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Lady Bird: Take a Flier

Lady Bird

2 ½ stars

I don’t know about you, but I am a bit tired of “coming of age” movies.   I mean, how many times must we shackled and chained to our theater seats and forced to relive those painful teenage memories?  Are three enough?  Are six too many?  Seriously, each director thinks he/she has captured the ultimate experience.  But in my estimation, it all looks the same, even if we are in a different age.  The hero has a sort of mini beard.  The heroine has red hair – or is it blonde?  Her best friend is fat – or is she ultra-thin?  Her mom is a world class bitch – or is she June Cleaver?  For me, the jury is still out.  I am always hopeful the next one will be novel.  Still, “Lady Bird” is worth watching.

First, it is refreshing to have a new woman behind the lens.  Greta Gerwig made her directorial debut with “Lady Bird” – which she also co-wrote.  In fact, there were a lot of women involved in this production – casting, sets, editing.  That fact alone is worthy of congratulations.

This is the story of the exceptionally turbulent bond between a teen and her mother.  It is a struggle of wills between Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her often cruel-tongued mom (Laurie Metcalf).  Bird has chosen a new name for herself in an attempt to escape her past and carve out a new identity.  I know I did this when I was in high school.  She wants to escape her life and become a new and different person so she can freely explore all of those unopened doors that await a teen blossoming into womanhood.  She is a senior in high school in Sacramento and making plans for college.  She is thinking East Coast while her mother is thinking local state school.  Frankly, Mom tells Bird that she simply does not have the grades or the talent to get into an east coast school.  Wow!  Quite an ego deflating blow coming from a mom.  No wonder they don’t get along.

Mom works double shifts as a nurse to keep the wolf from the door and has to double-down when dad (Tracy Letts) loses his job.  So, it is no wonder that mom is a bit snarky.  She has some softer moments, too – like when she takes Bird shopping at the thrift store for a prom dress and when they cruise the high-end stores for a gleeful day of window shopping.  But mom’s basic persona is caustic.

Cleary, critics saw far more to recommend this movie than I did.  They have heralded the town of Sacramento as some sort of sacred site – although I swear I did not really get a sense of being in Sacramento, per se.  For me, it could have been any town with two sides of the track and some reasonably mild weather.

I was delighted when Bird took her life into her hands and decided to go East to school.  The only way we learned that things were okay between mother and daughter was when Bird called home and professed her continuing love of family.

This is a good movie to stream – since the pickings following the Oscars are really thin.  The acting is good and the cast of teens seems authentic.  There are also some interesting moments that will have you reflecting on your own perilous teen years.  I know I did.  So, overall, I’d take a flier on this one.

My Oscar Picks for 2018


Best Picture:  Three Billboards

Leading Actress:  France McDormand (Three Billboards)

Leading Actor:  Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)

Supporting Actress:  Allison Janney (I, Tanya)

Supporting Actor: Woody Harrelson or Sam Rockwell (3 Billb)

Directing:?  (no nominee was worthy)

Original Screenplay:  Three Billboards and/or Big Sick

Adapted Screenplay:  Mudbound or Molly’s Game ( Darkest Hours (probable)

Makeup:  Darkest Hour

Costume:  Beauty and the Beast

Editing:  Baby Driver

Original Score: Starwars

Best Song:  This is Me:  Greatest Showman

Production Design:  Beauty and Beast

Sound Editing:  Baby Driver

Sound Mixing:  Baby Driver

Cinematography: Mudbound

The Shape of Water – What’s in it for the Fish/Man?

The Shape of Water

2 ½ Stars

The sentimental favorite for the 2018 Oscars is “The Shape of Water.”  I suspect it will get Best Film.  But, frankly, I kept looking at my cell phone to check on the time – wondering when the film would end. I know many people were mesmerized by the fish/man creature (Doug Jones) who was able to communicate with a mute girl (Sally Hawkins) and the ultimate love story.  And there was a satisfactory ending – which always makes American audiences delighted.   Finally, the super villain Strickland (Michael Shannon) got his come-uppance in the end.  What more could we ask?

