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A Simple Truth is Simply Wonderful

4 Stars

There is nothing simple about this film.  In this version of Darcey Bell’s book of the same title, Director Paul Feig (“Bridesmaid” – one of my favorites) works that wonderful gift he has of introducing punchy comic lines and scenes amid the serious and not so serious foibles we all suffer from as human beings.  Nothing is as simple as it seems at first blush.

Anna Kendrick (“Perfect Pitch”) is Stephanie, an amped up version of a super mom who hosts a daily “Vlog” – giving advice to other trapped at home moms.  Stephanie is the bane of other stay at home mom who can’t quite get it together to meet the high bar of motherhood that Stephanie has set.  You’d be a bit outraged, too – especially when Stephanie signs up for every committee in her son’s kindergarten simply because she sees herself as the best qualified.  Incidentally, when we see the kindergarten class, they have just celebrated International Foods Day with exotic tidbits from a variety of culinary worlds.  Who does this?  What mother could keep her kids from hiding their green peas under their mashed potatoes or feeding them to the dog?  So right off the bat, you know this movie is going to have a number of comedic twists and turns.

But the real twists and turns are when June-Cleaver-Stephanie watches Emily (Blake Lively – “The Shallows”) emerge from her tiny sportscar in stiletto heels and a decolletag-defying costume in a blinding rainstorm to pick up her kindergartener – the best friend of Stephanie’s son.  Emily holds a high-pressure PR job in some sort of fashionable corporation.  We don’t really know what she does, but it’s so vital to the company that she rarely needs to show up for work as she is out there saving the company single-handedly.

But as far apart as two individuals can be – the fashion, gin-loving sophisticate and the perpetually cheery professional housewife/mother – the two share a variety of secrets and become good friends – partly because neither of them really has any other friends.  When Emily mysteriously disappears, Stephanie tearfully goes on her Mommy vlog and tells her audience (does anyone really watch this?) that her best friend has gone missing.  Fast forward and a whole host of people are following Stephanie’s vlog and wondering what happened to Emily.  Stephanie begins to unravel the clues.

Without causing a spoiler here, let me say that Emily’s writer/husband Sean (Henry Golding – “Crazy Rich Asians”) and Emily have a moment or two as Stephanie takes over Emily’s household in caring for Emily’s son.  Who can blame him?  Sean has probably never witnessed a homecooked meal prepared in the futuristic stone and steel kitchen.  Who is to know what the power of a meatloaf may be to a starving man?  So powerful are Stephanie’s domestic talents, Sean is finally able to break free from his long sustained writers block.  Housewives of the world, unite!

The laughs and the moments of comedic-noir are many in this delightful movie.  Kendrick really steals the show as she evolves from a fastidious plastic mother to something a bit more life-like and human.  As for Emily – she is really always true to her character – even though we don’t know who she really is and what sins of the past have brought her to this place.  Do see this wonderful movie – one of a kind in this film-starved world.

Searching – a Modern View

Searching

3 Stars

What is so great about this engaging mystery is that it is played out entirely on screens – computer screens, TV screens, mini-cam screens.  It is so unique and engaging that I am inclined to overlook the obvious shortcomings in the script.

John Cho plays David Kim, whose teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La) goes missing.  Detective Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned to the case and is constantly on line with dad David in search of clues as to the mysterious disappearance whom everyone purports to know something about but really knows nothing.  But it is dad’s investigative work by accessing his daughter’s laptop that helps break the case.

When the story opens, Kim’s wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) has been dead two years after a long bout with leukemia.  We learn about her illness and the effect it has had on the family through a series of saved videos.  However, in the aftermath of Pamela’s death David has clearly neglected his daughter and finds, in fact, that he lost touch with her somewhere along the path of their independent grieving.  Through exploring Margot’s contacts in her computer, David learns that his daughter is clearly not the popular girl he thought her to be and that she has been leading a secret life that he cannot begin to comprehend.

The resolution of the mystery – while hinted at – is not very plausible and thoroughly unsatisfactory, and, once again, it puts me in mind of Agatha Christie who had an annoying habit of introducing passing characters to solve her mysteries – not fair!

But the film is well worth seeing for the subtle way the story unfolds without ever resorting to a typical film shoot.  I have pondered with friends what it might be like to stream this movie over a laptop – with the result being viewing screens through a screen of your own design.

The film is directed by Aneesh Chaganty (“Adventure, Wisconsin) who was a former Google Wizz kid.  This might explain the unique format of the film.

Fred Rogers – Where are you, Neighbor?

