did it get him? He clings to dog-eared photos of his kids whom he probably hasn’t seen in years.

When the priest tells him he’ll be back after Christmas, Sheeran looks up at him pitifully, acknowledging he’ll be around. He’s not going anywhere. He has no family. He has no one to care about him. All his buddies are gone, and he’s the last of them holding onto secrets that do him no good. It’s all meaningless.

It’s a striking final image. All I could think was, “Oh how the mighty have fallen.” Whether or not any of it was true or not (as the film seems to validate), what’s leftover is a paltry life. It’s a testament to everything we’ve witnessed thus far that we feel sorry for him.

4.5/5 Stars

The Florida Project (2017): The Antithesis of Hollywood Escapism

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When we run in different circles it’s easy to have a conveniently jaundiced view of our society. On a personal scale, I’m talking about our neighborhoods, our towns, our community institutions. We turn a blind eye to those things that do not concern us — maybe they’re below our station in life — and so we live unclouded by the hardships around us.

We form tribes and often do our best to stay separate whether it’s along social, ethnic, political, or religious lines. Though we have an innate desire to pair off and form communities, it can have detrimental side effects. At our very worst, we become polarized units totally at odds with one another. To a lesser extent, our enclaves remain insulated and never interact or acknowledge those outside our social bubble. Places like the Boys and Girls Club, Food Banks, and churches slog on without vibrant community support systems because heaven forbid we lower ourselves.

The Florida Project is a sobering portrait and an altogether necessary one because it offers an uncompromising glimpse at a lifestyle that’s easy enough to disregard. This is an issue needing recognition.

Because just down the road from Seven Dwarves Ln and Disney World, the purported “happiest place on earth,” there are signs of degradation and malevolent poverty. We are met with the garish purple and pinks of the low-rent hotels.

But there are two obvious camps. Tourists who are only passing through and the locals who have set up camp long-term living week to week on the money they scrounge up. Spend some time there, even during a seemingly carefree season like Summer Break, and you see the deleterious nature of the ecosystem. Such activities see endemic.

Front and center are Mooney (Brooklynn Prince) and her band of friends. They’re like a merry band of precocious little terrors. If they were older we might call them hoodlums but now they have the pretense of being cute. Except they’re hardly innocent. Spitting on someone’s car from a second story for “fun” and getting in any type of conceivable mischief they possibly can. Like turning off the power in the throes of summer or panhandling.

They are the epitome of the cliche “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” And yet their behavior is indicative of their parents (or lack thereof). Because a lot of what Mooney does feels reinforced and learned from her role models. It becomes equally evident her imagination is always vibrant out of necessity. It shields her from the world and her constant state of want. It is her only avenue to something better.

But we must ask where will the buck stop? Is it the social systems being flawed or non-existent? Halley (Bria Vinaite), Mooney’s young and disaffected mother, looks to sell perfume for a profit at a nearby resort just to eke by a day late on rent. She has trained her daughter up to scrounge for change to buy ice cream. Mooney always shows up at the back door to receive handouts of free waffles and extra maple syrup with a friend.

The kiddos go on a demolition rampage and when they’re bored of that they divert themselves by lighting a house on fire. Of course.

It grabs the attention of the entire neighborhood and necessitates the local fire department coming out to quell the flames. It’s like a block party the way the locals congregate, drinks in hand, whooping, and snapping pictures in front of the conflagration. The kids don’t seem to realize until after the fact, the effects of such a serious form of arson.

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Through all these ordeals, Willem Dafoe is the Most Valuable Player. Because as the local manager of the Magic Castle, Bobby, he provides some semblance of well-meaning humanity in an otherwise unfeeling and incredibly tense wasteland. Because the crusty exterior reveals a genuine concern for kids and even when he’s disgruntled his hard-working, good-natured spirit shines through. He extends the same care to a trio of inbound storks that he does the tenants who are constantly harrying him.

There so many hardships and yet the people resigned to this life have issues of their own. There is a pervasive disrespect shown to everyone and lifestyle choices are a bit dubious at times. The saddest aspect is impressionable children being subjected to so much that is objectionable at such a young age.

Halley has left her former career choice as a stripper behind, but she seems less than enthused about applying for new work. She also shows attitude toward anyone who will not immediately bend to her requests or even those who try and stay on their side. Her retaliation can be utterly malicious, at times, even as her sense of entitlement is trying.

Likewise, she teaches her daughter posing for hypersexualized selfies while her smoking, drinking, and male company with no sense of commitment, only prove detrimental to her daughter. These are the exterior issues that make themselves plainly apparent.

My only concern or minor reservation is the fact we never get much of the interior life of these adults. I would like to get to know Halley and Bobby better. But because this is very much Mooney’s story, grace can be extended. Her point of view is the most applicable to this narrative because it is not able to comprehend everything or even bring it to a succinct resolution. There are so many unresolved issues. It should not be on a child to have to solve them.

It’s the realization, in the end, Mooney is just a kid. She doesn’t know the situation her mom is in. She isn’t completely liable for all the behavior she perpetrates.  In many ways, she’s oblivious and yet all the negative influences affect her even implicitly. She cannot comprehend the nuances of her mom’s situation because to her it’s simply the way life is. There is no other example to match it with. It starts with the social environment around her.

In a final twist, Sean Baker deems to cap his film with a Disney ending with the girls running off from the dizzying world around them for some type of oasis. Make of it what you will. It’s a bit like running off to the movies because you want to escape life. But The Florida Project is not Hollywood escapism. It’s immersive, yes, but in a way that will make you reconsider the current cultural landscape. If it does not make us open our eyes and carry a dose of empathy for those residing in our own communities than few things will.

The Florida Project does not cast blame and yet it draws us inward to ask the honest questions. How is our society failing? What might we do to fix this? On the smallest, most personal scale, what can each of us do to promote human flourishing? Because one thing is for sure, even if the movies normally coming out of the industry reflect otherwise, this is not an isolated occurrence.

Our society is full of Mooneys and if we learn anything from this film it should be to appreciate their worth as human beings even as we grieve their unfortunate circumstances and life choices. If we are more fortunate than them, it is solely a gift and we were blessed so that we might be a blessing to others. To those who much has been given, much is expected. I’m saying this as much to myself as anyone else.

4.5/5 Stars

Ad Astra (2019): To The Stars and “The Seeing Eye”

Ad_Astra_-_film_posterSince the dawn of man, the vast reaches of the cosmos up above have enamored us to the nth degree. You need only watch something like 2001 to be reminded of that fact. (There’s no doubt James Gray is well-versed in its frames.)

Herein lies a core theme throughout our very existence. We have this inherent overlap between science and spirituality — the celestial spheres and the extra-terrestrial — forming a framework for how we comprehend this world.