Well, for me, the script was aimed at an audience who needed constantly to be reminded of the difference between good and evil – the haves and the have nots – the noble and virtuous (which is us, of course) and the cruel world of cynicism, materialism and a loss of innocence.   Director del Toro’s villain Richard Strickland is way over the top.  He is more like the evil Joker in “Batman” and not as nice as the sinister Professor Moriarity, Sherlock Holmes’ foil.  He calls the fish/man which he hauled all the way from the Amazon the “Asset” yet he probes it with an electric shock stick making it bleed, and he can’t wait to dissect it.  Really?  What kind of “asset management” is that?  Finally, in case we didn’t understand the evil at the heart of Strickland, he even gets physically uglier during the film – an overt manifestation of the evil in his soul.  Got it now?

Hawkins did a great job as Elisa Esposito – the mute janitorial worker who befriends the beast.  And Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s neighbor Giles touches a warm note as a gay man beaten by a world that has moved well past his old artistic talents.  I adore Octavia Spenser, but her role as the loyal friend and fellow janitor Zelda is so much of an African-American cliché as to be offensive to me.  She seems to be there so the evil Strickland can cast racist slurs at her.

I really hated the soundtrack.  The film was set in Baltimore in 1962 at the height of the Cold War, but all the music was dreadful stuff from the 40’s.  Carmen Miranda – Betty Grable?  My friend Sherry thought it was appropriate as a reflection of Giles who was seriously stuck in the past.  She may be right.

But enough of my whining.  I was lucky enough to hear an interview with the “creature” played by Doug Jones which greatly shed light on the movie experience for me.  Jones was 56 when he filmed this movie.  He has been doing creatures for years.  In fact, he played a creature in director/screenwriter Guillermo del Toro’s “Hellboy II.”

Here are some interesting facts to ponder for those who have seen the film.  It took about 5 hours for makeup to get Jones into the fish suit.  This meant that Jones was on set in the latex suit for about 10 hours each day.  Because it was a slip into costume, it took only 45 minutes to exit the suit.  Jones is a lanky 6’3” tall – but weighs only 140 pounds.  You can believe this because he looked so thin in the movie.  But once he was immersed in water, he took on an extra 40 pounds or so and needed to be assisted everywhere he went because of the limitations of the suit.  He wore webbed gloves so he wasn’t really able to eat very easily.  Imagine someone giving him water out of a squirt bottle.  Since this was his first ever romantic role and since he was told he would have to swivel and dance, he claims he got into shape for this film.  As far as I am concerned, he is the star.  But was he nominated as Leading Actor or even Best Supporting Actor? No.  Monsters just don’t get any recognition.

Mudbound Strikes a Contemporary Note

4 Stars

“Mudbound” is a highly uncomfortable film set in Mississippi in the heart of the Jim Crowe south.  Heck, the hatred and venom poured out in the film toward the freedmen of former slaves is equally timely today in our divisive political world.  I believe that is what makes this film so difficult to view.

Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) is a 31-year-old virgin who marries Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) to escape the boredom and shame of spinsterhood.  Even though she is not in love with her over-bearing and often small-minded husband, she is determined to make the best of a bad situation.  After the birth of their two daughters, Henry has set his sights on moving from the comfort of Memphis life and to risk all to become a farmer on a sad bit of delta where mud is the perpetual and eternal companion of this family.  There is scarcely anything but mud.  Instead of the comfort of a tidy farmhouse, Henry drags his family to a pitiful shack with no electricity or running water.  To make matters worse, the family must share these meager accommodations with Henry’s bigoted and loathsome father – Pappy McAllan (Jonathan Banks).

Just down the road is another family, a black family, who get by as sharecroppers on a parcel of Henry’s land.  Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Bilge) share their shack with their several children – all of whom are hoping one day to own some land and have a better life.  But it is not just this miserable piece of muddied land that unites these families – though racist Pappy and Henry would loathe the concept that they had anything in common.  But the families are joined by the hopelessness of their meager existences and the simple truth that one group is not any better off than its neighbor.  Each struggles with land that is unwelcoming, harsh and subject to the vagaries of the weather.  Even though Henry needs Hap’s services, he will not even lend Hap a mule to assure that the cotton crop gets started after a stretch of miserable weather – he is that stingy and bigoted.

It is the beginning of World War II, and Henry’s handsome younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) has signed on as a bomber pilot.  At the same time, Hap’s oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) becomes a tank commander in Patton’s army.  We are thrown into scenes of WWII skirmishes and disasters as the two struggle to stay alive and do so by mere happenstance while their brother soldiers are blown away.  Yet, while Ronsel is serving in war-torn Europe, he has found acceptance as a soldier, a friend and a lover with no apparent regard for the color of his skin.

