Blindspotting (2018)

   Director: Carlos López Estrada  With: Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Ethan Embry, Tisha Campbell-Martin, & Utkarsh Ambudkar.  Release: July 27, 2018 R. 1 hr. 35 min. 

Director: Carlos López Estrada
With: Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Ethan Embry, Tisha Campbell-Martin, & Utkarsh Ambudkar. 
Release: July 27, 2018
R. 1 hr. 35 min. 

 

Carlos López Estrada’s “Blindspotting” is the fourth film in the quadrilogy of black empowering filmmaking this year. The non-Hollywood, Hollywood promoted, year of filmmaking continues as “Blindspotting” joins the likes of Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther,” Boots Riley’s “Sorry To Bother You,” and Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.” With more to come down the pipe, 2018 seems to be a tangible figment of change occurring in real-time, using Oakland, California as the reoccurring outset for these cinematically jarring stories that feel unequivocally representative of someone who’s never worked a day in Hollywood.

Daring to breach the unwritten contract between the screen and it's viewing audience, providing comprehensive investigations of the inherent differences between a white man’s daily life and that of someone of color. Disregarding the preconceived notions on how a film should treat it's brown and black characters, rather providing another emotionally scarring and psyche challenging story that not only reflects ourselves but, in the case of “Blindspotting,” surreally dissects the differences between the colors of white and black. 

It’s a horror film at its core, one that is heavy hitting and grasps for fantasy, while remaining persistently tethered to reality. It’s also a scathing trip of a movie, like that of “Sorry To Bother You,” even borrowing certain aspects of that film in how the engineered craftsmanship from screenwriters Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs (“Hamilton”) use slang and rhymes of freestyling to express their climaxes of emotion. 

It’s uncommon to see the two stars of the film be the leading voices for the film’s identity on the screen and behind it, constructing a narrative that focuses on the relationship between Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal). Two best friends since childhood who work at a moving company together, finding themselves in the midst of an ever-changing Oakland. The Raiders are moving to Vegas, the Warriors are on-top, and police officers have become the town bully. With recruiting posters on each block and every street shop, it seems that everyone is signing up to join the winning team, a team that becomes a nightmare for our convicted felon star, Collin (Daveed Diggs). 

He’s driving home one night, returning to his probation stay in which the curfew is 11 pm, (He’s only got three days left, so it’s crunch time for our main character) running late from a night out with Miles (Rafael Casal). He comes across a long red light on a lonely street. Staring at the red shine of the streetlamp, waiting for the switch to green. When it does, he steps on the gas in a hurry to meet his curfew when a scared and running black figure slams into his truck, keeping him from proceeding. 

Suddenly a cop appears behind him, he watches as the chase ensues. The officer stops, draws his gun, and shoots the fleeing “criminal” in the back. The "armed suspect" resisted arrest is the story, one sole witness can say otherwise, but he never does. Even poking fun at it, telling his lifelong friend the next day “What am I gonna do, call them up, yes I’d like to report a murder, the one you did last night. Yes, I am a convicted felon, back to jail tomorrow? Sounds good to me, see you then.” 

It’s the name of the game for someone like Collin (Daveed Diggs), but perhaps life wouldn’t be as difficult as it seems without the thorn in his side known as Miles (Rafael Casal). He’s the kind of friend who causes you more trouble than you can handle. He buys a gun, illegally. He’s somewhat responsible for Collin (Daveed Diggs) going to jail in the first place, and he’s a constant leach on the back of Collin (Daveed Diggs). Despite all the right things Collin (Daveed Diggs) does, he is never given that inherent benefit of the doubt that his screw-up of a friend, Miles, (Rafael Casal) is afforded. 

It’s the ultimate color of comparison, one that exemplifies the title card of the film. Showcasing how we automatically associate criminality by color or potential for violence by history. Assuming before acting, despite when someone like Miles (Rafael Casal) exemplifies the tough guy mentality of someone whose masculinity and over compensation for his street cred consistently push him towards decisions that ultimately end with violence. 

Collin (Daveed Diggs) becomes more of a father-figure for Miles (Rafael Casal), striving to teach him the proper perspective for life, consistently arguing that he’s living a healthy life now. He’s got an ex-girlfriend whose all about that journey of mentoring health, finding ways to discover your better self, unlike that of Miles (Rafael Casal) who continually retreats, repeating mistakes. Yet, Collin (Daveed Diggs) is the one who finds himself latched onto the hook. The one held responsible for someone else's actions, the one whose complained on by customers, just trying not to be another “black guy with dreads.” 

It’s a palpable glimpse of the fundamentally different paths that we walk as white people and black people, the scapegoats that we as someone colored lighter are afforded. It’s an example of that “Blindspotting” we have as a culture and as an American society, to associate an ambiguous result to the images we see, despite there being a far more obvious answer in the realm of explanation. 

An empowering and emotionally tormenting, thematically riveting, message that is spouted off to us through dialogue at one point, the one blemish to be found on this absurdly realistic gem of a film. Despite catching onto the scent that Diggs, Casal, and Estrada are leaving behind, we are forced to sit down and be told what the story is, despite us already knowing where this is going. Forgetting to trust that we can read between the lines of the story, “Blindspottting” loses itself in those few scenes, but picks up with that of it's freestyling ambitions. 

