Yesterday (2019): How I Longed for a Bit More

Yesterday_(2019_poster)The majority of movies have to fight to earn our allegiance. However, Yesterday really does have a foolproof premise because, from the outset, it can bank on a viewership who will already have memories crowded with the Beatles and as the Fab Four play a key role in the story, you already have a huge cross-section of humanity as a potential fanbase.

Then, for good measure, you have Ed Sheeran for any of the younger folks who might not be old enough to remember the good old days. If its goal was to come out a little better than even, it would almost be there before the movie began. Although this might be too cynical an outlook for such a delightfully sentimental endeavor like this, and Sheeran is actually quite likable having a go at playing himself.

Regardless, Yesterday is the definition of a high concept storyline. Imagine something like this. You woke up tomorrow, after a freak of nature, and you were the only person in the world who knew The Beatles. All credibility aside, it does tickle one’s fancy and Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis work accordingly during some of the movie’s best bits.

There are endless possibilities to explore including other pop cultural staples also getting disrupted in a similar vein. The film chooses a few that feel completely arbitrary but no less enjoyable: cigarettes, Coca Cola, Oasis, and you guessed it, Harry Potter.

The other component a Beatles saturated audience will appreciate is Jack Malik’s (Himesh Patel) daily struggles to drum up all the lyrics to tunes like “Eleanor Rigby.” Because, of course, he doesn’t have the safety net of the internet to help him recall “she was picking up rice in the church” or that “Father McKenzie was “darning his socks in a nigh where there’s nobody there.” He must go at it — quite comically — by trial and error.

In this way, Yesterday manages to touch the surface of its potential though it admittedly doesn’t feel complete — at least in a satisfying manner. Granted, I only feel an obligation to point this out since it proves such an agreeable film, directed by a veteran like Danny Boyle, that also happens to be bolstered by the catalog of the greatest band of all-time.

Richard Curtis remains the great British romantic, and we see this throughout the movie. It always seems to be his greatest asset and also his major undoing. In his favor, Patel and Lily James have an unadorned if altogether amiable chemistry. There’s little legwork to get us to like them, and so we can cheer for them unabashedly.

We can say much the same about their peanut gallery (including Sheeran), although there are a few misses. Their roadie Rocky ups the oddball quota as the dysfunctional sidekick while Kate McKinnon, a particularly irksome American road manager, feels like less of a much-needed antagonist and more of a pale imitation to lampoon a self-possessed music industry.

The core romance is a crucial piece, but it felt like it might have come off more substantially had there been more supplementary elements. I can think of a couple areas going beyond simply playing with the new reality more extensively. Themes of fame, art, and authorship in a generation drunk of social media, 15 minutes of fame, and remixes also come to mind. We start to see how it impacts Jack, but it never feels like it gets to its fully-realized potential.

The closest I can come to explaining it is the fact Yesterday never earns its Groundhog Day finale. Because, like Phill Connors, Jack is given an extraordinary power — in this case the Beatles’ catalog — but it never feels like he reaches the same depths of despair before he is granted his revelation and the love of his life.

It feels like Yesterday takes liberties or short cuts with its story, since it thinks we already understand, and instead of wanting it to go anywhere more challenging, we’re here for the music (which isn’t entirely false).

Whereas Jack is only one individual, what made the Beatles was the fact there were four of them. He sings the whole catalog and yet they belong to this group who rode the wave of Beatlemania, fame, critical success, and impending discontentment together.

Malik does get a brief moment with two people who at least share the same knowledge he has and yet in all other regards, he’s by himself as a singer-songwriter. We never really comprehend what one would imagine is the sheer debilitating weight of loneliness in its full force.

I am intrigued by Jack Barth’s original story and where it might have taken the conceit. Logistics or licensing aside, what it Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr actually did come out of the woodwork to oust the imposter (instead of merely being teased in the James Corden dream sequence).

What if the two Beatles fan who actually did still remember the old songs came not bearing olive branches in the form of a yellow submarine, but some malicious intent? It’s not much and yet would it have at least given Jack more hurtles to work past?

As is, a lot of the movie feels like clip shows featuring montages played to iconic tracks. It’s easy enough to get away with it because the songs are beautiful, Patel is charismatic and a fine vocalist and nothing else ever ruins the mood.