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

4 stars

One thing is very clear after seeing the documentary about Fred Rogers, we could certainly use a bit of Mr. Rogers’ wisdom today.  The film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is both inspiring and mind-boggling.

It is inspiring because the person Fred Rogers showed himself to be on PBS Television was apparently who the iconic figure actually was in real life.  It is mind-boggling because critics of Mr. Rogers’ actually blamed Mr. Rogers for Gen X’s attitudes of entitlement, contending that Mr. Rogers told his junior audiences that they were “special” in just being who they were (see New York Times headlines).  Seriously?  If parents out there have not told their children that they are special and unique, they really need a visit from Child Services.  It was also amazing to find that at Roger’s funeral service in 2003 crowds were protesting across the street with ugly placards maligning him for just about everything, including believing in God (he was an ordained Presbyterian minister).   This reminds me that the craziness in our country has been going on for some time.  I can remember we blamed Dr. Spock for producing a generation of brats and over-indulgent parents.  Why do we adults never want to face up to our failings?

But for the most part, Morgan Neville’s documentary is inspiring and gives us an idea of how Mr. Rogers came to be the sensitive and thoughtful icon he actually was.  For starters, he was a fat rich kid who probably did not have many friends and was a favorite target of bullying by his peers.  You can’t grow up in such an environment and not develop a sensitivity for the tortures children go through.  Fred Rogers was especially sensitive to the feelings of children and connected with them on a level they could relate to – probably because he could still feel the sting and confusion of his own childhood.  He was never out of touch with his own child within.  When he was unable to speak freely for himself, he spoke through his puppets – a tiger, a king, a queen and an owl.   Children were rapt with attention when he spoke to them in a manner they clearly understood.  He was always respectful in dealing with children – speaking to them on a level of honesty and sincerity.  Kids know when they are being conned or lied to.

What I did not appreciate in those years of watching Mr. Rodgers with my own children is that he was quite radical for his time.  He touched on many sensitive issues of the day either through his own words or the words of his very wise puppets.  When black youths were banned from swimming in “white” public pools, Mr. Rogers simply cooled his feet in a child’s wading pool alongside a black postman.  And when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, Daniel the tiger wanted to know what “assassination” meant because he had recently heard the word.  Rogers talked and sang to his young audience about death, about anger, and about sadness.  Surely these were not subjects for preschoolers and kindergarteners.  But in the sensitive and calming voice of Mr. Rogers, they were matters seriously treated when no teacher or parent would even consider broaching the subjects.

It would be unfair for me to tell you too much about this wonderful documentary – you can probably recall your own experiences with Mr. Rogers, and I would not want to sully or gloss over those memories which will come pouring back as you watch this film.  Speaking for myself, I had a Mr. Rogers song book and would often play those old tunes on my piano and sing them to and with my children.  And speaking for my oldest son Jeff, Mr. Rogers taught Jeff how to tie his shoes.  It doesn’t get more amazing than that.

In a world full of contention, division, fear and terrifying uncertainty, we could use someone like Fred Rogers to address the tough issues of the day and maybe find a gentle and thoughtful way to recognize the humanity that is still alive in each of us.  We are special – still.

 

Hereditary – Almost a Great Horror Film

About That ‘Hereditary’ Ending: Really?

3 Stars (for most of the film)

Let me start by saying I LOVE a scary horror movie.  Horror is one of my favorite genres – if well done.  Well done are “The Shining,” “The Exorcist,” “Silence of the Lambs,” “Alien” and “Psycho” – to name a few iconic horror films.  You get the picture – these are exceptional films – sit on the edge of your seat and peek through your fingers scary.  What will happen next?  Who will be the next victim and how will it happen?  In short, we really do not need ghosts to make a horror movie really scary.  What we need is good acting, a plausible script, an eerie setting, a feeling of impending dread, and a sense of connection with the actors.  All of these characteristics seem to be present in the latest horror film “Hereditary” by debut feature director Ari Aster – with one exception.  The film just falls apart – script-wise – at the very end.

For most of two hours we are mesmerized by the acting and the juxtaposition of the mundane against the truly eerily horrible.  We connect strongly with the characters – not knowing who is good and who is evil.  We know something is terribly wrong with this seemingly wholesome family.  Peter Graham (Alex Wolff), the son, is a high school teen who has a crush on a fellow classmate, smokes pot quite a bit, has buddies, is not above lying to his parents and seems always up for a party – a contemporary teen.  His sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is a bit odd, even for a 13-year-old.  She is a total loner who sleeps in a treehouse, makes quirky little figures out of odds and ends, and draws constantly when she is not otherwise occupied in a world of her own making.  She also has an annoying habit of making clicking sounds with her tongue.  Gabriel Byrne is the dad who appears to be a regular guy – a loving father, a sensitive and tolerant husband and the source of reason in this bizarre family.  But all kudos go to Mom.