Daveed Diggs takes center stage in those moments, unleashing verbal warfare that is encased with thematic richness as his words carry emotion with operatic precision. The climax itself involves an enraged, poetically written, soliloquy that could only be delivered by someone with verbal talents of Daveed Diggs. His real-life friend, Rafael Casal finds himself with a handful of exceptional freestyling as well, but it's his moments of emotional expression where he stands out. When he’s allowed to deliver these powerful paragraphs of dialogue with intensity and misplaced rage, forgetting the commonality he shares with the people he dissociates himself from, being asked to call his “black” friend the n-word at one point, thinking that he has earned the same unexpressed rights to become enraged by someone’s wrongful associations. 

He’s a character that seems to confuse his struggles as the same of his friends, though he has more merit than most, there is an underlying difference between the two. Carlos López Estrada and veteran cinematographer Robby Baumgartner assist in exemplifying that difference with these sleeking and rhythmically designed visuals. The cuts and edits fire on all cylinders, transitioning between perspectives with a sense of socially intended dynamics. Like that of transferring us from a "behind the back" shot of Collin (Daveed Diggs) to a "behind the back" shot of Miles’ (Rafael Calas) son sprinting throughout his home, a reminder of how being black in America seems to be a constant state of running away from something. 

Blindspotting” is an attempt at giving us another peek behind the psychology of living life under fret, providing low comedy with extreme drama. It’s another chapter in this renaissance of 2018, another one that is worth seeing. This is what happens when new voices begin to tell stories. 

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

   Director: Spike Lee  With: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Ryan Eggold, Jasper Pääkkönen, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Robert John Burke, & Alec Baldwin. Release: Aug 10, 2018 R. 2 hr. 14 min.

Director: Spike Lee
With: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Ryan Eggold, Jasper Pääkkönen, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Robert John Burke, & Alec Baldwin.
Release: Aug 10, 2018
R. 2 hr. 14 min.

 

“BlacKkKlansman” is the kind of story that seems like something out of a David Chappelle skit. It’s the sober recollection of a drunk America, conducting a juxtaposition of our contemporary and historical interactions with racism. Presenting itself as a dichotomy, vilifying racism as an absurdly, laughable, and hysterically ignorant formulation of a thought process.  While simultaneously, employing the inherent savagery that stems from the roots of what we would like to believe was yesteryear of American hypocrisy. Director Spike Lee and his co-screenwriters Kevin Willmott, David Rabinowitz, and Charlie Wachtel adapt a tale of duplicity, one that invokes an authentic depiction of social justice for our fellow black man that was first uncovered in Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir. 

Stallworth, depicted by John David Washington, was a Colorado Springs Police Officer, one of the town’s first. Being asked to become apart of the force in a mannerism that didn’t precisely construe the idea that everyone was on board, and they weren’t. Asked if he would be able to deal with such obscene torment from both fellow officers and residents, Stallworth (John David Washington) was able to find it within himself to see the forest through the trees. To view the sun peaking through the rain heavy clouds that hanged overhead, able to see the potential of a black cop investigating into white man shenanigans. 

That’s exactly what happened too, after a constant barrage of department change-ups, Stallworth (John David Washington) found himself in the role of an undercover detective. His first investigation was to infiltrate a black panther rally and depict if any potential acts of violence may be caused by what was then called a “terrorist organization.” 

After a long night, meeting a fiery, independent black woman in Laura Harrer (Patrice Dumas), Stallworth (John David Washington) found himself looking for a reason to continue this job, like that of an investigation into the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He goes as far as to attain an over-the-phone relationship with David Duke (Topher Grace), who was able to spell out his fair share of idiocracies. A lengthy, in-depth investigation that invoked a two-partner system in which Stallworth (John David Washington) would be the undercover agent on the phone, while his white partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), would represent the combined duo in person, eventually helping to expose and nullify an attack on black activists. 

It’s a true story too, one that conjured the attention of producer Jordan Peele who then passed the story onto fellow filmmaker Spike Lee who then recruited a team of mild-mannered individuals to put together one of 2018’s most outrageously fantastic films. It’s not Lee’s first dance with the term greatness either. This is more of a return to form than it is a debut performance, unlike that of John David Washington who, in his first feature film leading role, steals the show. 

He’s both charming and charismatically invigorating, like that of his father, becoming an enthusiastically refreshing entree into the conversation for best performance by a male actor. He’s the heart of this film, but Lee is the brains behind the operation. Providing an attentive and meticulous level of craftsmanship that reminds us that he’s not only one of the best working today, but hasn’t been allowed to stretch these muscles in quite some time. The blatant outcry towards absurdity is as prevalent as ever as he provides more than a few middle fingers to D.W. Griffith's alleged “masterpiece,” “Birth of a Nation,” a film that revived the Ku Klux Klan at the turn of the 20th century, sparking a new fire that remains unextinguished. 

The film maintains that fiery assertion for honesty, as Lee tears down the naiveness of an America that allowed someone with inherent similarities to David Duke to land themselves in the Oval Office. He doesn’t let up from there either, opening the film with an impassioned and horrifically disgusting monologue from Dr. Beauregard (Alec Baldwin). Who espouses racist vitriol in a way that, while horrendous, is hilarious as his tics and tantrums slip up through his desired perfection as if the white supremacy he believes is faltering underneath the spotlight as the red, white, and blue lights glow upon his face. 