SPOILER ALERT: What could be better than bringing John Lennon back from the dead to share a bit of sage advice to the pilgriming stranger he doesn’t know? He feels like a wonderfully insignificant man of 78 living a peaceful life of contented solitude. It’s another agreeable invention.

And yet, if I’m honest, I’d rather listen to McCartney’s own remembrance “Here Today.” Then, instead of seeing Jack go gallivanting around Liverpool for inspiration or trying to fake to Ed how he was inspired to write “Hey Jude,” I’d rather see Paul return to his roots with James Corden in Car Pool Karaoke.

That’s it isn’t it? The Beatles are so much about context and what we bring to them. In one way, Yesterday works so well because even the titular track allows us to wax nostalgic by tapping into what we carry with us.

But it can’t quite get us over the hump, because it is an imitation; it is not the real thing, and part of what makes these songs great is where they come from and the lads who brought them into the world. Their fingerprints are all over every one and so history is not some plug-and-chug phenomenon where any four fellows could have been stuck together to become the Beatles.

Jack realizes something along these lines, which is part of the reason he makes the final decision he does — to crowdsource them, in a sense. But for the sake of the movie, there’s nothing to be done about it. We’ve spent the entire film listening to a stand-in, though the love story does leave us some breadcrumbs to pick up and feel warm and fuzzy about.

It was partially a joke when I told myself the end credits were the best part, but I got to listen to the real “Hey Jude” for seven glorious minutes. There’s nothing that can beat that. If you’re a Beatles fan with a generous streak Yesterday might very well be an unmitigated delight. There’s a lot to like. Whether it’s entirely greedy or not, I found myself wanting a bit more.

3/5 Stars

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019): An Adequate Force Awakens Sequel

Star_Wars_The_Rise_of_Skywalker_poster.jpgYou might say I turned up to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker out of respect for the dead. Because we’ve lost many of our beloved figures. Han. Luke. Carrie Fisher. Peter Mayhew. Kenny Baker. You get the idea. And from the rumblings I couldn’t avoid hearing, it felt like Star Wars might be dead on arrival too.

After seeing the final installment of Disney’s Star Wars trilogy, my reaction is hardly so dramatic, and you can judge whether that is a good or bad portent. In many ways, it succumbed to all the fears a myriad of voices had shouted out in years gone by. In others regards, it still managed to be entertaining, albeit with a host of caveats.

There’s a nagging conflict inside of me not unlike the dark or the light side of the force — this tug-of-war between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). I want to enjoy Skywalker for all its delights and at the same time, it does feel like a bit of an out of body experience.

Because I look at this film, and it zooms by. There’s plenty of spectacle, likability, and adorableness to get us in the seats; it’s so easy to pass over the lapses (as it is with just about anything when its played against John Williams’ magnum opus).

Highlights include the return of Lando (Billy Dee Williams), another cameo worthy of a buzz of adulation. In this episode, C3PO (Anthony Daniels) has more license to jabber on (though R2D2, yet again, feels decidedly less important). There’s also a particularly hallowed place for Carrie Fisher within the film acting as a nice tribute.

The relationship between Rey and Keylo remains the most dynamic and intriguing element, carrying itself through the series as they maintain their intimate connection through the Force.

Daisy Ridley was positioned as the heartbeat of the franchise, and she more than proves her mettle navigating the last leg of the journey with an earnest conviction. Adam Driver is her near equal. Not perfect, but there’s something not entirely phoned in about him, an issue Poe (Oscar Issac) and Finn (John Boyega) sometimes fall prey to. Invariably, Rey and Keylo have it out in a turbulent lightsaber duel recalling some of the epic glories of old.

However, now that the third and final trilogy is done, it does feel a bit haphazard, like it was dashed off without giving immense thought to how all the pieces fit together. Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) feels all but cast aside, her place filled by two new strong female characters (Keri Russell and Naomie Acker) not without their charms, but really it’s too little too late. One questions why they showed up now and not in The Force Awakens.

A continuous trail of blatant MacGuffins and exposition along with a deus ex machina in the form of a giant convoy stuff the story end-to-end. To that point, the finale feels drawn out in a cavernous throne room high on mind-numbing spectacle but somehow empty of the genuine conflict I felt when Luke faced Darth Vader or when father saved son.

Did it all feel like a lie after what Rian Johnson’s film had suggested? Was it like a last-minute patch job to bring Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) back for an ending that looked eerily familiar, simply drawn out on a bloated scale? Somehow bigger explosions and darker interiors didn’t help the film’s case. It’s like anything. Bigger isn’t always better. Excess can make it lose its significance.