Toni Collette plays Annie Graham, the mom.  We know something is not quite right with Annie.  For starts, she creates scenic miniatures as a profession.  She can usually be found in her workshop practicing her craft with a huge magnifying glass and tiny little brushes.  Weirder than this is that these scenic tableaus are all over the house – set on tables, in nooks and crannies. And many depict her own family in their surroundings, so we are never sure if we are seeing a miniature or the real version until the camera pulls away.  But when the camera pulls away, we do not feel any sense of ease.  The house itself is a nightmare.   It is a many-storied dark wooden structure which looks like it belongs in a horror movie.  The interior is dark with wood paneled halls and dreadful decor.  Think of the scary lodge in “The Shining” or the drabness of the Bates Motel in “Psycho.”  It is a scary place.  Whoever would choose to live there?  Annie would.

Annie had been estranged from her mother most of her life – until the old woman developed dementia and came to live with the family.  Estrange is not a powerful enough word.  Annie loathed her mother.  As the story opens, grandma has just died and is being put to rest in the local cemetery.  The only one who is truly sad about this turn of events is the odd daughter Charlie.  Mom takes it quite well and is creating a miniature of her late mom in hospice care – we never know why.

But Annie is the real force in this film. Her emotions are all over the place.  Her grief, when it comes, is so profound that she can scarcely stand.  Her anger, when it flares, is so cruel it causes us to gasp.  In trying to come to terms with her grief, her character metamorphoses to someone who bewilders her family and terrifies the audience.  Where is she going with her craziness?  We are concerned because we have been through so much with her character.  She has lived with tragedy and is merely trying to get on with life – to find some meaning in all the senseless distress that surrounds her.  Somewhere in this part of the film – which has developed into a real psychological drama – Director Aster mysteriously and abruptly takes us to a place that is not worthy of the characters, the actors or the potential of the film.  I am reminded of Agatha Christie who had a nasty habit of pinning the turning point of her mysteries on some obscure character or event which simply popped up out of the blue.  She was often unfair to her readers in this way.  And Aster is more than unfair to his audience when he takes this film into some ridiculous manufactured set of circumstances taken from a “D” rated horror flick.  Don’t waste my time.  How dare you make me like these characters and then turn them into fodder for a cheap trick.  Too bad – you really had us going there for quite a while.  This film had to potential to join the great iconic horror movies.

Ocean’s Eight – A Sinking Experience

Ocean's 8 Cameos

2 Stars

Like you, I couldn’t wait to see Sandra Bullock in “Ocean’s 8” – it sounded like a sure thing, considering the film’s male predecessors.  I mean, a lovely little heist with a fabulous cast in some trendy clothes – what’s not worth anticipating?  And, frankly, I have loved Sandra Bullock in most of her movies – she was totally fabulous in “The Blind Side,” and “Miss Congeniality” is an iconic hoot.

But, alas, the script is so flimsy and plodding that the movie falls flat on it larcenous face.  Larceny is the basic plot of the film – and larceny is clearly at the heart of director Gary Ross who co-wrote the script with Olivia Milch.  I didn’t expect much from Milch – her only claim to fame is a recent teen movie “Dude.”  But Ross gave us such wry films as “Big” and “Dave” and the excitement of “Seabiscuit” and “Hunger Games.”  So, I was expecting more from him.  What a waste of time and talent.  Perhaps he is off his medication.

Instead of a blockbuster film, audiences were conned into viewing a rather boring film that takes a painfully long time to set up – and, worse, it really does not capitalize on the talents of its cast.  In that regard, it reminded me of “Book Club” – which was, at least, amusing at times.  This cast consists of Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling and Rihanna – as the larcenous eight who plan to rob a specific necklace encrusted with 6 pounds of diamonds which has been kept in a vault for 50 years.

Bullock stars as Debbie Ocean – Danny’s obviously younger sister who has just been released from a stint in jail – the result of a con by her former boyfriend (Richard Armitage).  She swears to the parole board that she plans to lead a simple life and, upon her release, immediately embarks on assembling a team for one of the biggest gem heists in history.  She has spent her entire time in the slammer perfecting the crime.  She has a super cast of thieves who all play a role in the extravagant robbery.  The venue is the fabulous Met Gala.