At one point the projector displaying itself upon him manifests an image of a klan’s hood, a quick preview of the brilliance that would follow from Lee and cinematographer Chayse Irvin.  As they then introduced the dashingly handsome John David Washington, gingerly enwrapping him with a delicate touch of adoration, as he arrives in front of the banner for hire at the Colorado Springs Police Department. The haven and origination of our plot, in which the first phone call with the local chapter president, Walter (Ryan Eggold), took place. Stallworth (John David Washington) spouts off how anyone without white-pure-American blood gets under his skin, a laugh out loud sort of scenario as the surrounding officer slowly turn towards this insane situation.

Turns out though, Stallworth (John David Washington) mistakingly used his real name, leading to the involvement of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who happens to be Jewish, becoming a character of fascination for myself. He’s a representation of an underlier of truth that always seems to go unseen in depictions of this terrorist group, how they are not only targeting black communities, but Jewish ideologies, homosexuality, atheism, or any other kind of belief that stands to oppose theirs. A long forgotten dose of truth that a genius like Lee can unearth to remind us that we can’t pretend that we don’t all have skin in this game. 

We have the luxury of being able to dodge the hatred flung towards us, ready to hide away our internal conflicts and pass along as a white American. He not only excavates that unspoken truth of America, but Lee unveils the internal strife that black Americans face in what it means to be black in America, a state of mind that screenwriter and geekdom correspondent Marc Bernardin described as a “constant state of rage.” 

He’s not wrong either, when you find yourself on that ever so prominent cutting board of American coercion, like being a bi-sexual man, for example, you begin to feel a slight whiff of that internal strife that the black community has been systematically confronting for centuries. It’s the kind of subtextual message that will go over your head if you let it, and that’s kind of what Lee is achieving with “BlacKkKlansman,” a parody of reminiscence. Jokingly and passionately criticizing our integrated view as Americans to see these real-life events as acts of the past, as if we’re some college kid looking back on our high school selves saying “wow, I used to be dumb.” 

Lee doesn’t allow us to pull that ever-so-familiar trick out of the bag, wrapping the final moments of the film with a narrative and authentic echo of American hypocrisy. Ending the film’s story with a representation of how small victories are immediately met with heavy defeats, like a real-world enactment that occurred after the grand achievement of Barack Obama, being followed by the horrific rise of white supremacy that crescendoed into an act of domestic terrorism in Charlottesville. Reminding us of Heather Heyer, whose life was lost on that tragic day, tributing her with a frozen silhouette of her tribute memorial in Charlottesville, writing “Rest in Power” underneath her life's timestamp. 

It's these kinds of challenges that Lee provokes from the audience that forces you to judge your mindset and outlooks, internally. It's what makes “BlacKkKlansman” one of the best of the year. A satirically, crude, sombering, hilarious, triumphic tragedy of a film that is one of Lee’s best in years. He’s a master of the craft, and if you didn’t know that already, you will now. This is a Spike Lee Joint. 

Three Identical Strangers (2018)

   Director: Tim Wardle  With: Bobby Shafran, David Kellman, & Lawrence Wright. Release: Jun 29, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 36 min. 

Director: Tim Wardle
With: Bobby Shafran, David Kellman, & Lawrence Wright.
Release: Jun 29, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 36 min. 

 

Tim Wardle's “Three Identical Strangers” is the kind of story that writers, or anyone fond of that art, would love to be responsible for creating. It’s an infusion of various genre’s and styles, transferring from your basic suspenseful drama to a thrilling mystery to a sweeping and hefty dramatic reveal that soon builds to a crescendo of ambiguity. It contains intrigue, originality, excitement, thematic integrity, profound messages, unanswerable scientific inquiries, and it's all real. 

Just like Eddie’s college dorm room friend, who spilled the bean to his long-lost twin brother Bobby, stated: “this is a story you won’t believe.” Seemingly designed for something of a cinematically empowering drama that searches for the truth and opens with a title card that reads “based on a true story.”  

This happened though, well before my time too. I was lucky enough to have it that way though, allowing this experience to be the first encounter with this once in a lifetime kind of story. It’s just that too, “Three Identical Strangers” convening to discover a forbidden truth, one that has encompassed the outlining of their lives. Meeting and acquainting with each other as if they grew up with one another, ending their first night together by wrestling on the floor with their now shared lovable man of a father, nicknamed “Bubbalah.” They each grew up with a different father though, each of which adopted these children from the same adoption agency, Louise Wise, one of the largest on the entire east coast. 

It begins in a way that overlooks all of the mystery for the first 30-45 minutes, reveling in the sheer majesty of three prodigal sons reuniting with another, each stemming from different backgrounds. David derived from a blue-collar family, one filled with immigrants and provided him with the same inherent workhorse mentality, and Eddy arrives from a middle-class parentage, one that believed in a stricter, military style of teaching. The third twin, Bobby, emanates from a wealthier household, a far more well-off estate of life that was able to provide him with a better knowledge of how the world works with better schooling, better opportunities, and exposure to the potential that life beholds, financially speaking. 

When they discover that someone may have orchestrated this entire event, from the differing wealth classes to the coincidental adopted sisters, everything may have been constructed in a way that services science over all things. Providing a study that is meant to answer one of science's most prominent inquiries in that of which is more significant in child growth: nurture or nature? 

A puzzle that could never be authentically answered without crossing ethical boundaries, which inevitably led to the study remaining unpublished, I suppose. We don’t actually know. The study was buried behind closed doors by its long-forgotten orchestrator Viola Bernard, locked in am an unbreachable cage at Yale University, locked and keyed until the year 2066. However, there is one exception in that of a subclause that allows access to the documents if granted by the board of Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, and I should stop there because this is a story that is best when discovered. 