Because while Star Wars was always a broad galaxy, it remained grounded through characters and very personal stories we could relate to about family and friends. And whether it was entirely true or not, it always felt like George Lucas was some kind of marionette master who had at least an inkling of a plan for his world.

With Disney’s trilogy, we have been left wondering and as a result, there’s been a general lack of cohesion, which has been aggravated the further we’ve gone into this revamped franchise. Abrams feels like he’s making a sequel to The Force Awakens and thus if Rian Johnson’s movie didn’t exist, it might mesh better. But The Last Jedi does exist as is, and it deserved a finale worthy of the questions it dared to ask.

I’ll do something I’ve never done before by quoting myself from an earlier review. Because with The Last Jedi I said all of  Rian Johnson’s breaks with tradition would be worth it if the subsequent film could stick its landing:

I resolutely admire Rian Johnson for his choices because it seems like he’s made a Star Wars film that is hardly cookie cutter in nature and the fact that it will not please everyone is a marvel (no pun intended) given the usual reality that blockbusters are supposed to be easy on the eyes while hardly divisive. Though flawed, it’s a relatively bold movie in running time, in how it utilizes its characters, and ultimately how it chooses to depart from its longheld traditions.

The Rise of Skywalker falls back on what is, for the most part,  familiar. This partially comes down to giving J.J. Abrams the impossible task. Instead of saying this is the end of one trilogy, it’s implied this is supposed to be the thrilling summation of eight other films spanning over 42 years. That’s like catching force lightning in a thimble. Of course, he’s not going to be able to pull it off.

I very rarely cast dispersions on anyone, but I think it’s safe to direct our ire toward Disney if there is any blame to be had. Time has reminded us over and over again, Disney was more invested in their lucrative commercial investment than giving us the best story they could.

Marvel was the initial template, and we’ve seen films of wildly uneven quality with the worst functioning as soulless potboilers made to order on schedule. Star Wars is too dear for me to riddle it with such criticisms. It’s a fault and a bias to be sure, but I will say, out of any of the Star Wars films, Skywalker comes the closest to what I feared. I remember vividly my reactions to Rogue One in 2016, a film I modestly enjoyed for exploring New Hope nostalgia:

My loyalty towards the franchise (more so than DC or Marvel or Star Trek) makes me also fear the continued mechanization of this world into a continuing box office cash cow. With film after film, story after story, it’s indubitable that Star Wars too will lose its allure. It will be run into the ground or become besmirched by some egregious plot hole, discontinuity, or for some far worse fates…

Even as Rian Johnson boldly ran roughshod over Star Wars lore, it feels as if this final film has done it a major disservice by falling back on the status quo. It goes beyond plot points for me. The writing off of Snoke is easy enough, even the clarification on Rey’s parentage (Obi-Wan pulled a similar trick on Luke if you remember).

But it’s the fact that none of this film’s digressions carry more than an ounce of surprise or what we might term movie magic. There’s nothing to take our breath away or make the hair stand on end. Everything it has in terms of charm and charisma is pent up inside those characters — those protocol and astromech droids, that wookie, etc. — and I do love them as much as anyone else.

Still, I was ill at ease trying to appreciate the moments we’ve been granted and feeling, simultaneously, they’re not quite right. We deserved something better from Disney who has served us up a Ghost of Star Wars Past.

President Lyndon B. Johson famously said something to the effect that when he lost Walter Cronkite on the Vietnam issue, he had lost public opinion. There’s a related point here somewhere, and here it is.

While my older brother’s not quite Walter Cronkite, I consider him one of the most thoughtful, well-versed Star Wars fans out there. He pored over the books, played the card games, collected the collectibles, and will no doubt remain a resolute Star Wars fan for years.

However, his reaction to this latest film was lukewarm at best. If I didn’t make it clear already, he loves Star Wars. In my little pocket of the world and the manner in which I perceive this galaxy as a very real and personal entity we cherished, it feels like someone has lost.

If not the Rebels, or Disney (who will rake in more money than ever), then it’s the fans who had such a profound affection for this franchise they wanted something more than a purely wish-fulfilling imitation. It felt so close yet so far from a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. The movie emphatically proclaims “The Dead Speak!” Sometimes it’s best to let them rest in peace. Something I’m not sure Disney understands or is willing to do.