Aspects of this film even have a near-liturgy or the solemnity of an open-air cathedral. Dean Martin’s “Heaven Can Wait” is a hymn and a hint. Prayers are cast up to St. Christopher for the pilgrimage ahead. The dead are venerated like saintly martyrs for the cause. Because somewhere at the end of it all is the thought of some universal meaning, some ultimate truth, be it God or sentient being.

One is reminded of the proclamation the Soviet Union made when they sent their cosmonaut up into the stratosphere and came back down not having seen God. In essence, the conclusion was that this tangible world was all there is. Tools and technology are the instruments in which to make sense of the world. God, in whatever form, is only a pipe dream or a form of wish fulfillment for the weak. We must look somewhere else. Inside ourselves perhaps.

C.S. Lewis in his essay “The Seeing Eye” wrote the following response when pressed on the Soviet’s pronouncement:

“Space-travel really has nothing to do with the matter. To some, God is discoverable everywhere; to others, nowhere. Those who do not find Him on earth are unlikely to find Him in space. (Hang it all, we’re in space already; every year we go a huge circular tour in space.) But send a saint up in a spaceship and he’ll find God in space as he found God on earth. Much depends on the seeing eye.”

Watching Ad Astra (Latin for “To The Stars”) with this context uncovers profound meaning for me. It is a journeyman’s film pure and simple. Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride is on a mission to the outer reaches of the galaxy. He procures helping agents along the way, namely, Donald Sutherland in an enigmatic role and Ruth Negga, an operations director and Mars-native who dreams of Earth as the distant reality she once visited as a child. It brings to mind her parents, now deceased. Yet another cryptic puzzle piece.

One is led to think they do a fine job being exactly that, mysterious and understated, but it doesn’t give us much to relish as an audience. Tommy Lee Jones is a vanished American hero clouded with secrets of his own. Could it be the rumblings are true and he’s the manifestation of Kurtz in the heart of darkness on the surface of Neptune?

The question becomes not what is at the end of the universe but even more sobering, what if there’s nothing there, just the vastness and austere beauty (as Kubrick depicted, without his images of rebirth)? What are we to do then? Ad Astra‘s conclusions aren’t all that different than the Soviets all those years ago, but they are admittedly far less cynical.

While it lacks true emotional heft in crucial scenes, Gray’s endeavor is concerned with human relationship and this distinction is ever so important. Because this niche of movies can fall into two categories. 2001 spearheads those that are not altogether interested in humanity as such. It’s vast and clinical with the vision and scope Kubrick could capture immaculately. Whereas Tarkovsky’s Solaris or even more recent films like Gravity and Interstellar are far more intimate, regardless of any flaws they might engender.

James Gray is certainly skilled at developing the world planted in a so-called “near-future.” Still, as expansive as the galaxy becomes with every panorama and lens flair by Hoyte van Hoytema, so much more of the movie is borne by the features of Brad Pitt. His perspective and his thoughts. We come to understand him in physical proximity even as we are never allowed close emotional proximity.

Because Ads Astra is a pensive, solitary film. It maintains some intrigue by divulging little and stretching out its assets. It plays with some generic terrors. For instance, “The Surge” that has sent a shockwave across earth leaving many dead and without power. We have moon raiders, Gravity-like survival moments, which Pitt handles with steely aplomb, and touches of governmental conspiracy verging on the sinister.

Primates in space give another brief glimpse of 2001, Planet of The Apes, or even Alien. However, we also get the fleet-footed Nicholas Brothers, who are one of the best-kept secrets of Classic Hollywood’s musical circuit. All these are cultural references to earth, mind you, and not the outer reaches of the galaxy. This is an important observation.

Because there is an uncanny feeling that humanity has managed to shape outer space into our own image with the proliferation of Subway or DHL shipping even made available on the surface of the moon.  It makes the Restaurant on The End of The Universe less of a joke and more and more of a reality.

Still, these are never the elements completely defining Ad Astra for me. They are of secondary or even tertiary importance in deference to the central character study. I am willing to give Pitt the benefit of the doubt and believe his performance to be authentic and genuine. Where his masculinity is made really and truly vulnerable. We don’t build a deep connection with him precisely because he doesn’t have a rapport with anyone. Not his wife (Liv Tyler in a minuscule role), not his father, not anyone.

We begin to assemble a blueprint of someone who has always dwelled in their father’s footsteps, resentful of being abandoned, and simultaneously driven to be the best he can be in pursuit of the same auspicious goals. There are fractures cutting through his life even as he is a figurehead of national pride and American know-how, his life continually compartmentalized into professional and personal.

In fact, Ad Astra is simultaneously an exploration of how we forge heroes and erect idols in our culture. It doesn’t actually tackle this idea to an altogether satisfying conclusion, although it’s pardonable as the film literally takes an about-face. This is how it manages to set itself apart from the pack with a final decision different than the Soviets or Lewis, Kubrick or Nolan, even Tarkovsky.

For the final key, I turn to a very mundane place. One of my favorite bands sings about “Stars” from a Descartes perspective — humanity at the center of the universe — only to turn it on its head.

Instead of us looking up into the heavens, it becomes the stars looking down at us. To recall Lewis, those who cannot find “God” on earth will hardly find them in space. And those who look for meaning, or the beauty or the love they are lacking, in the skies above will probably be disappointed.

After all, maybe our objective is not the stars at all, and it never was. They are only markers and a compass with which to reorientate ourselves amid the entropy of this lifetime, that is, existence on earth. Once oriented, we can start looking around and seeing the people orbiting around us and begin a new objective — to love and cherish one another. It’s striking Roy’s final words almost sound like wedding vows. As if he went to the stars only to realize what he had to come back to. He finally had eyes to see.

4/5 Stars

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019): Tarantino By Way of Model Shop

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To his credit, Quentin Tarantino will always and forever be a divisive creative force. There is no recourse but to either love or dislike his work. I fall closer to the latter category though I’m not as vehement as some.

At the core of this fission are his own proclivities. Tarantino has always been a profane filmmaker reveling in gushing blood capsules and wall to wall pop-cultural references. His knowledge is dizzyingly Encyclopedic even as it leans toward all the deliciously lowbrow delights he can indulge in. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize his nods to Leone and the Spaghetti western or his love affair with everything as diverse as pulp-infused noir and Hong Kong action cinema.

He eats it up voraciously and practices it devotedly. It’s not too far a stretch to say cinema is his religion — or at least the most important entity in his life — and yet even his obsessions are indulgent and so every movie he’s taken on has those traits. In essence, nothing is sacred. As he’s made quite clear, he makes movies he would want to see. They fit into his vision.

Remarkably, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is probably the most personal picture he’s ever made — the one touching on something the most human — where there is even a hint of authenticity and something real that does not need a wink or an undermining remark.