It plays like that of a great mystery-drama one that has its fair share of tragedy, which is why the on-going montage of these three long-lost brothers plays for a few scenes too long. Rejoicing in the extraordinary events that occurred that lined-up to a heartwarming, and triumphic moment in the story. These guys knew each other and expressed the similarities on national broadcasts, allowing them to become overnight celebrities, trending throughout the East Coast. It’s a marvelous thing to happen, but it goes on and on and on, leading me to question at one point: “Isn’t there a mystery to this whole thing?”

It basks in this incredible story too long, getting sunburned by the harsh spotlight placed on this one tone of the story, needing to get jump-started by the mystery, so that the darker turn of the tale reignites your interest. Evoking a continually twirling journey of emotional manipulation, as we see the makings of a family tragedy that could have partially been blamed by the puppet masters behind the scenes of this story, someone who the film treats as the villains of this tale. 

Providing grumbly rhythms of the score to underline the interviews with these so-called “scientists,” but they are scientists in search of a discovery that would change human evolution as we know it. The two members we interview we're merely researching assistants as well, affecting a handful of lives that arguably may have led to one of our greatest revelations in sociological and psychological history. An answer that may suggest that our genes play a much larger factor that we anticipate, at least that was my opinion until the tragedy of Eddy takes hold, making you ask if this study is worth those risks? If you're morally conscious, then it's a passionate “no.”

It’s a line not worth crossing, toying with someone else’s life, but the villains here are not the research assistants. There is no need for villains in this story, in fact. The story is enticingly enchanting on its own. It’s something of fantasy turned reality kind of a story, inevitably proving that truth is stranger than fiction, and with the help of David and Bobby and filmmaker Tim Wardle, this true story becomes one of 2018’s best. It indulges itself for far too long, but inevitably provides a story worth investigating, one that summarizes itself with a hopeful finale that states how free-will manufactures our destiny. 

Spreading this message of how life is not some randomization of events, instead of a game of choice that has no overlooking design to its structure. It’s despairing, investing, and beautiful. Much like that of “Three Identical Strangers,” life is sensationally riveting, but we all choose to indulge the best of moments, fearing to learn from the tragedies that we all experience. A profound lesson that comes from a story that will leave you researching for hours on end, trying to discover the truth behind it all, or maybe that’s just me. 
 

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)

   Director: Christopher McQuarrie  With: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby, Michelle Monaghan, Wes Bentley, Frederick Schmidt, & Alec Baldwin. Release: Jul 27, 2018 PG-13. 2 hr. 27 min.

Director: Christopher McQuarrie
With: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby, Michelle Monaghan, Wes Bentley, Frederick Schmidt, & Alec Baldwin.
Release: Jul 27, 2018
PG-13. 2 hr. 27 min.

 

If I were going to get into the movie-making business, I would be a writer. No doubt in my mind, because I am a sucker for storytelling, an admirer of dialogue, and a self-admitted addict of worldbuilding. These are the things that invigorate me with excitement; these are also the things that make action films so hard for me to watch. They’re bonafide products of Hollywood, with grand sequences of physicality and thrilling sequences of conflict, these are the kind of films that usually throw screenwriting to the wayside and let the camera do the talking. If that gets your gears going, then Christopher McQuarrie’s “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” is for you. 

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the fanatical moments of chaos that you can only get from action films, but it's when they can blend story with those spotlighted productions of anarchy that I begin to feel that rush of adrenaline everyone else does. Movies like “Mad Max: Fury Road” which blends stunts with the story, a lesson picked up by Christopher McQuarrie, though not as skillfully executed as George Miller. 

Screenwriting lessons seem to have gone directly over his head though, fabricating the first direct sequel in the franchise and being the first returning director in the franchise, Christopher McQuarrie begins “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” where “Rogue Nation” left off. Hunt (Tom Cruise) finds himself battling against a group called the apostles, a maniacal and ideological group of individuals who believe that the systematic control of governments has brought the world to its knees. In response, they plan to devastate the world economies and sanctity of the world by nuclearly attacking sovereign nations like Kazakhstan and holy cities such as Jerusalem. 

In response, he's tasked with the mission, if he should choose to accept it, of apprehending the nuclear weaponry. He comes close at the beginning of the film but inevitably loses it due to a tough set of circumstances. In response, he's forced to work alongside CIA Agent Walker (Henry Cavill), who alongside the regular team of the MIF crew, are trusted in saving the world once again. 

So its all about keeping nuclear weapons out of ideological fanatic hands, sound familiar? Good, because the story becomes a recycled version of every “Mission: Impossible” film throughout the rest of this two hour, and near thirty-minute runtime, with plenty of twists and turns, face reveals, spy mumbo jumbo, and predictable last-second hero moments to make the most die-hard of "Mission Impossible" fans satisfied.

There are sprinkles of emotional engagement, constructed through character, like an “Indiana Jones” movie. Hunt (Tom Cruise) being the core of those scenes in which we get a glimpse of a story that focuses on what happens when the good guys lose and another in which we discuss if one life is worth millions. Both of these share the films best moments, narratively speaking, but they both get outshouted by audience favorability it seems as if we can’t have entertainment and artistic quality co-existing with one another, which is where Christopher McQuarrie tends to pull on the reigns of this runaway horse.