3.5/5 Stars

Marriage Story (2019) and Being Alive

MarriageStoryPoster.pngIn full transparency, I’ve often considered Noah Baumbach as heir apparent to Woody Allen and a lot of this attribution falls on their joint affinity for New York City. It is the hub of their life and therefore their creative work even as the broader art world often finds itself seduced by the decadent riches of Los Angeles.

Allen most famously set up the dichotomy between the two places in Anne Hall (1977), where Annie and Alvy ultimately part ways because the woman he liked decided she likes L.A.; he loathes it above all else.

It’s hard to get these elements out of my head even as this film features two former Allen collaborators in Scarlett Johansson and Alan Alda. And yet, to his credit, Baumbach has allowed for a more robust dialogue between two people. It’s not merely a humorous juxtaposition, it becomes indicative of so much more.

Audiences should be forewarned Marriage Story is about the messiness of divorce full of hurt, troubled communication, and explosive moments of lashing out. It also features some of the most substantive and sustained pieces of fearlessness you’re probably going to see this year in terms of acting.

Scene after scene is carried by one or two performers in tandem. In fact, with the extended takes, fluidity, and intimate interiors, the relationship between film and the stage is close, going so far as to break up sequences with curtain-like fade-outs.

Yes, this makes Marriage Story unwieldy as it ranges all over the place. It somehow strikes this agreeable adherence to Baumbach’s intuitions as both writer and director, while still relying wholeheartedly on what Adam Driver and Johannson bring to their respective roles.

Right at the center of it all are their soulful performances lithely running the gamut from devoted affection to bitter resentment. But it’s the notes in between which become so crucial. Because it goes beyond mere technical ardor; there’s another kind of palpable investment present.

Their story is set up exquisitely by the words they use to recount one another. Perfect trailer fodder in fact. What they provide are observational affirmations of each other’s characteristics. Nicole is an actress. She is a mother who plays. She’s brave, knows how to push her husband, and she’s competitive. Charlie is a theater director. He really likes being a dad. He’s driven, neat, and always energy conscious. He’s also very competitive.

However, they never get to share these words because now they currently sit in the therapist’s office drifting apart. It looks like they’re already too far gone to salvage the thing. What could have been the passionate musings of love letters exchanged in a bygone era, instead find them at the precipice of separation.

The point of no return is dropped in Charlie’s lap in an oddly hilarious scenario of dramatic irony — somehow worthy of a Hitchcockian time bomb — where Nicole enlists the help of her good-natured mother (Julie Haggerty) and sister (Merritt Weaver) to help her serve notice. As can be expected, it unfolds in the most cringe-worthy and somehow the most perfect manner to suit the story.

It’s one showcase among a plethora of long takes supplying a formidable framework for the script to rest on. As such, it relies so heavily on its stars to be up for the task and to any degree we might adjudge as an audience, they come at it with impeccable aplomb.

Soon what looked to be an amicable dialogue between two rational human beings is being overhauled with lawyers. We begin to see how what started as a riff, between two solitary individuals, soon becomes complicated by well-meaning legalese, fees and the aggravation incurred from the middleman now bargaining between the former couple.

It gets to the point the relationship feels so far removed from where it began. You begin to question if any of it was worth it. Words get twisted. Feelings get hurt. They’re doing things because their lawyers say to and they become suspicious of motives. I was reminded of how our language makes it so arguments are literally equated to a war. There are winners and there are losers as the two sides become further alienated. The void in the courtroom never felt greater.

Laura Dern has an impeccable pulse for the kind of cajoling attorney with business acumen and bedside manner to get what she wants. Namely, the best for her clients. She’s ruthless yes, but it’s all within the confines of the game. There’s still a person there who has a life outside the 9 to 5.

Ray Liotta seems equally built for this cutthroat business-minded artificiality. We despise him even as we realize — much like Charlie does — he’s very good at his job. If you want to get out with you’re shirt, you’ve got to put up and buy into the game.

Alan Alda gets a bit as a sagacious saint of a man who plays as the antithesis of a lawyer (or any of his rivals). His spot feels like a hallowed place in a film filled with other prominent names who probably get to do more. He gets to be warm and wise, reminding us why he is such a dear soul to us all.

I came into Marriage Story expecting callbacks to Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979). Certainly, this is a film about parents and divorce and how they must tiptoe around their issues for the sake of their kids. But this is a bit different than the Hoffman picture where Meryl Streep at times feels non-existent. At least I always remember it as a father-son film.