I think of Sharon Tate in this picture as portrayed by Margot Robbie. I understand some people taking issue with how she is established. The vocal weight of her part holds nothing comparing to the bromance of her male counterparts.

But in the context of what has been manifested, it feels warm and humane in a way we very rarely see from the director. He is giving Sharon a few days of her life back, in a sense, and pays her another honor by not removing her actual image from the footage or the posters we see (ie. Don’t Make Waves or The Wrecking Crew). It’s all her. Right there in front of us to be appreciated again and not merely gaped at. She simply exists for a few solitary days in the summer of 1969.

However, the same respect is not paid to Bruce Lee or for that matter, anyone else because Tarantino never operates that way. He’s beloved for his very irreverence of everything even as everything in his films is saturated with reference and homage.

It makes Once Upon a Time‘s most relevant points of departure all the more surprising. Model Shop (1969) is an unhurried slice-of-life film distilling The Sunset Strip and the surrounding area much in the way Tarantino does. And yet Jacques Demy is on the complete opposite spectrum of a Tarantino.

His films are full of fantasy as well but more whimsy, romance, and an almost innocent naivete. For instance, I could never imagine Tarantino being able to pull off a non-ironic musical; Demy imbibed their magic.

But Model Shop was a departure for him as much as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is slightly different for Tarantino. At any rate, it finds them drifting toward a central thematic world — Hollywood of the late 60s — where there is golden sun to match the melancholy and the music.

The post-Kennedy, Vietnam-era malaise is upon us even as it clashes up against the rock ‘n roll soundtrack supplied by the likes of Simon & Garfunkel, The Mama and The Papas, and Paul Revere & The Raiders.

The representation of 1969 on its own is impressively immersive as if Tarantino is recreating his childhood — the way he used to remember things — and no doubt he is. I only know secondhand and still heartily appreciate the likes of 93 KHJ and The Real Don Steele, all but ubiquitous, with the static whizz of the radio bathing the listener in jingles and audio AC. The lit-up signage of The Sunset Strip, billboards and advertisements, stretching out across the horizon.

Products like Velveeta, Kraft, Hormel Chili. I know those too. And that is part of the enjoyment of this movie, to be given a couple hours to bask in the nostalgia of the past, whether it’s the Westwood Theater, drive-in movies, and certainly the myriad of era-appropriate posters we catch glimpses of.

And the sprawling — some would say lethargic — runtime allows for these day-in-the-life type scenarios we would not get in your typical film. However, Tarantino also has the task of inserting his own vision into the tableaux put before him.

Rick Dalton’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) character is an extension of the issues I have with these types of pictures: a fictitious character in a real world. To be honest, the writer-director fully commits to inserting him into the bygone era from co-starring with Telly Savalas, being up for The Great Escape, and now in his downward spiral guest spotting in FBI and Lancer.

And against these ready-made touchstones, Tarantino can employ his own fanciful riffs off history. Whether the amalgam of Bounty’s Law — take your pick of any 50s or 60s shows (Burke’s Law and Wanted Dead or Alive spring to mind) and you’re there. As Tarantino has already acknowledged, this prevalent career decline during the mid to the late ’60s was indicative of many of the tough guy idols who could not transition. This arc is not made up.

However, I find myself grappling with the same problem I had with Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, though to a different degree. Because, of course, everything Tarantino’s ever made is couched in pulp and totally self-aware. It’s the real with the fiction. It just so happens I find the real far more compelling. For instance, Sharon Tate, the depictions of the L.A. milieu, even the glowering menace of the tripped-out Mansion Family, these elements engage with social context head-on.

Whereas when I watch the spoofed scenes out of his own Inglorious Basterds parody or Dalton’s latest guest appearance as a heavy in the real-life — albeit obscure — Lancer, there’s not the same thrill. It’s not so much that we know we are watching a movie; it has to do with knowing we are watching Tarantino play out his own reenactments with all his tongue-in-cheek (and sometimes spot-on) parody.

The moments of Dalton that get at something more complex are the doubts that plague an actor in his position. For an extended scene, he sits in a casting chair with his precocious costar (Julia Butters) recounting the two-bit western paperback he’s been reading. Through rather overt terms, he and the audience realize the downward spiral of the book’s hero describes him to a tee. And he sobs.

Otherwise, I find most of these interludes to be dead ends, only useful for watching Tarrantino avail himself of his own personal pleasures. The one exception is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) because his function is less about parody or homage.

He fits into this world but it feels more organic — not like Tarantino is pasting his creation into the boots of several other men. Like Gary Lockwood in Model Shop, or even Sharon Tate in this film, he is also afforded the luxury of meandering around town to make the most of the mimesis Tarantino has employed.

He resides in a Jim Rockford-like trailer hitch, beer in hand in front of the TV with his closest companion, his salivating dog Brandy. It instantly provides us something else delectably dilapidated. There’s nothing wrong with DiCaprio but I am drawn to Pitt’s characterization especially.

His loyalty feels indicative of some indestructible set of values and common decency. One might surmise his type of people are representative of all that was simultaneously right and wrong with America. Because it’s true you can start saying that about just about everyone. We all bring our share of good and bad into the world.

Even his detour to the old Spahn Movie Ranch — coaxed to the sketchy commune by Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), a coquettish member of the Mansion family, as he is — keeps with his sense of right and wrong. And even in a foreboding arena such as this, he walks toward it more like Dirty Harry than Jim Rockford. He seems indestructible and for all intent and purposes, he is. We know any attempt on him will be negligible as he casually makes his acquaintances and checks in on the old man (Bruce Dern).

The ending Tarantino wanted to keep hushed up is rather ironic for how unsurprising it really is, when you get right down to it. I hardly mean it as a spoiler. If you’ve seen even a bit of any of his oeuvre, you know what’s coming. The instant tip-off is the song  “12:30 (Young Girls Are Coming to The Canyon)” because if I wanted to make a film about Cielo Dr. or Laurel Canyon there’s no other choice. It’s one of the few instances of near on-the-nose song selection.

The lamentable thing is he somehow leaves behind all the best moments of Once Upon a Time behind — the fairy tale moments even — and winds up with something far more Tarantino-esque. His fans will be praising the glories of his name because he has done it again. That much is certain.

However, others of us will rue the potential wasted. What could have been a far more honest portrait than we might have ever thought the man capable of is like all the rest, a provocative, messy collage of ambitions and years of cultural relics skillfully sutured together.

But it feels again like Tarantino is more a gifted fanboy than a man with a genuine cinematic heart and soul. His aesthetic is cutting all of his heroes into something outrageously bombastic; because he boasts many, both high and low.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this style but after the momentary glimpse into something else, more promising even, it falls short of what could have been. Maybe it’s this reality that plants his dashed fairy tale most firmly in a problematic past we can never have back, even if we wanted it. What’s more, he had to bludgeon the magic out of the movie with an utterly Tarantino crescendo. Nothing can be taken seriously. Nothing is sacred.