 He sees the forest through the trees, but would rather stay nested in the woods that see the remarkable thing that is waiting on the other side. It’s where “Mission Impossible - Fallout” goes awry for myself. Never attempting to do anything nuanced on the page, rather allowing the camera to do all the talking, which is where “Mission Impossible - Fallout” has earned its prestigious reputation from critics. 

Directionally speaking, Christopher McQuarrie can do no wrong in this movie. Providing masterfully constructed sequences that feel as if they last for five to fifteen minutes, but in all actuality, they’re much longer than that. He engulfs you in these moments by leaving just enough breadcrumbs to follow from the screenplay; you become enthralled by these breathtaking moments of mayhem. 

There is not one or two moments worth raving about; there are five. All of them are quite remarkable, and all of them are shot in-camera with practicality being the guiding hand behind the scenes. This is where Tom Cruise makes his money, providing riveting sequences of his aggressive parkour freerunning, which as the fastest man ever caught on camera, Tom Cruise excels in those moments. He drives against the traffic on the Arc de Triomphe on a motorcycle, without a helmet. He learned how to fly a helicopter, and he learned how to do a HALO (High altitude; Low oxygen) jump from a plane going one hundred and sixty-five miles per hour. And all of this was done for real. 

Least to say, Tom Cruise is either someone you look at as a crazy man trying to win our hearts with an evil Kenevil mindset or as someone who's willing to sacrifice everything for art. Whichever light you wish to paint him in, one thing we can agree on is that Tom Cruise deserves some respect for his outings in both this movie and his entire display of ferocity throughout his career. 

My favorite of these moments involved a rope climb on a flying helicopter. Yes, you heard that correctly. The stunt was to have Tom climb up a rope attached to the undercarriage of a helicopter, and in the midst of making the climb he would fall but catch himself before he hit the payload. Tom, being Tom, actually lost his footing, fell upside down, and was able to catch himself near the bottom of the cargo attached to this thin rope, making for a fantastic hero shot, and a sequence that was legitimately death-defying. 

Those moments are what makes “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” a qualifier for action movie of the decade for most people it seems. Excusing recycled storytelling tropes for in your face action. I can’t do the same, but I can give these guys a lot of credit. Especially Tom Cruise, he provides a performance that is both intense and sincere, if given some more depth or bite to his character, he could have become the one emotionally reverberating aspect of the film. 

The usual gang of Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Ferguson, and Michelle Monaghan are tremendous and provide that familiar taste that reminds you that this is a “Mission: Impossible” movie. Henry Cavill along with the mustache that killed “Justice League” provides a solid outing, and Sean Harris isn’t too far behind with his memorable monologues that are delivered with the coldness of a good villain. Baldwin and Angela Basset are fine, but nothing worth mentioning. 

“Mission: Impossible - Fallout” is by far the best entree of the franchise thus far, but the rehashed storytelling of a James Bond-like character with a conscious, and the recycling efforts of the franchises tropes and cliches keep this movie from becoming the ensembling blockbuster it tries to be. Though fellow critics seemingly sacrificed masterful directorial efforts for mediocre screenwriting endeavors, I cannot do the same. “Mission Impossible - Fallout” is an action movie through and through, one worth seeing on the big screen. 

Just don’t let the action fool you into thinking that the page is not as strong as camera, both of these things are needed for a masterpiece, something Christopher McQuarrie falls short of due to his inability to make the interluding moments of storytelling as thrilling as Tom Cruise’s ridiculous stunts, a harder feat to accomplish than it sounds, I imagine. 

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

   Director: Brett Haley  With: Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Ted Danson, Sasha Lane, Blythe Danner, & Toni Collette. Release: Jun 8, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 37 min.

Director: Brett Haley
With: Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Ted Danson, Sasha Lane, Blythe Danner, & Toni Collette.
Release: Jun 8, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 37 min.

 

In the midst of watching Brett Haley’s (“The Hero” & “I’ll See You in My Dreams”) “Hearts Beat Loud,” I began to take note of the film’s modesty. It never introduces or takes a stance on some sort of social commentary or political discourse, which is remarkably refreshing. While I enjoy a filmmaker standing by his beliefs and embracing that controversial edge of social topics, it’s nice to see a movie that allows us to relax and enjoy a film that charms with pure charisma. 

It never stops to take a stance on anything, which is something it could’ve done with that of its star being in a same-sex relationship with a girl named Rose (Sasha Lane). The film could’ve stopped to defend that relationship, which wouldn’t have bothered me, obviously, but it would have been entirely unnecessary. The story doesn’t need that added bit of socio-political debate; in fact, it feels so natural to the story that it never feels as if it's being argued for, just merely occurring within our narrative. 

Written by Brett Haley and Marc Basch, “Hearts Beat Loud” focuses on a relationship between a father and daughter. Specifically, that much-awaited moment when the young one goes off to college and the dad has to learn how to live without her being home; the whole situation is even harder when discovering the mom passed away in a cyclist accident twelve years before our story occurs. 

Residing in the hipsterish village of Red Hook in Brooklyn, Frank (Nick Offerman) is a records shop owner, selling vinyl and chatting up music geekdom with customers. His daughter, Sam (Kiersey Clemons), is a pre-med student at a community college preparing to attend another round of pre-med at UCLA. 

The only problem is that she inherited that gene of singing from her mother, who met her father in a band. After one jamming session after a long hard day in which Frank (Nick Offerman) reveals to his landlord, Leslie (Toni Collette), that he’s going to close the shop, they kindle a fire that gives Frank (Nick Offerman) this feeling of a last chance at reigniting that immense pride of fatherhood. 