This rendition is meant to provide equal footing two both parents with the onus of victimhood and blame distributed. Because that’s just it. You can’t draw it up so easily. Everyone contributes to the problem in some way.

There are also no clean breaks because time has a curious way of working on the human psyche. When you’re used to spending time with someone, you know all their quirk, and it’s hard to let them go. They drive you up the wall, and they fill you with that electrifying energy sending your heart aflutter. Their family becomes your family. You can’t snap that wishbone without some residual effect. Try as you might, it’s impossible to totally obliterate the memory.

It feels as if Scarlett Johansson has laid herself bare, extending herself like never before, and we see the flaws coursing through Adam Driver to go with his finest everyman attributes. Their urgency and honesty become brutally transparent and that is the utmost of compliments.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Contempt (1963) — Jean-Luc Godard’s film about moviemaking that famously documents the dissolution of a marriage (between Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli), taking place within their house in one extended scene. These are the lengths Baumbach reaches towards in his own way through blocking and the relationship between his stars and the camera.

In one climactic confrontation among so many corkers, Driver and Johansson have it out in a fully ballistic, double-edged assault unearthing every wound and targeting every sore spot imaginable. Hurting each other in ways only they know how because they’ve been so intimate for so long. It ends with them red-eyed and huddled together on the floor totally spent. This is never what they wanted nor what they expected.

Where is the ending exactly? Because the film is substantial; it covers so much territory and the themes are wide-ranging from parental devotion to lingering love under new parameters. But with everything the movie allows us to be privy to, it’s obvious there is no easy resolution. Thus, with so many disparate reference points thanks to 80s icons like Julie Haggerty, Wallace Shawn, and Laura Dern, why not mention something altogether different.

In Hirokazu Koreeda’s After The Storm (2012), you have a vagrant husband trying to win back the affections of his wife even as they figure out how to raise their kid. They’ve entered a new chapter of existence, and sometimes that’s hard to cope with. So when they walk off into the sunset it’s hopeful, but something’s inexplicably altered. There is reconciliation and yet they cannot undo everything. This movie, again, is also about moving forward from the most painful fission imaginable: between two human beings. It’s a work in progress.

To this point, I’m fascinated by the choice to have the movie called Marriage Story. Because if we wanted to, we could look at it purely from the point of view of divorce. After all, surely this is the all-important final outcome. How could we see it any other way? And yet it becomes so difficult to break two human beings apart from one another.

Interrelated is the impassioned statement made by Nora in one of her sole lapses in composure. Within an otherwise irreligious picture, she says the following:

“The basis of our Judeo-Christian whatever is Mary, mother of Jesus, and she’s perfect. She’s a virgin who gives birth, unwaveringly supports her child, and holds his dead body when he’s gone. And the dad isn’t there…God is the father, and God didn’t show up. So you have to be perfect, and Charlie can be an f—-up and it doesn’t matter.”

The misunderstandings in her statement feel immaterial, and I’m not invested in pulling them apart now. Instead, it teases some private hurt we cannot hope to know, but it also triggers ideas some might recall from the Judeo-Christian texts, which are pertinent to the conversation.

In discussing the union of marriage, it says, “A man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This is both mentally, spiritually, emotionally — in every way imaginable. People are meant to be together. But if Marriage Story is a reminder of anything, it’s that pride, pettiness, and imperfection get in the way of our joy.

For Charlie, for Nicole, for all of us. It also cannot completely quell the love we breed in our hearts. Yes, our love is imperfect; still, it can see us through a lot. It can be a beautiful even an extraordinary entity. It’s part of being alive.

4/5 Stars

 

Someone to hold me too close.
Someone to hurt me too deep.
Someone to sit in my chair,
And ruin my sleep,
And make me aware,
Of being alive.
Being alive.
Somebody needs me too much.
Somebody knows me too well.
Somebody pull me up short,
And put me through hell,
And give me support,
For being alive.
Make me alive.
Make me alive.
– Being Alive

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019): Mr. Rogers as The Helper

A_Beautiful_Day_in_the_NeighborhoodAs of late, it feels like the world has entered a bit of a Mr. Roger’s Reinnaissance. He’s been gone since 2003 and yet last year we had Morgan Neville’s edifying documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? There are podcasts galore including Finding Fred and then Mr. Rogers’s words, whether before the Senate Committee or pertaining to scary moments of international tragedy, seem to still provide comfort and quiet exhortation to those in need.