3.5/5 Stars

Eighth Grade (2018)

Eighth_Grade.pngIt’s not exactly The Godfather but in its opening monologue, using the awkward tween, like-laden mouthpiece of Kayla, Bo Burnham re-exerts his creative voice on the media landscape. What is more, in a world becoming continually more obsessed with relevance, shareability, and trends, Eighth Grade promises something of actual substance.

Because it dares to do what few films have done (or done well), which is enter the perilous trenches of middle school plagued by all the anxiety, bodily changes, and nervous stuttering that goes with such turbulent territory.

Looking into Kayla’s face for as long as we do — every painful tick and averted gaze — we realize this message to “Be Yourself” on her channel is as much of a rallying cry for her than for anyone else. But that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? We live life for affirmation and to know we are not alone.

I can still recall when I was in middle school (10 years ago now), which must feel like eons for middle schoolers right now. But the big new gizmo was the iPhone. MySpace was just becoming a thing of the past as the Facebook storm began to creep in. By the time of my final year in high school, Instagram was on the scene.

Now people (even me) don’t really use Facebook. We’ve moved onto Instagram, Snap Chat, and new uncharted frontiers. In the social media age proliferating with Instagram stories, Youtube vlogs, podcasts, snap stories and whatever else that is new and novel, there is a hyper-awareness of technology, surpassing anything we have yet to see.

Our daily brand — how we showcase ourselves to the public — is so important as is second-guessing every text and emoji to make sure they make us come off in the right light. In fact, even by the movie’s conclusion, we feel saturated. But the truly sobering aspect is seeing how it so directly overlaps with my own life and the lives of friends as we navigate this age. It’s not too far removed from us.

Eighth Grade is also a film that greatens my resolve to go on a technology detox in some shape or form. Kayla, constantly scrolling, plugged in with earbuds, is not so much a bygone figure but a mild reflection of many of us — even those of us who are older.

But on the Middle School front, there are also instantly recognizable vignettes from rubber bands on braces to health class and superlatives within the student body. It is these relatable elements causing Eighth Grade to mirror Boyhood in how it capably recalls a certain time and place.

And like Edge of Seventeen, there’s a fascination in the bad boy who by any subjective standard is arguably the most uninteresting specimen of the opposite gender in the entire pack. It’s the way our adolescent brains function causing us to channel people through a very specific filter.

Initially, the movie feels more low key and less edgy than aspects of middle school I remember around the fringes. However, there also manages to be ample truth. Though everyone has diverse experiences, there are other elements proving themselves universal.

There’s the invitation to the pool party which is in itself ripe with so many potential humiliations. The over the shoulder slow track as Kayla plods along tentatively is one of Burnham’s favorite tricks to get inside her character — epitomizing just how much of an unconfident, introvert she is among her peers.

It turns out to be a bit like a three-ringed circus but not in some outrageous way — in the everyday idiosyncratic, cringe-worthy way we no doubt experienced in our own lives. We are allowed to observe the silly flirting rituals of the genders. How a girl’s mother invites her 50 “best friends” to the party thereby netting a veritable lode of presents.

Then we are reminded of how fledgling teenagers coexist (or don’t) with their parents. What follow are the well-established angsty, taciturn evasion tactics. It’s one of the strange mysteries of the universe. Everyone else’s parents are fine but the moment we hit a certain age our own parents find a way of wheedling under our skins and our own issues and insecurities meets head-on with these people who love us and often try our patience.

In the darkness, in front of a glowing screen — not only the circadian rhythms are thrown out of whack — but with technology literally when we wake up (phones as alarm clocks) and web surfing before bed, there’s room for concern. There is little space left over for quiet. We are never alone. Never allotted time to simply exist, undistracted.

In one moment Kayla utters the cutest prayer about the first day of her high school “audition.” If we were to take it seriously, her prayer is answered in the form of Olivia, a bubbly high schooler, who instantly puts her shadow at ease. But while Olivia is easy and kind and inclusive, her friends are a shoddy bunch.

Between them, we have the confrontation of this idea of micro generations — how quickly things change now — and how we are “wired differently” based on when we grew up. Middle schoolers versus high schoolers, then college students, and now an old fogey like me out of college.

An awkward interaction becomes progressively creepier in the darkened back seat of a car when she is getting driven home by a boy. In fact, it turns into a traumatic experience. No young woman should have to deal with something like that in an already harrowing world. It breaks the heart because we know there is a truth to it.

Kayla gratefully finds another worthy friend in Gabe — who is the dork to trump all dorks — but he’s also a person of quality because he’s never destructive or narcissistic. There is an authentic warmth to him which makes him worth having in your corner. When he asks Kayla if she believes in God, munching on fries and chicken nuggets it’s matter-of-fact, if not candid.

The conversation feels so forced and awkward but they are both on equal footing, worrying and concerned and so it makes every weird observation or odd behavior part of the new, accepted status quo. None of it matters. They are friends.

These moments trigger brief wisps of memories where I wish I could go back to those days armed with a few of the things I learned now. Being content in my own skin enough to take leaps of faith, being bold, and making an idiot of myself more often. It works when you have people in your circle who aren’t trying to play a superficial popularity contest with you. They’re the definition of what a friend actually is if you look it up in the dictionary, instead of a convenient social conception.

In the end, I couldn’t help wishing Eighth Grade was a television program instead of a film. I’m not sure if this is a negative conclusion to come true. All I can consider are my warm memories for The Wonder Years and then Freaks and Geeks, which both gave us such meaningful articulations of a certain time in life. Kevin Arnold’s voiceovers as his adult self are a thing of legend. And Kayla gives us a similar entry point through her vlog. But it doesn’t feel as visually cinematic as it does episodic.

Burnham’s finest scene is probably the pool party because like other films before it, he’s able to use that arena to give us something about our main character. To some degree though, the film is full of astute and highly personal insights, there is something tiring about montage, vacuous pop music paired with voiceover.

Then again, if there was anyone qualified to look at this material in this manner, it probably is Burnham who himself began as a YouTube personality. There is an instantaneous bit of truth he can inject into the movie and even if this was all it was, there is something to it. If it connects with some kid on a meaningful level, I would consider it to be an unequivocal success.

Elsie Fisher is a name I recall from Despicable Me but in this live-action performance, she brings the crucial unassuming charm to push the role into a believable world. A connection is made thanks to her and when the credits roll we want Kayla to be herself knowing full well how special she is. Mr. Rogers isn’t in vogue with middle schoolers or high schoolers and yet there is such lasting veracity in one of his most famous affirmations.