There is melancholy that hangs over it all, which becomes an idealist versus realist kind of scenario in which Frank (Nick Offerman) sees a young girl throwing away her talent for a reliable income. On the other hand, Sam (Kiersey Clemons) is afraid of ending up like her father, a dead-end shop owner who lives in the past. It’s something the film does quite differently than fellow uplifting musical rides like “Sing Street,” maintaining a level-head between something authentic and dreamlike storytelling. 

Brett Haley and Marc Basch excel in crafting that harmony of tension and upliftment, never allowing it to crush your feeling of elevation while never allowing you to believe in something implausible. Someone who says this best is the bartender Dave (Ted Danson), who states “We can’t always do what we love, so we have to love what we do.” 

He becomes a constant source of therapy for our father figure as well as providing some amusing stories about his times in Woodstock, and he describes the film’s narrative meaning with that poetic diatribe. Recognizing that dreams don’t always come true and we have to learn how to live without them. It’s not crushing, nor is it saddening per say. The film handles it in a way that inspires us to relook at life in a way that is far more optimistic than dour. 

Where the film gains a lot of steam that pushes it from good to great is its music. It has an indie-folk style that also has a lot of pop to it, providing a soundtrack that is so infectiously passionate. Forcing you to tap your toes while allowing the lyrics speak to your soul, it's that kind of music that we all listen to for some upliftment, and it delivers in that way. The film does have a few touching songs that echo the inherent emotion placed into this family dilemma, something that is sure to roll a tear or two from every eye in the theater. 

Aesthetically, Brett Haley and his cinematographer, Eric Lin, deliver a summerish atmosphere to the film. Providing a vivid and bright array of visuals that attract the eye, with yellows and greens radiating throughout the screen. The environment is very hipsterish, with flannels and coffee and retro style scenery that blends in with the story in an organic fashion. The camera itself moves freely, circling our artists when they begin to jam out, providing this momentum building essence that excited me with joy and vibrancy, something the film continued to do with ease. 

Both Offerman and Clemons deliver fantastic performances. Offerman (“Parks and Recreation” & “Hero”), returning for his second team up with Brett Haley, has always been the cuter and far more charismatic version of Tom Selleck for me, and he displays it again in “Hearts Beat Loud” with some adorably humorous moments with Kiersey Clemons (“Dope” & “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising”). 

He also provides some of the film’s most passionate moments, moments that are only outdone by Kiersey Clemons who surprises with an exceptional performance. She gives these naturalistic moments that feel as if we’re watching Sam instead of Kiersey Clemons pretending to be Sam Fisher. If it weren't for her co-star Toni Collette’s phenomenal performance in “Hereditary,” she would be my front-runner for the best female performance of the year thus far. Collette also delivers a solid performance in this movie, as well as Ted Danson who is fun to see as always, and there’s also some fun scenes with Blythe Danner who depicts Frank’s (Nick Offerman) mother.

The story is one we’ve seen before, and one we’ll inevitably see again. The music is poppy, and purposefully catchy, but it all plays so organically that it provides a feeling that merely is infectiously joyous. During a scene in which Frank (Nick Offerman) is attempting to help bring Sam’s (Kiersey Clemons) debut song to life, he states: “This is a mood piece, it just has to have a feeling. This has a feeling.” The same could be said for “Hearts Beat Loud,” a mood piece that is contagiously exhilarating that elates as much as it inspires. It’s a feeling that I can’t get enough of, and one that I can’t wait to feel again. 

Incredibles 2 (2018)

   Director: Brad Bird  With: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Brad Bird, Bill Wise, Isabella Rossellini, & Barry Bostwick.  Release: Jun 15, 2018 PG. 1 hr. 58 min. 

Director: Brad Bird
With: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Brad Bird, Bill Wise, Isabella Rossellini, & Barry Bostwick. 
Release: Jun 15, 2018
PG. 1 hr. 58 min. 

 

Pixar has always been about originality, minus the “Cars” franchise, but sequels have become a dime a dozen with 2016’s “Finding Dory” and the impending “Toy Story 4.” Now, fourteen years removed from the first film, Pixar has brought back the team of supers, but they don’t feel fourteen years older. We leave right where we left off with that same jazzy score and the sixties stylized heroes that speak with a societally focused message that is loud and received with ease. 

Written by Bird once again, it picks up where the first film left off, as I stated, with the underminer merging from the undergrounds of the city to launch an attack on the bank. These heroes jump into action though, not fearing the repercussions of breaking the law for enacting themselves into the scene. 

Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) run in head first, leaving Jack Jack (Eli Fucile) to be watched by both Dash (Huck Milner) and Violet (Sarah Vowell). The two kids fight over babysitter duty while the adults attempt to stop the crazed mole of a man. He inevitably gets away though, and the mining vehicle turns into a vehicular weapon designated on destruction. 

But our heroes save the day, only to be held at gunpoint as their escorted to the police station and warned to stay out of the light. Their governmental ally, Krushauer (Phil LaMarr), attempts to do what he can before he retires, but politicians don't understand those who desire to do good. They just needed an excuse to keep these heroes dead for good it seems. Given two weeks stay at a local motel, these heroes have a brash spurt of dialogue about subjects such as governmental treatment, fair laws, and the societal effects of legislation. 