Now to the array we can add A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Although partially fictional, it borrows inspiration from Fred Rogers and his real-life friendship with journalist Tom Junod. Their interview and subsequent meetings became the basis of a front-page spread in Esquire Magazine. That was back in 1998.

Surely, this cannot be a mere chance at publicity. Too much time has passed in this regard for it to make a shred of commercial sense. And yet here we are in 2019 welcoming in yet another tribute to Fred Rogers. The man who taught many of us once upon a time (including this viewer) what it means to realize you are special, that there are ways to deal with feelings, and what a lovely thing it is to be a good neighbor and reach out an inquisitive hand to learn and ask questions.

What Marielle Heller’s gently radical film does well is capturing the spirit of the man. He was always so caring and engaged with others as a listener and concerned friend. There was real intentionality present and a candor toward both children and adults within him. But he was also humble and deferential. These qualities are much admired and somehow so difficult to replicate in our own lives. But the beauty of this portrait is the reminder that no one’s life is picture-perfect.

Lloyd Vogel (Mathew Rhys) is a man with a lot of pent-up, unresolved anger. He’s married now and has a child. But he still holds onto the grief of a beloved mother who died when he was young and an estranged father (Chris Carter) who was never around and is now trying to make an effort at reconciliation in his old age. Lloyd must come to terms with his own issues. But simultaneously his editor has enlisted him to write something out of his comfort zone. It’s an article on a hero: Fred Rogers. Here is the crux of the story.

So Mr. Rogers isn’t necessarily the focal point inasmuch as the film has his fingerprints all over it. In screenwriting terms, he is the helper and in life or film, there is no better title for the man. Because in Lloyd’s own family issues and private hurts, we see a projection of all of us sitting out in the dark.

In fact, just as the man in the red cardigan spoke to us throughout our lives, he’s speaking to Lloyd; he forms a relationship. This is not a television neighbor. He is a cinematic one, but it’s purely semantics because it doesn’t make much difference when Mr. Rogers is concerned. As you might have guessed, he likes Lloyd just the way he is. We witness the man change from a cynical, distant workaholic to someone who is trying to change and reach out to others in love. It’s imperfect, but it’s a start.

Tom Hanks in many ways is too much Tom Hanks for me to lose him in Mr. Rogers and this works out fine. Again, he captures the spirit of the man. As best as can be gathered, it comes down to two integral pieces. First, there is the genuine candor.

The words coming out of his mouth, the salutations, the affirmations, even the words spoken with a puppet on-hand (like Daniel Striped-Tiger) run the risk of sounding insincere and making a joke out of Mr. Rogers. But that would run contrary to the man himself who gave attention and respect to everyone no matter who they were. Thankfully, Hanks extends his subject the same courtesy. The words leaving his lips don’t sound exactly like our television neighbor, but they feel like him.

Equally important, Hanks gets down the rhythm of Mr. Rogers. So much about him comes down to how to utilize time, slowing down and being okay with stillness and silence. Heller aids with one brazenly unassuming scene where Rogers entreats his friend to take a quiet minute (as he famously did at the Emmys) to think about the people who got him there. The movie obliges including a brief cameo of fan favorites Joanne Rogers and David Newell. Again, in 2019 it all feels a bit quaint and yet — if I speak for myself — it’s also appealing.

Here is the man who built his life on disciplines. He woke up early to pray for his acquaintances and read his morning devotionals. He swam daily at his local pool. Letter correspondence was a rich part of his relationships. But they weren’t disciplines for mere discipline’s sake. All these things beget goodness and kindness toward other people. Because Fred followed the greatest rule: Loving others as you love yourself.

Yet the movie points out he wasn’t a saint. Not that there are hidden caveats to his characters. (For the record, he wasn’t a marine and he didn’t have tattoos.) Rather, he was human like each of us, and it is possible to grow in these same skills no matter the skeletons we have in the closet and the messiness under our rugs.

The movie has a couple bizarre dream sequences, but these are Lloyd’s and not Mr. Rogers. They are part of his emotional journey, tapping into his various attributed issues going back into his own childhood and a bit of his mind’s own neighborhood of make-believe.