“You make each day a special day. You know how? By just your being you. There’s only one person in this whole world like you. And that’s you. And people can like you exactly as you are.”

I think we could all use more words like these in our lives. Replacing Twitter feuds with uplifting words of praise seems like a worthwhile tradeoff. It only takes one voice to start a movement.

4/5 Stars

 

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Avengers_Endgame_poster.jpgThe cultural event the whole world seems to have been waiting for has finally arrived. Avengers Endgame is finally open to the public. The secrecy can cease. The debates can begin. Disney can start raking in the billions. And I presume, on the whole, the general public can let out a collective sigh of relief. The studio hasn’t ruined the tightly shepherded franchise and for those with a share of skepticism, Avengers‘s “final chapter” does some things quite well. At the very least, it brings back the epics of old for one evening of entertainment. That in itself is enough of a compliment.

Certainly, at our most jaundice, one might contend Endgame needs to solely succeed in the area of wish fulfillment. Never has a franchise so effectively mobilized and harnessed the fervor of nerd culture around a film franchise (except maybe Star Wars and Disney owns that too).

Many of the same old grievances and world struggles are hashed out around tables and conference rooms led by the opposing ideals represented by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans). It’s true the expositional scenes with sciency jargon have the usual clumsy clunkiness. Films have never been known for their seamlessly technical dialogue.

The Russo Brother’s camera (gotta love ’em) is swirling around as much as ever. The compositions of scenes are rarely something we have time to appreciate as the images fly by with typical rapid-fire cutting. The superpowers are bigger, better, more colorful, and continue to leave the realm of reality behind for CGI visions, all the easier to rectify when you’ve made a mess of the world. Putting Humpty Dumpty back together again is so much easier with computers.

The jokes are there and the cultural references to Back to the Future and others are easy wins without any risk. Likewise, resident superhuman fighter pilot, Carol Danvers (a steely Brie Larson) seems like a convenient enough deus ex machina to piece the narrative back together in the wake of Thanos (Josh Brolin).

Are there plot holes? We’re working in convoluted increments of time so events get dicey and yet the narrative comes out mostly intact leaning into emotion rather than mere systematic logic.

It’s right here where Endgame manages to satiate our desires for — not just closure — but a meaningful denouement to this storyline. I am one of those to decry this lumbering beast at times and still as the hypocrite and movie fan that I am, there’s no way to be totally immune to this cultural force.

In the days when going to the cinema palace for a roadshow and being subjected to an earth-shattering moment seem all but behind us, this epic is the closest thing we have to such an experience in the 21st century. Gone with the Wind, Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars it is not. Still, it means a great deal to this generation. It functions as its own entity — a cultural touchstone for this decade.

The story does well to tap into this zeitgeist. Here’s a forewarning for mild SPOILERS. Endgame takes the genre of a time travel heist to layer upon the world we already know. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) has mostly functioned in the periphery but now he is an integral piece because it is the technology he brings, created by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), giving the remnants leftover a chance to right the past — this is their one-in-a-million chance as indicated by Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Marvel screenwriting vets Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do well in essentially turning their latest story into a riff on a time travel heist film. It fits the context of how they might conceivably bring their friends back — not so much by changing the past — but creating an alternate reality of sorts where things can work out the way they were meant to.

Three task forces must go after the six infinity stones in the years before Thanos got a hold of them. We flashback to 2012 in New York with Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Scott Lang. This self-reflexive nature serves the story but also an increasing sense of nostalgia. Because I remember sitting in that theater having barely seen a Marvel movie before.

There I was in the first row with my friend Mike. I remember playing ultimate frisbee the afternoon before. I had marathoned Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor the previous night. College was starting in a few months. And it was the epitome of a summer blockbuster. This twofold experience is not lost on me. Both the movie and my experiences intermingle. We cannot separate them.

Then, a sullen Thor (Chris Hemsworth) with a Rip Van Winkle beard and giant beer belly must return to Asgard, witnessing its previous glory and seeing his mother (Rene Russo) only hours before she would be killed. They share a poignant moment even as the retrieval of the Infinity Stone and the presence of Jane (Natalie Portman) takes secondary importance. I didn’t mind because all I could remember was sitting in those reclining seats with Adam and Kayt during the midnight showing back in 2013.

Next, we moved on to our first meeting of The Guardians of the Galaxy. It was the summer of 2014 and I was back from college catching up with my buddy Nick. What a pleasant surprise we had watching a talking raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and a tree (Vin Diesel) jam out to Redbone. By this point, the plot feels almost unimportant. It can ride along on the dynamics of characters and my own nostalgia. In some weird way, it felt evocative of simpler times — even just fives years ago. It’s often how we manage to romanticize in hindsight, which works handsomely to the film’s advantage.

I bemoaned the fact in Infinity War, it felt like I didn’t care about these characters anymore — whether they lived or died. Endgame does its darndest to make us remember relationships, friendships, all the things making each one of these superhumans, gods, or otherwise sentient beings like us. The opening pre-credit hook is case and point. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is teaching his daughter to shoot. His wife (Linda Cardellini) is getting the food together for a family picnic. It’s the antithesis of epic. But it feels real. There is instant recognition of stakes.

There didn’t seem to be any finality to Thanos decimating the world because it was a cliffhanger. However, there is no such weakness here. It earns its ending. No after-credits tease. No drawing the story out or pulling punches to undermine the impact of the final scenes. In fact, I’ll rip off the band-aid now. Beloved characters do die and there is no turning back time for them. They’re gone. That’s okay. It feels real and their deaths have meaning. And those still living move forward with lingering sorrow but also the hope of the future. They have roots, they have family, and lives to lead beyond the confines of a film.

Tony Stark and Pepper (Gwenyth Paltrow) have a daughter now. He worries about giving up his family — his last fragment of happiness — in order to alter the earlier events. And yet if we remember the brilliant egomaniac circa 2008, Tony is radically different now. His arrogance gives way to sacrifice, even as meeting his old man makes him appreciate his own dad (John Slattery) and how similar they really are — young fathers trying to do the best for their families as imperfect human beings.

Cap changes too. His almost untouchable emblematic image of Americanism was laid to rest. Not in some anti-establishment, unpatriotic turn. Instead, he became even more human in order to romance the love of his life (and mine!) Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and cherish the dance of life together.

Chris Hemsworth’s fatty Thor might be the finest comic relief in the movie but he manages an evolution of his own as a character, realizing his lifelong need to be lauded by others will no longer rule his own life. He gives up his kingship for a worthy successor, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson).

Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) sibling dynamic is of less importance but Nebula is an integral figure as she tries to reconcile her former self with what she knows she can become. Even as Thanos waits for his pursuers in the biblically inflected “Garden,” tilling the earth, his daughter must come to terms with where she falls along this gradient of good and evil.