It’s all done without a beat missed though, an exceptional feat to consider from a kids movies about superheroes. Not to mention the spellbinding attention to detail from the visual team of Pixar, from the wrinkles in Bob’s (Craig T. Nelson) robe to the use of shadows and lighting to the strands of hair to be found in Elastigirl’s (Holly Hunter) hair. Pixar is always top notch with its animation, and this is just another feather to add in their cap. 

The heroes find themselves at rock bottom with Bob (Craig T. Nelson) and Helen (Holly Hunter) discussing who should take the brunt of the load this time around, seeing as Bob (Craig T. Nelson) worked at a miserable Insurance firm for twenty years. To their surprise, Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) was approached by someone after the heroic events of the day, someone with a lot of money and an extreme passion for superheroes. 

Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) is that man; he comes from a background that formulates him like that of a renaissance man. Aimed at bringing back the bright and bold past of heroism, Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister, Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), are two kids who took their father’s business and personal ideals to manifest a fantastic opportunity for heroes to return to saving the day. He doesn’t choose the big and robust Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) to lead the way though, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) is their elected leader since her calamity costs seem to be the lowest. This comes to the surprise of Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), attempting to cope with someone being chosen over him, and being happy for his wife at the same time. He’s internally conflicted in that way, but he decides to be brave and become the stay at home father while mom brings home the bacon. 

This is something that Brad Bird’s screenplay exemplifies with flying colors. He examines this constant fret of manhood under attack from women being the ones responsible for making money, something that has been examined before, but continuously seems to be abnormal for our society. It’s rare to see women in the front, especially when their husband casts a long shadow that they’ve been buried underneath continuously. Bird recognized that ideal in the first film, making Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) the calm and far more achievable hero of the pair, he carries that notion to new heights with the sequel. He takes her character to the point of legitimacy that examines that internal conflict that men seem to face, in which they seem to confuse the idea of leadership with an occupation. 

It takes Bob (Craig T. Nelson) a while before he makes this distinction, as well as the importance of it. He seemingly forgot how great it is to be a dad, and he faces far more extreme hardships than most fathers when he learns Jack Jack (Eli Fucile) has not one, but seventeen powers, and counting. He’s a character that seems to be more powerful than anyone and everyone as if he’s the Matt Malroy of the “Incredibles” universe. Luckily Edna Mole (Brad Bird) assists in fabricating something to make babysitting this omega level mutant-like child a bit smoother. 

This fatherhood challenge leads to some of the film’s most enchanting moments, like a conversation between Violett (Sarah Vowell) and Bob (Craig T. Nelson) in which he apologizes for his actions involving the boy she’s crushing on and admits how he wants to be a good father. With the look of a man that feels as if he’s failed at that role, his daughter reminds him of the love she has for him. It’s a heartwarming moment that evoked the most emotion from myself and the audience around me during my screening this morning. 

The emotion isn’t the only benefit of the screenplay; there is also some fantastic action and superhero fun to be had. With a villain known as Screenslaver, who hacks into anyone’s screen and hypnotizes them with a white and black circulating loop. Forcing people to forget how to fly helicopters and taking over broadcasters to get across his message, it's all so predictable though. From the get-go, you can spot out the villain behind the mask; it’s almost worth spoiling for just how obvious it seems to be. 

The narrative doesn’t rely on that action-packed story as much as it does it's emotional investigation of fatherhood though, the visuality of it all doesn’t hurt either, maintaining that sixtyish, bond-like, and Kirby comic book style that the original film excelled with. Bird designs the film to look so bracingly out of a Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comic book, as well as a Sean Connery style Bond film, but there's no womanizing to be had. The film treats all of its characters with a sheer amount of integrity and authenticity, not only with Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) but Violet (Sarah Vowell) and newcomers like Voyd (Sophia Bush) as well. 

Bird doesn’t treat the men wrongfully either; they stand in the spotlight just as much as the ladies. Working together to save the day, which is something that the “Incredibles” franchise continues to excel at. Displaying unity, bravery, and societal relevance at a cinematic rigorousness that deserves a trilogy or a tv show or whatever Pixar wants to do with it. 

I do have one recommendation though, keep Brad Bird at the helm of their story. He patiently waited to return to his toy box, a toy box he made famous 14 years ago. These are his toys though, allow him to choose who gets to play with them next. 

TAG (2018)

   Director: Jeff Tomsic  With: Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, LilRel Howery, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Isla Fisher, & Hannibal Buress. Release: Jun 15, 2018 R. 1 hr. 40 min.

Director: Jeff Tomsic
With: Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, LilRel Howery, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Isla Fisher, & Hannibal Buress.
Release: Jun 15, 2018
R. 1 hr. 40 min.

3_4 stars-3.png
 

Comedies are meant to be not only funny, but some of the best of these films have a heart to them. There like the little movies that could, they challenge these big boy films with witty humor and a little emotion to create that sense of resonance. Jeff Tomsic’s “Tag” exemplifies this notion, almost perfectly. The film follows a simple narrative, a group of adult men, who have been friends since childhood, gather around during May to play a game of “Tag.” It’s silly, but its core message isn’t something that is worth laughing at. 

Walking the line between embracing your childhood and moving on from it, “Tag” has a message that we all feel, but don’t get to wrap our head around completely. It gets lost in the transitions of this twisting narrative that takes competitivity to an outrageous extreme, especially when it comes to the one who remains tagless, Jerry (Jeremy Renner). He’s a guy who grew up to become someone of exceptional talent when it comes to this game, almost making it seem that he should have been involved with the military or something. Nonetheless, Jerry (Jeremy Renner) is one of the best parts of the film, both filmatically and narratively. 