Otherwise, Heller’s film does well to bring satisfying touches of the original show. There’s that unmistakable tint to the camera on-set that takes me back. That front entryway. The closet. The zip of the zipper. The toss of a shoe.

The script penned by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue uses this familiar format of the program as a comforting window into Lloyd’s story. It allows us back into the world even as it puts us in touch with someone existing in our own.

Miniatures were also always an integral part of the show indicating Mr. Rogers’s home and where he was off to in the neighborhood. The movie entends this by utilizing models to chart the majority of Lloyd’s travels between Pittsburgh and New York. One other unique commute has Lloyd and Mr. Rogers receiving an impromptu serenade of “Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” on the Subway.

Fittingly, music holds such a special place in the film, both the television set sequences and outside its scope. Johnny Costa’s distinct jazz playing always colored and left such memorable accents on the show’s myriad of interludes, whether it was the opening and closing tunes, the skittering of fish, or ready-made trolley sound effects. Mr. Rogers had such a gift for music as well. His compositions and aphorisms were deceptively simple but filled with so many brilliant articulations of content (“Everything mentionable is manageable”).

If they are gauged toward children that’s wonderful. I was struck by “Just Do It” playing over the credits — a less-remembered song I probably hadn’t heard since childhood; it all flooded back in a euphoric moment of recollection. Only as an adult do you begin to realize the impact this man had, how formative a television program could be. We want to write it off and cast off “childish things” and yet give him a second look and you realize how timeless he is. Why else would we be coming back to his well of modest wisdom?

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence, in a landscape that feels more antagonistic, mean-spirited, and divisive than ever, Mr. Rogers feels like a beacon from a happier time. During the film, I thought 400 words were far too short to chronicle the man. Sure enough, Lloyd took 10,000 instead. I would probably be capable of doing much the same. I can only gather many of us have a story about Mr. Rogers and how he impacted us.

For me, it was a photo signed and addressed in his immaculate calligraphy: With kindest regards from Fred Rogers. That was in 2003. He would pass away from stomach cancer in February of that same year. I lost a good friend that day…

When I was frightened after 9/11 he provided reassurance, when I doubted he reenforced my worth, when I didn’t know how to love my neighbor he showed me the way with graciousness. Because the brilliance of Mr. Rogers is how he backed up words and songs with action and feelings of radical affection. I want to be like that. I want us all to be like that. It can still be a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Sometimes we just need a reminder. We are all human. Just like Mr. Rogers. But we’re also special just the way we are.

4/5 Stars

Jojo Rabbit (2019): Taika Waititi’s Newest Coming-of-Age Story

Jojo_Rabbit_(2019)_poster.jpgWe must acknowledge the elephant or rather, the rabbit in the room. Grappling with the intersection of Nazis and humor has always been a loaded and controversial topic. But usually, it fosters conversation nonetheless so here’s an attempt to provide some meager context.

The Great Dictator (1940) and To Be or Not to Be (1942) are two of the most prescient films to come out of their era, years before we would get the campy buffoonery of Hogan’s Heroes (1965-71) or Mel Brooks’ irreverent breakout The Producers (1968). Even something more squarely dramatic like Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997) is still buoyed by laughs. Understandably, with each of these examples, there have been detractors who have called into question the ways in which they tackle the historical moment given the subject matter.

I am not here to tell anyone they are wrong. There’s also the reality that the issues being wrestled with are still very real, and even after 75 years, in many cases still very raw. All of this must be taken into account.

For instance, I recall the first time I learned about Alfons Heck, trained up from the age of 6 to be a loyal cog in the Nazi propaganda machine. Only years later, did he come to terms with all the lies he and his generation of German youth were being peddled. He subsequently toured the university circuit in the states with Holocaust survivor Helen Waterford denouncing the ills of ideological brainwashing, lest we forget it ever existed.

Or I was reminded of Hans Detlef Sierck (better known as renowned film director Douglas Sirk), who after marrying a Jewish woman, was blocked by his first wife, an ardent Nazi supporter, from seeing their son Klaus. The boy would become a child star in Nazi cinema, although he eventually died in combat in 1944. Sirk never saw him again.

These are stunning reminders of how virulent ideologies can tear lives apart and this is much of what Jojo Rabbit occupies itself with. But the difference is taking the negativity and making it positive. This is a tale about empathy, understanding, anti-hate if you will. If you accept the term leniently, it is a satire, but I tend to see that word coming with a bite or an irony (not unakin to Sirk or Billy Wilder).