But are you ready? For all those who’ve been waiting patiently, you will be rewarded. There is the long-awaited behemoth death match to help realize the childhood aspirations of any boy or girl who has ever dreamt themselves a superhero warding off the evils and saving the universe either vicariously through their action figures or in their own imaginations.

It’s messy, full of explosions, and spastic choreography. Why harp on the faults because if you cannot consider it with the imagination of a child, the movie probably isn’t meant for you anyway. If anything, the eye candy gives an obligatory “moment” to all the heavy hitters, big and small.

Fortuitously, the film allows the time and space to wrap up its character arcs and call back all the relationships built up over 10 years of film. In another movie, the climax would have peaked too early but this picture is making up for two movies, if not far more. There is a great deal riding on these final moments for the very reason we expect satisfaction as an audience.

What felt so exhilarating about Endgame, again, was the very finality. I know there are more projects ahead with Spider-Man, Guardians, etc. but even with characters like Cap and Iron Man, we are reminded that sometimes things cannot go back to the way they were before. Life changes as do peoples and societies.

Cap dancing in the arms of Peggy for one last time (or the first) with the melody of “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” drifting through the air is enough for me. It’s the love story I always seemed to care most about and always longed to be realized in some gratifying form. Am I wrong to say this taps into some innate fairytale-like inclination? To want not just the happy ending but the reunion, the realization of lasting love.

I won’t say the Marvel franchise has always been a cutting-edge statement on the state of our world but it has been in many lives for a very long time — as an extension of our experience — sometimes it’s good and right to bring things to an end. How can you appreciate the times and memories you’ve had and really cherish them without closure? I thank Marvel for respecting its characters enough to give them this — to allow them to rest in peace — at least for the time being. It’s true that after the 22nd film we rested, briefly. Better late than never.

4/5 Stars

Searching (2018)

Searching.pngSearching is a film promoting a certain plotting device in this social media age of ours. An Up-like introduction played through old computer memories and hard drive data is surprisingly poignant. It provides the backstory for a parent-child relationship to play out, albeit with the mechanisms of a thriller.

The opportunity to see an Asian-American family front and center in a film like this is too much to pass up. Once more, after Columbus, John Cho proves — not surprisingly — he’s more than capable of anchoring a movie with a lot of intriguing potential.

Because this is a story of a father who thinks everything is normal — aside from his wife no longer being with them. So when his daughter doesn’t message him one evening and forgets to take out the trash, he shrugs it off as the usual. But the hours continue to tick away and still no response from Margo.  He’s getting annoyed and finally very, very worried.

It reaches the point his daughter is pronounced missing, an investigator named Rosemary Vick comes on the case, and David starts seeing a side of his daughter he never knew existed — namely because in the aftermath of his wife’s death (her mother) — they have never found the time to talk about it.

Instead, like many good conservative families, all put together and everything, they keep on living life like nothing’s wrong while loneliness and different types of rancor take hold. It hits a fever pitch when his daughter Margot is simply not responding and none of her “friends” have seen her in a couple days.

A story about a disconnected father and daughter all of a sudden becomes fodder for our thriller with more heady implications. There are compelling aspects to this film beyond the taut pulses of tension stretched for all they’re worth. I won’t make any claim this is an Ozu-like examination of familial relationships — the palette is not nearly as meticulous — but it’s trying, even going so far as to tackle the aftermath of grief.

More so, Aneesh Chaganty’s movie is made for The Internet Age. We exist in a world full of “catfishing” on the internet. So much gets promoted, lied about, and falsified in this identity theft, fake news, self-promotion era that we now live in. Where we share our condolences and show our grief to gain likes and follows but it feels like there’s no true investment — no authentic concern for loved ones and others being affected.

All these elements could not be more pertinent than right now and Searching makes the point of reminding us how much of this technology has blown up during our very lifetime. In some regards, the course this story takes as far as computer advances and windows desktops are concerned are akin to my life.

There is a chill factor that has the titillating tinge of Gone Girl but unfortunately, it is not capable of paying off in the same bone-chilling manner. The final twist — because there most assuredly is one — feels too much like the conclusion to a movie trying to find the perfect bow to tie everything together. The logic is not quite right as it fits the clean contours of a screenplay more than reality and as a result, it does not feel nearly risky enough.

The underlying problem begins with the concept, because such a conceit as this, playing out over social media, video, and with the always dubious screens on screens approach, runs the risk of feeling like a gimmick. Searching does well to use its assets in the opening minutes, setting up this family and this life and dropping hints of things that don’t seem quite right.

However, it becomes a slave to its own storytelling devices which hinders the scenario instead of aiding in the resolution. Because it is never willing to break out of this perspective even once and resultingly, the narrative does feel quite limiting, even cold.

Surely, technology does this to us — we could easily make this argument — but for the sake of the story, it starts feeling stagnant and repetitive, verging into seemingly more unrealistic territory as time goes on. The gimmick becomes a weakness instead of a powerful tool for creating a world itself. Unfortunately, the film suffers, no fault of Cho who does a valiant job.

Even with technology being so prevalent as a narrative device, it leads to more chinks in the armor so to speak. Because what begins as something fairly authentic and relatable starts to show more and more aspects that don’t feel like our lives anymore. Not simply someone going missing but how technology is utilized even in the everyday. These subsequent scenes feel slightly unnatural whereas the opening interludes where full of recognition with moments we all probably relate to.

The core issue is the human aspect being gone. It loses a heartbeat on its characters who are meant to make this thriller something to really get invested in. Searching never quite got me there, where I felt an innate connection. Again, noting the obvious irony, the screens got in the way.

3/5 Stars

Incredibles 2 (2018)

The_Incredibles_2.jpgPleasant surprises abound in Incredibles 2. What is supremely evident is that Brad Bird still has a pulse on quality storytelling just as the overall animation is blessed by the continual technological advancements in the medium.

Here we are picking up right where the previous film left off with the Parrs donning their disguises to face off against the Underminer to save the city. It works seamlessly as an opening gambit even if it has little bearing on the subsequent plot.

Regardless, it plays like a bit of wish fulfillment and yet somehow we must begrudgingly admit the encompassing magic has somehow left the material. We can never get back the unassuming success of The Incredibles now that it returns as a blockbuster juggernaut. Still, what isn’t lost is the retro cool or the equally frosty camaraderie provided by Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson). Then, the long-awaited return of Edna Mode follows which is equally satiating though far too short.

The creme de la creme was witnessing the full extent of Jack Jack’s immeasurable powers. You can tell the Pixar team has a blast exploring his full potentials and they really hit it out of the ballpark to realize the open-endings they left themselves in the original movie.

However, the film also begins its new chapter by introducing a brother and sister power duo, Winston and Evelyn Dever (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener), who are looking to rebrand the superheroes and sway public opinion to get them reinstated.