At the Gala event, look for cameo appearances by the following who play themselves:  Celebrities Kim Kardashian, Heidi Klum, Kendal Jenner and Kylie Jenner; Tennis stars Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova; Vogue editors Anna Wintour, Hammish Bowles and Lauren Santo Domingo;  fashion models Gigi Hadid, Hailey Baldwin and Olivia Munn; rapper Common; actresses Katie Holmes and Jaime King (appearing with Taylor Swift); designers Zac Posen, Tommy Hilfiger, Waris Ahluwalia, Alexander Wang; fashion author Derek Blasberg; and commercial diva Adriana Lima.  This took a lot of doing.  (You have to read this because I did a lot of research to get it right.)

The scenes at the Gala are dazzling.  Bullock impersonates a Swedish (I think) bossy woman while her cohorts dash around as chefs, waitstaff, janitors, managers, etc.  It sounds to me as if Bullock actually speaks Swedish – but if I don’t even know if she’s impersonating a Swede, there is no way I can possible attest to the veracity of the Swedish tongue.

There is one interesting twist in the plot at the end of the film and I won’t spoil that for you because I know you will want to see this regardless of my warning.  It isn’t a total loss if you have to while away a raining afternoon.  It is just another in a long series of disappointments coming from Hollywood.  Hollywood has simply stopped producing good movies – relying on celebrity and star appeal, glitz, a rehash of the old stuff that once worked, and a dependence on a captive audience for all of its franchise films.  During Hollywood’s Golden Era, there were a lot of “B” movies that were created.   These films were low budget films which were designed to be seen in tandum with the feature film.  Alas, that is what we are getting these days – a lot of “B” movies.  The difference between today and the Golden Era is that you could always walk out on a B movie.  But when the B movie is the featured production, it doesn’t make much sense.  You would think that the world is positively bursting with great screen writers.  Yet they never seem leave their mark on contemporary films – are they parking cars and waiting on tables?  If Hollywood writes itself out of existence, it will be its own fault.

The Rider – Thoughtful and Profound

Brady Jandreau in "The Rider"

3 ½ Stars

Before we get into the content of this incredible movie, we need to set some things straight.  It is not a typical “movie” – it is a “docudrama.”  Which means that while much of it is true, the director (Chloe Zhao) took some liberties with the truth to create an interesting plot.  But just as with documentaries, most of the characters in this film are real people – way more than you would have thought possible considering the script and the action.

Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) was a rising star on the rodeo circuit.  His specialty: bronco riding.  He was barely out of his teens when he suffered a traumatic brain injury during a rodeo event.  His foot got caught in a stirrup and he was dragged along and ultimately had his head stomped on by the horse.

When we first meet Brady in the film he is removing staples from his head which secures a large gauze bandage.  Underneath is a huge incision, also secured with multiple staples. What we cannot see is the metal plate that is under the scar.  Brady lives with his dad Wayne Blackburn (Tim Jandreau) and sister Lilly Blackburn (Lilly Jandreau) – yes, Brady’s real family.

The real Brady grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota and was first placed on a horse when he was 15 months old.   By the age of three he was riding competitively; and he was a competent horse trainer at the age of 12.  He turned his talents to bronco riding until his fateful accident at the age of 20.

Here we pick up the story as Brady struggles with the stagnation of recuperating when his heart is still at the rodeo.  His rodeo friends come to cheer him – all of them real rodeo cowboys.  And when they gather together the talk often turns to the masterful bull riding performances of their friend Lane Scott.  At various points in the film, Brady pays visits to Lane in a rehab facility, and I got the impression that the wheelchair bound Lane got his injuries bull riding.  In real life, his injuries were the result of a serious automobile accident.  But the point is, Lane was Brady’s mentor and best friend – Brady says Lane was like a brother to him.  The scenes between the two are heartwarming as Brady communicates with Lane through hand signals and does everything he can to help Lane relish in the joys of his rodeo days.

When Brady is no longer able to work the rodeo circuit, he turns his attention to training horses.  Brady has a special technique when “breaking” horses.  He talks to them, gains their trust and coaxes them along to accepting saddle and rider.  It is truly amazing to watch him ply his talents during these training scenes.  In the script, Brady has a serious incident when out for a gentle ride across the plains.  This results in his doctors telling him that he can never ride again without killing himself.  So, Brady ends up working at a super market where he runs into his fans while stocking shelves and working the cash register.  Fans stop him to take selfies.  Others ask when he’ll be back on the circuit.