However, this story is mostly full of warmth, good-humor, and because this is a Taika Waititi production, wackiness. Mind you, that’s generally a compliment. The opening refrains of “Komm, gib mir deine Hand,” known in the English-speaking free world known as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” equates the nationalistic fervor to Beatlemania, recontextualizing the history but also giving it a raucous vibe. 

Consequently, some people will find Jojo Rabbit at best inane and inconsequential and at worst, offensive — as is the case when anything as sensitive as the Nazis is brought to the fore. In an age of political correctness, it’s a film trampling a danger zone where racial epithets and maledictions leave the tongues of oafish buffoons. One decidedly ironic line curses a “female, Jewish Jesse Owens.”

This is where the movie and Taika Waititi — as an emblematic supporting character — are able to succeed. It sings with a warm benevolence that proves unerringly sweet. Empathizing with those with whom we would do well to connect with and undermining the villains’ remnant of cultural clout.

It starts with our hero Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) a kind-hearted young boy. His is a bildungsroman story like we’ve seen time and time again (even from Waititi). Because he is a creature of innocence, despite what the culture leads him to believe about himself. Because the difference is he, like Heck or Sierck, is coming to age in the fanatical regime of the Nazis where he is being trained up to be a good little soldier.

He’s adorably inept and faint of heart like any young lad dealing with the peer pressure around him. As a 10-year-old he still can’t tie his shoelaces nor can he muster up the needed brutality to kill a bunny during the local war games. His only real friend is the rolly polly, bespectacled Yorki. He also has an invisible friend: the imaginary dopey incarnation of Adolf himself, portrayed by Waititi.

In a sense, taking this prominent role on, with his inherent slapstick and humor, allows the director to possess the man and deconstruct him, ridiculing him from within. It’s not elemental but like many of the Nazis portrayed in Hogan’s Heroes, Waititi has some Jewish heritage, further underlying his caricature.

Rebel Wilson is good for a few of her typical bawdy punchlines and Steve Merchant as the creepily skeletal, smiling Gestapo man manages to walk the film’s tightrope of humor and lingering menace quite well. Sam Rockwell is another walking joke waiting to go off, and yet even he is allowed moments of warmth and ultimate redemption.

Scarlett Johannson asserts herself in a maternal role as one of the legitimately decent people in the movie. Whether or not it’s one of her best performances, I’ve never seen her quite like this and that is compliment enough. She reminds us, through her affectionate devotion toward her son, the powerful, if monumental, undertaking parenting can be. How goodness and decency can cover a world of sins. How laughter and yes, even dance, can be a window to some small semblance of humanity.

One is also reminded Waititi is a genuine storyteller because it’s a tenuous line to balance humor with the bleakness, injecting the story with tension and tragedy in equal measures. You half expect the film to skimp on the ruthless nature of Nazism in favor of far easier put-downs. Instead, it searches out hope within the world and less fickle themes, without entirely dismissing reality.

Thomasin Mackenzie (the brilliant actress from Leave No Trace) goes part of the way in making this possible. Because she is the girl in the walls. She’s not a rat. As Jojo comes to realize, she’s a person. A victim certainly, but she’s also got strength and defiance. After all, her people have a history of wrestling with angels. She comes out of the same hardy tradition.

What she brings into the picture is a complexity to upend everything in Jojo’s fanciful mind. What first begins as a horror trope quickly evolves almost reluctantly into mutual understanding. If his relationship with his mother holds such a stake in his life, this curious new friendship is the crutch of the film, containing its message.

In the final moments, life is back to some form of normalcy. They stand out on the streets letting their bodies free for the first time set to David Bowie’s “Helden” (or “Heroes”). Instantly this feels like Perks of Being a Wallflower and yet somehow this kind of association doesn’t feel wrong because I think Waititi worked so hard to not make this just another WWII movie cut out of the same mold.

It has this universal feeling of adolescence while not totally disregarding history and yet it’s free and comfortable enough to pull it out of its context and flair it with colors and touches of humor. The joy is how heart and hope are the final building blocks even beyond the laughter. The key is how it’s never at the true expense of the victims. Somehow it’s more tender than I was ever expecting. It wants to continue the conversation. Whether or not you agree entirely with its methods, it does seem like a noble task to undertake.

3.5/5 Stars

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 of 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 (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

the florida project.png

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 seem 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