Since we still live in a world wary of supers, this is a chance to right the ship and allow the Parr family to exhibit their powers without fear of public backlash. Despite everything they’ve been through as a family, what becomes increasingly apparent is how circumstances haven’t changed much. This is where the new chapter really begins.

On the homefront, they agree Ellen will dawn her Elastigirl attire once more as Bob is faced with the harrowing task of taking care of his children. Jack Jack is literally a bouncing fireball of energy. Violet is having boy problems. Dash is struggling with The New Math without his mother’s instruction. All these issues fall on the man of the house now.

Meanwhile, on the outside, Elastigirl must track down a criminal mastermind, The Screenslaver, who is using television screens to mesmerize audiences through some ultra high-tech form of mind control. But as this is a film full of media and PR tactics, it seems convenient this is all part of a broader conspiracy to discredit supers for good. It’s meeting the Deavor’s plan in an equal and opposite direction — with nefarious implications.

Villainy is always a sense of someone with convictions they believe to be true ultimately getting twisted in ominous ways. It’s easy enough to discern who the culprit is but we can hardly hold it against the narrative.

The story culminates at a summit to promote goodwill between benevolent authority (Isabella Rossellini) and the supers. However, as the result of wide-ranging tampering,  any projected trailer-worthy moments from our three favorite superheroes are essentially killed in a dastardly attempt to sink negotiations.

But what it does do is provide a platform for the Parr kids to strut their stuff. It seems fitting the final act belongs to them following their mother’s ascension to the starring role for the bulk of Incredibles 2. It is the best reminder that the series was always a family affair and far from being just another superhero movie, it was a family movie first and last.

Still, I cannot help but feel something is eerily amiss. Yes, if we reach back into our memories from where we left The Incredibles before it does feel gratifying to add another chapter to their story.

But like Finding Dory from only a few years ago, there’s such a big gap between the chapters, a certain amount of detachment sets in, especially since we are expected to pick up right where we left off. Toy Story 3 takes into account the fact we have matured over the last decade and change.

These newer entries seem to take it for granted that we are near the same places we were years ago. Granted, I understand it’s all but necessary with where we left the Parrs. Still, in a young person’s life seismic shifts have occurred and so if Pixar’s stories have not changed, it feels odd since we have changed so much. We are more out of touch with the content. Maybe we have even moved on.

And yet even as these stories operate as if nothing has changed, there are small things that do feel different. It’s nitpicky to admit but we have a new Dash and other slight changes in the original continuity. True, the Supers were all decimated by the threat of Syndrome but there are really no tie-ins to the heroes of old — I’m talking about the supporting crew aside from Mr. Incredible, Elastagirl, and Frozone.

Because we get this new batch of superheroes who in some strange way feel out of place and we have no reason to like or even care about them. Is this overly harsh? Perhaps but it comes from a space of deep affection for what The Incredibles was able to imbibe and so anything else added to the canon is going to come under a lot of scrutiny.

Where it counts The Incredibles 2 is a worthwhile outing with flashes of nostalgia that can easily pass for rediscovered thrills. Filled in by the stellar, fresh animation and Michael Giaccomo’s score, it might be easy to claim contentment.

That doesn’t mean we cannot still hang on to some of our minor qualms. Because if anything they remain as a testament to how special the original installment was and that is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means we can cherish the first film even more.

4/5 Stars

Leave No Trace (2018)

Leave_No_Trace.pngLeave No Trace instantly reminded me of two distinct reference points. The first relates to a man named Richard Proenneke who lived in the Alaskan wilderness for 30 years building his own cabin and raising his own food in a life of tranquil solitude.

Then, the other comes from a book I read when I was a kid called My Side of a Mountain, written by Jean Craighead George, following a young man who literally goes out into a forest, builds himself a home hewn out of a tree, and subsists off the land. The common themes running through these narratives are already quite obvious.

If you’re like me, especially in this technology-saturated world of ours, sometimes it seems like we’re pretty helpless and ever plugged into our devices. But some of us look at such stories and see a sense of romanticism. It seems like a nice idea — like a picnic or going camping — out communing with nature. Except it only goes so far. We love to read about it and live vicariously through others but we stop short of getting involved ourselves.

The pair existing in Leave No Trace is actually up to the challenge of living this life on the move, out in an Oregon nature reserve, surviving off the land, and in so many ways remaining self-sufficient. They are far closer than many of us can probably ever comprehend. Because everything they do has near life and death consequences. You don’t live as they do without getting close and forming a bond. There is no other way to exist aside from constant symbiosis.

The father, Will (Ben Foster), a former member of the military, has passed down so many practical skills to his daughter, training her up to survive out in the wild. It’s like an extreme version of homeschooling. Tom’s (Thomasin Mackenzie) social skills are lacking but if you stacked her up against anyone her age she’s probably more resourceful and capable than any of them. Because her brain has not been programmed by technology nor is it awash in a world of a vacuous glut of constant stimuli. Their total immersion in nature is refreshing as is their independence and very stripped down lifestyle.

But this journey is particularly worthwhile because it is still set in our world and so these two very unique individuals are forced to brush up against society and the norms in place. Technically, they are trespassing and so in a way they take on the mantle of fugitives constantly on the run as nomads dodging the authorities. You can only hide and break camp and get away so long. Even for people as attuned and regimented as them, there’s always a slip-up.

Now there are good folks in the world — social workers and then common, ordinary people who try and give them a leg up. There are ways to get Tom and her dad back into society without completing severing their ties with the naturalism that is most comfortable for them.

It is a story about a relationship, a very close-knit relationship between a father and daughter. But it becomes a story of maturation as well. Tom realizes her dad is hardwired a certain way. Whether it is restless feet, the demons of post-traumatic stress, or some unnamed specter, he’s constantly dodging, or simply discontent with modern society. He is never capable of settling down.

Meanwhile, she is willing to make allowances and sculpts each place they find together into a new home. Still, it never feels like she’s selling out completely. True, she’s enamored with a new bicycle and mentions in passing how having a phone would make it easier to communicate and yet the core aspects of her character do not waver. Tom still maintains her immense inquisitiveness and affection for all flora and fauna in the great outdoors. She loves dogs, makes friends over rabbits and honeybees. These are the places she is truly in her element.

However, she is also a willing participant, ready to enmesh herself in an ecosystem of people. She gets comfortable around the relationships she makes and yearns to set roots down somewhere. The great revelation comes when she realizes her father can never be that. Instead of always following his lead, she becomes more and more of her own person, making her own decisions. It has nothing to do with a split or not loving him anymore. This is about being mature enough to let other people go and being okay with the realization.