But for Brady, there is no acceptable alternate life apart from the rodeo or from training horses.  You can’t do either if you can’t ride.  That is the dilemma in the film.  From my perspective it does not end happily – there is no real resolution in the film.  And we are left to wonder how Brady will surmount this totally depressing circumstance.  How do you build a life when all of your talents and interests are forbidden?  That question is what makes this film so haunting and profound.

Brady is incredibly handsome and engaging.  He has a very warm and easy aspect about him.  Some of my favorite scenes are when he interacts with his old friend Lane or with his teenage sister Lilly.  Although Lilly is mentally challenged, she has a frank and personable way about her.  Her sense of good cheer is apparent whenever she is on the screen.  She makes up songs, says goodnight to the setting sun, marvels at the stars and the cosmos, and firmly rebels against wearing a bra.  All by herself she is a show-stopper.

This is a quiet film in many ways: the score is peaceful; the countryside is stunning; the characters are natural; and the scenes of Brady galloping across the grassy plains are stirring in their simplicity.  Even if you have never ridden a horse, you can sense the convergence of peace and exhilaration that comes from loping across a slice of land with the wind in your face and sharing the natural rhythm of horse and rider.

I wish I could say that the story line ends on a positive note.  But although there does not appear to be much of a future for Brady Blackburn, the real Brady has been able to continue his work as a horse trainer and is still able to sit tall in the saddle.

All the Money in the World is worth the rental fee

All the Money in the World Movie Review

3 Stars.

Sadly, I never got to see Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World” when it was released in time for Christopher Plummer, playing billionaire John Paul Getty, to be nominated for a Best Actor performance.  The real stunning achievement of this movie, and a fact that will one day be forgotten, is that the elder Getty role was originally played by actor Kevin Spacey who was fired by 80-year-old director Scott one month before the scheduled release date as a result of the myriad sexual misconduct charges against Spacey.  Bravo for Mr. Scott.

As a consequence, Christopher Plummer was enlisted to shoot all of the Spacey scenes, and it is a marvel that the result does not even appear as a blip on the film’s radar.  This speaks volumes concerning Plummer’s ability and fortitude, I imagine, as well as the technical savvy of the crew.

The film cautions that certain liberties were taken with some of the facts, but the story is essentially true to life.  In the 1970’s Getty’s grandson John Paul Getty III was living in Italy with his drug addicted father when the young heir was kidnapped off the street by a group of opportunistic thugs who held Junior for $17 million in ransom, believing that such a sum would be chump change for grandpa Getty.  At the time, Getty was reputed to be the richest person in the entire world.  I remember this ignoble era in Italian history as a time when there were multiple kidnappings of monied people.  But this particular kidnapping was among the most notorious and one that took a long time to negotiate.

The kidnappers had not considered what an appalling miser the elder Getty was – a man who chose to wash his own underwear and hang it to dry in his five-star hotel bathroom rather than pay to have this service done by hotel professionals.  So, it is no wonder that Getty refused to pay the ransom – claiming that to do so would start a trend with no end in sight.  In fact, Getty would hold out for as long as he could until his accountants devised a way for him to pay the ransom and take a full tax deduction.  This says volumes about the shortcomings of Getty’s character.  Plummer’s portrayal is so believable that I found myself alternately amazed and repulsed by Getty’s total lack of humanity and empathy.

Even when the ransom is reduced by three-quarters and his grandson’s ear arrives in the mail showing the seriousness of the thugs, Getty is unmoved.  It takes his former daughter-in-law Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) ultimately to secure her son’s return.  Williams is excellent in her role.  The elder Getty has essentially stripped her of her rights to her own children and left her penniless.  Yet in the many scenes when she must confront her former father-in-law with her son’s life hanging in the balance, she maintains a controlled edge to her approach so as not to further alienate the one person capable of determining the outcome of this horrible adventure.

Mark Wahlberg plays the role of Fletcher Chase, the one-time CIA operative turned business manager for the old man.  It is only through his relationship with Williams that he seems to regain some perspective on what it takes to return to being human.

This is a good film and worth watching.  We are told that, even with his incredible fortune, Getty never contributed a dime to charity.  It was only when the family wealth which was bequeathed to the grandchildren that Gail Harris was able to assert her influence over the fortune. Getty had squirrelled away an unbelievable treasure trove of art and fine artifacts which ultimately became the basis for the Getty Museum.  Most of the family fortune was thereafter directed to charity – something which surely caused the old man to turn over in his grave.  One assumes if he could have returned from the grave by making a pact with the devil that he would have done so.  By all appearances, he already had done this during his lifetime.