But at war’s end, both men return to the miserable existence and bigotry of the small Mississippi mud town.  As fellow victims of the war, sufferers of PTSD and a need for alcohol to dull their senses, the two bond together in an unusual friendship that ultimately leads to tragedy.  In the deep south after the war, the KKK flourishes.  There is no tolerance for friendship between whites and blacks; and when the Klan discovers that Ronel has borne a child with a white woman in Europe, that is enough reason to hang him or castrate him.

As I said, this is a tough movie to watch.  The acting is very good, although the stalwart and generally well-kempt Laura feels slightly at odds with this mud-bound existence.  Mary J. Bilge is nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her courageous role as the Jackson family matriarch.  The film has also been nominated for Best Cinematography (Rachael Morrison) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Director Dee Rees and Virgil Williams).  It is an extraordinary film which I would have given the nod to as Best Motion Picture.  Certainly, it is a much better and more believable film than “Get Out” which has a thoroughly stupid and unlikely premise.


Roman J. Israel, Esq. should be charged for Audience Abuse

Roman J. Israel, Esq. Poster

1 ½ Stars (only in deference to Denzel)

Denzel Washington is nominated for an Oscar for his performance in a very garbled movie about a legal savant working in an African-American, two-person criminal defense firm.  The swagger and courtroom face of the firm is a guy who suffers from a fatal heart attack barely after the opening credits are served.  In the background is Roman Israel (Washington) – a lawyer who has never appeared in court but has worked behind the scenes drafting briefs, motions and appeals.  He can recite chapter and verse of the criminal code.

But Roman is very short on personal skills – not peanut butter which is his dietary main-stay.  He is fat, untidy and wears an outdated Afro hairdo and a sport coat with trousers rescued from a thrift shop Dollar Rack.  While he does speak in sentences, it is not something we can necessarily understand.  Even all of this would be okay if the script made any sense at all.

Here is a guy who has worshipped his boss who was some kind of guru who devoted his life to criminal defense – which really didn’t keep the lights on.  But Roman has spent his life working on a mind-blowing legal case (we are never told what it is) which is sure to change the course of American jurisprudence.  This is a guy so totally idealistic and non-self-serving that he works for $500 a week.  That in itself would be a legal phenomenon – because the guy really is brilliant – but is way deficient in social skills.

Long story short, this champion of justice takes a job with a high-class criminal defense law firm at the urging of George Pierce (Colin Farrell) who has been selected by the deceased partner to take over the ailing practice.  All of a sudden, our misfit idealistic backroom attorney illicitly attains money by breaking the ethical code he has supported all his life just so he can live the high life – new clothes, new hairdo, swanky apartment.  None of it makes any sense.

When he finally does come to his senses we are supposed to believe that some nickel-and-dime petty criminal he has double-crossed puts a contract on him.  A very convenient way to bring this film to a merciful conclusion.  Well, sweet George (who has mended his mercenary ways because of Roman) finally files that judicial ground-breaking brief and we are all sent home – scratching our heads.  Wha…?

Why Denzel would lower himself to play such a dumb role in such a stupid script is mind-boggling.  I had to look twice to see if perhaps he had written the thing himself.  He did not.  Why do great stars get hooked into dumb movies?  Think: Meryl Streep in “Florence Foster Jenkins” and Tom Hanks in “A Hologram for the King.”  Oh, what’s the use!

GAME NIGHT – Just Doesn’t Deliver

2 Stars

It’s been a bit of a tension-filled month for me, so I thought I would lighten things up a bit by seeing Directors John Francis Daley (screenwriter for “Spiderman Homecoming”) and Jonathan Goldstein’s “Game Night.”  (Goldstein was screenwriter for “Horrible Bosses”.)  The premise sounded pretty interesting – a couples’ regular game night winds up being a murder-mystery night.  Heck, I can remember doing this when I was in college, and it was a lot of fun and promised a lot of laughs.  But even with a bunch of change-ups in the plot’s direction (think Agatha Christie misleading you), it was not enough to keep me interested in both the plot and the characters or to produce enough laughs o leave the theater with a smile on my lips.  Frankly, judging from the very sporadic laughs from the audience, I figure other people felt the same way I did.

Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) are a married couple who routinely host a game night for their friends: Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury) are the obligatory friends of color, and Billie Magnussen plays the dim-witted guy whose date du jour is usually some ditsy blonde who has trouble identifying the powder room.  Then there is the next-door neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons) that no one wants at the party since he got divorced from his wife.  Long story short:  Kevin has lived in the shadow of his highly successful and (apparently) wealthy older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler).  So intimidated is Kevin by brother Brooks that he takes his anxieties out on his sperm – the result being that his sperm are immobilized which causes fertility problems with Michelle.

Brother Brooks comes to town and decides to host a murder-mystery game on the usual game night – having hired a company and its crew of real actors who put on such events.  It promises to be a fun night with one of the gamers getting kidnapped.   Well, you guessed it – real kidnappers show up, render the pretend FBI agent unconscious and crash around the house trying to subdue host Brooks – whom they eventually kidnap for real.

In the meantime, none of the guests takes the action seriously as bodies fly and get bloodied, furniture and pottery get broken, and mayhem ensues – all while the guests are relishing the cheese and crackers and drinking a really lovely champagne.

Finally, Brooks gets hog-tied and carried away by the intruders.  By the time the fake kidnappers show up, it is obvious that the kidnapping is for real and it is up to the gamers to find Brooks and get him to safety.

Of course, Brooks is not all he credits himself to be.  He is really a scoundrel who lives on the edge and is always looking for his next hustle.  He crossed the wrong characters and it looks as if he will pay for it with his life.

The movie has lots of comic lines and some comic moments but even these are not enough to hold this really bad movie together.  Even with the twists and turns of who is duping whom, the plot is thin.  The premise is kind of lame – that these suburban folks can take down an international mob with its jet planes and career killers.  For me it was kind off a big yawn.  I wish I had gone to see “The Black Panther” instead.

I, Tonya – I Don’t Think So

I, Tonya

1 Star

Once I had viewed “I, Tonya” I felt an irresistible urge to jump in the shower and scrub myself with Lysol.  The acting in the film was quite good, especially the roles of Tonya and her mother LaVona (played by Margo Robbie and Allison Janney, respectively).  It is just that some subject matter does not lend itself to full length feature films and is better viewed in a 5-minute segment on the Evening News.  This is the case in the movie about Oympic ice skater Tonya Harding and her run in with super star Nancy Kerrigan.

The film begins with Mama LaVona begging Diane Rowlinson (Julianne Nicholson) to coach little 4-year old Tonya.  Mama LaVona is a tough cigarette smoking waitress who seemingly gives into her little girl’s wishes to become an ice skater – perhaps with the aim of one day getting into the Ice Capades.   In any event, Tonya proves to be a determined student who gains a spot among the ice skating world elite.

In fact, Tonya becomes the only female skater ever flawlessly to perform a triple axel in competition.  She is large, athletic and masterful in the physical aspects of figure skating.  In fact, if there were such a sport, she belongs in Roller Derby figure skating.  That is her style.  And compared to the delicate dancers who grace the ice, scarcely touching down and never straining a muscle, skaters like petite Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya is a goliath.

But perhaps more to the point, Tonya is an anomaly.  She is red-neck through and through.  Her costumes are homespun, and her audience are rebel-rousers.  Her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and his pal Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) are beyond stupid.  There is no refinement in this cast of characters.  To make matters worse, Tonya is a victim of her mother’s constant physical and verbal abuse.  One wonders why mama worked herself to a frazzle as a waitress just so she could afford the expensive coaching her Olympic champion daughter required.  This enigma is never explained.  Nor is the sudden conversion Tonya’s husband makes when, immediately after the wedding, he begins crashing Tonya’s head into walls and mirrors.

This is a rough film about rough characters.  Tonya, herself, never saw her dreams of an Olympic Gold realized due to her association with a bunch of really stupid people.  Save for the acting, there is not much redeeming in this film.  The people are disgusting, self-serving and abusive.  And the over-all event which momentarily rendered Nancy Kerrigan unable to skate in one competition was not long-lasting.  It all blew over and was soon forgotten by the sports world and the entire world.

While Robbie is masterful in her role, her character is totally unsympathetic.  And the film itself is but a blip in history that did not amount to anything memorable.  While the promos for the film tout it as the greatest tragedy in sports history, other sports events have long since supplanted it – the bombing of the Israeli Olympic quarters, the doping in all aspects of sports, the demise of greats like OJ Simpson and Tiger Woods, deflate-gate by the much-revered New England Patriots.  The list is endless.  My time would have been better spent watching old reruns of “Gilligan’s Island.”  There are some events in history that do not deserve a close study.  This is one.