Read only as words on the page, Leave No Trace could be chock full of high drama but it wins its victories through the subtility of its leads and the more nuanced touches to fill in around the naturalism and bevy of sojourning survival tactics. Debra Granik directs the movie with an eye attuned to relationships and while generally unadorned, the movie is full of wonderment in the world’s natural beauty.

It exhibits the lush greenery quintessential to the rainy, fresh imagery that the Oregon coast conjures up. There is arguably no better film that I’ve seen to capture this environ in all its verdant glory. While a completely different sort of film, I could not but for a moment recall one of the greenest films to ever be on the silver screen, The Quiet Man. Because whether romantic or familial there’s no question the milieu of a film is so crucial in fashioning how we perceive a cinematic experience. Like its predecessor, Leave No Trace is a roaring success channeled through tranquil trails of its own creation. Sometimes those trails must break off and lead toward different destinations. Being content in moving on is key.

4/5 Stars

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy_Rich_Asians_poster.pngThe opening gambit of Crazy Rich Asians feels like the scene some Asian moviegoers have been waiting for all their lives. We’re in a stuffy hotel lobby with the snooty staff looking to deny service to Eleanor Sung-Young (Michelle Yeoh) and by the end of the conversation she winds up mopping the floor with them. It’s satisfying to get some sweet revenge but short of being malicious, it’s rewarding, setting the tone for the rest of the experience to come.

No one can understate just how impactful Crazy Rich Asians is for the Asian film community. Images speak volumes in this saturated world of ours and they are a meaningful reflection of the lives we lead every day. Thus, it means so much when they are able to reach out and resonate with a wide audience in a totally satisfying way.

Because doing a cursory look back over the past decades, the last times we had anything close to this in mainstream Hollywood would be The Joy Luck Club and then Flower Drum Song decades earlier and yet these movies were like once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Hopefully, those days — when such films feel like noteworthy outliers — will soon be left behind us.

However, the beauty is that this is not just about Asian-Americans but Asians across the world from all different backgrounds. It is a stepping stone to greater representation and I believe that is all we can ask for. It cannot be the perfect film but it can lead to more opportunities in the future for Asian stars. If the box office returns are any indication, we’re on an encouraging road in this regard. This is a landmark picture for Asian audiences and they have shown their support.

It must be stressed above all else, this is not simply a showcase for Asian representation around a lifeless shell of a movie. This is universal, quality entertainment that can reach out and be relished by everyone. Because it starts with a leading couple who are warm and witty with the chemistry to tie a picture like this together nearly effortlessly.

Constance Wu is Rachel Chu, an Economics professor, smart, pretty, funny — all the superlatives of a rom-com heroine — and she is in love with a seemingly great guy. His name is Nick Young (Henry Goulding) and he’s a handsome stud full of warmth and thoughtfulness.

The most pleasant surprise about our central romantic relationship is how it’s forged between two people who genuinely love each other and treat each other well. It does not rely on contrived misunderstandings or sudden swings in character, making mountains out of molehills for the sake of the story.

Everything that threatens to destroy their relationship is the results of outside stressors. Specifically, because they are having to face Nick’s family together for the first time and the expectations that come in such circles. In his romancing of Rachel, Nick never flaunted the affluence he was born into. Growing up in Singapore his family was not just rich, their lives are absolutely overflowing with decadence. Right here, the film (based off Kevin Kwan’s book) earns its title; they are CRAZY rich.

While they are not the core sources of strife, Rachel and Nick are nonetheless taxed and forced to come to terms with who they really are and what their main priorities will be. It delivers a wonderfully satisfying result. We have this cross-cultural chafing between Rachel who was born of an immigrant mother in America. She’s worked hard to get where she is. Whereas Nick is culturally Singaporean and he is part of a rich tradition that cherishes the good of the family name above all else.

Michelle Yeoh proves a venerable and worthy adversary because she is one of the most authentic kind, a conflicted antagonist who has genuine concerns and capacities for immense affection. The key is a devotion to family duty and loving her son. It’s a very real issue that plagues her and the age-old dynamic when her boy brings a new girl to meet the parents. It just so happens they’re really, really rich.

Many viewers with only a nominal interest will probably be engrossed in this world of complete and total excess. You have opulent clothing, jewels, sprawling mansions, and almost unimaginable riches. It will give a view of Singapore — a place many Americans might be unfamiliar with — that we can probably somewhat call into question. Again, it’s important to stress this is not a blanket representation of the entire country but it does give us some sumptuous sights to enjoy.

You have private islands for bachelorette parties, bazookas going off on gigantic yachts, and any amount of other luxuries. True to form, I was most enraptured by the food. Thankfully, this is not a completely hollow world because we are given a road into this space through the vast array of players. The film is especially rich in vibrant secondary characters who breath humorous and touching life into this tale of family and cultural identity.

There are the catty women looking to tear Jessica down because she had the good fortune to catch Nick instead of them; they even go so far as to leave a bloody, dead fish on top of her bed in an act of vengeance. Then, the gossipy old women can’t help but get distracted during their bible study, sharing the latest tidbits and watching Jessica like a hawk when she makes her first appearance. It’s true everything seems to exist inside this magnified petri dish where every action is being monitored and everyone is just waiting for the wheels to come off.

The men are little better, obsessed with money, personal reputations, and their own perceived masculinity. Nick’s closest cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) is saddled with such a relationship. This B story is not as strong nor as beneficial to the full arc of this narrative but for those who have not read the books (like me), there’s an inclination it is setting up future arcs. Regardless, Gemma Chan is a sympathetic figure and she tries to navigate her own guilt about coming from money and concerns over feeling like she’s emasculating her wet-noodle of a husband.

The true standouts are the showstopping trio of Awkquafina in her blonde wig, Ken Jeong as her CSU Fullerton-graduated father, and Nico Santos as Cousin Oliver the one with the family fashion sense and enough covert gumption to help Rachel stand up to his Auntie.

The final glowing jewel of the movie has to be Lisa Lu who plays Nick’s grandmother. Though a smaller part, she is no less crucial as the family’s oldest matriarch. Lu acts as not only a connection point to the last major landmark of Hollywood Asian-American cinema, The Joy Luck Club, her career also had ties to less heralded but no less historically fascinating work like The Mountain Road where she co-starred with Jimmy Stewart.

Right up until the final shot of  John Chu’s blockbuster romance, I am happily reminded this is an unabashed fairy tale. The wedding scenes have license to feel magical and it’s not merely gaudy decadence anymore but real, sincere fairy dust floating over the moment that makes them feel innately special. Kina Grannis lends her gossamer voice to the moment and even Harry Shun Jr. makes an enigmatic cameo (her costar from Wong Fu’s Single at 30).

I was also somehow strangely entranced by Katherine Ho’s cover of “Yellow” which felt like a perfect capstone. The best movies are an experience and Crazy Rich Asians certainly fits the bill.

4/5 Stars