His sequences of action in which the group attempts to conquer the impossible are narrated by himself. Providing a Sherlock Holmes-like design in which he predicts every moment for the audience. Breaking down his friend's movements and the psychological weaknesses that he exploits to his benefits. Narratively speaking, the character provides an amount of heart to the film for what he stands for as if he’s the last stitch of childhood. 

One that has played the game so well, and so competitively, that he finds himself symbolizing the one who has been absent the most from these men’s lives. Helms’ character discusses this when he talks about how the game is a way for them to stay apart of each other’s lives. Keeping them together, except for the man who seems to be untaggable. 

It becomes a game worth watching though, with some extreme sequences that lack believability entirely, which is where some film viewers will draw the line. I couldn't help but find this over the top essence of it all so humorously delighting though, it becomes both action-packed, while continuously being funny. Not only with discovering just how good Jerry (Jeremy Renner) is at this game but the little banter that seems filled with hopelessness and reliant optimism from his friends. Each of them has their successes in life, like Bob (Jon Hamm) whose CEO of a fortune 500 company.

At the beginning of the film, he’s being interviewed by a journalist from the Wall Street Journal. In the midst of this conversation about the integrity of his company, Hoagie (Ed Helms), whose disguised himself as a janitor by getting hired by the Bob’s (Jon Hamm) company, interrupts their discussion by obnoxiously cleaning the office. Loudly banging trash cans and erupting with noise, till finally Bob (Jon Hamm) politely asks him to leave, only to learn that his friend is “it.” The game begins from there on, and our journalist acts as our expositional vacuum in which we are fed the backstory through her. The secrets, the stories behind specific character interactions, and the constant feed of information from the shared childhoods of these men. 

It’s a wild story that is based on one from reality, broken down in an article by the Wall Street Journal in 2013. The exposition is on the nose, and the film takes it sequences to an illogical extreme, but that's what comedy is right? It’s making something relatively mundane feel extreme in a way that is clever and authentic, which is where “Tag” strides. The authenticity of a group of lifelong friends interacting with one another in a way that is believable. The performances assist in this no doubt, but Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen’s screenplay manifests that naturalistic dialogue. It's not on par with something of a James Ivory, but it has a sense of earnestly that reminds me of his style. 

I wish I could discuss the style of the director, but comedies seem to be lacking in that department continuously. Few continuously stand out with their visual treatments or cinematic language, but every genre has inherent burdens to bear, I guess comedies is dull cinematography. If it wasn’t for the brash screenplay and unapologetic ridiculousness of it all, “Tag” may not have been at the receiving end of high praise from myself, but it all works. It’s funny, bold, and unexpectedly brilliant at times, it's a good comedy movie, something that seems to be in short supply these days. 
 

Ocean's 8 (2018)

   Director: Gary Ross  With: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Richard Armitage, & James Corden.  Release: Jun 8, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 50 min. 

Director: Gary Ross
With: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Richard Armitage, & James Corden. 
Release: Jun 8, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 50 min. 

 

In the midst of Gary Ross’s, not Steven Soderbergh's (though he was a producer), “Ocean’s 8” there is a scene in which our family made crook, Debby Ocean (Sandra Bullock), is browsing through possible additions to the crew with her confidant Lou (Cate Blanchett). Lou (Cate Blanchett) pulls up a headshot of a rather handsome fella, and Debby (Sandra Bullock) turns him down stating “A him gets noticed. A her gets ignored.” This scene is where I began to catch on to the con being fronted by “Ocean’s 8,” and it's one worth watching. 

The film sets itself as a sequel, instead of a reboot. Taking place years after the heyday of Danny Ocean (George Clooney) who has passed away, at least we assume he has, and his younger sister has seemed to have learned all of his best moves and made them even better. Opening with a scene that harkens back to “Ocean’s 11,” quite literally, in which our feminine lead crook is attempting to earn parole. She says she wants the simple life, that her days as a thief are done, she even gets choked up discussing how her brother’s legacy has not inspired her, but we all know that’s a crock a shit. She, in fact, is playing a con, something that seems to be as natural to her as breathing air. 

Why is she playing a con? To get out of prison right? I mean, obviously, but it's not that simple. Nothing is ever that simple with these movies though, as expected she’s been planning something big. A job that involves robbing the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but not the museum itself, but rather a particular item that is persuaded its way around the neck of the beautiful Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway). Known as the Toussaint, an infamous necklace painted with a French history that is fabricated with six pounds of diamonds and is valued at $150 million. With a crew of eight, that splits the prize at about $16.5 million each, a substantial enticement for anyone who needs anymore persuading beyond the challenge that lies ahead of them in this big, grand, con of the century. 

The money is great, but that doesn’t seem to be the only incentive because these women all seem to share that same appetite for thievery that Debby Ocean (Sandra Bullock) and her family seem to have inherited almost organically. Lou (Cate Blanchett) is an old friend who's been with Debby (Sandra Bullock) since the start; she also shares some of the same connections she does to the old Soderbergh crew of swindlers. Amita (Mindy Kaling) is someone who can fake the jewelry but also lives with her mother whose constant harassment can be quite an enticement to try and steal your way to something better. 

Constance (Awkwafina) and Nine Ball (Rihanna) are the two utility and necessary tools, one is that sleight of hand smuggler, and the other is the hacker. How they learned their trade or who they are beyond that is not very important to “Ocean’s 8,” as Rose Well (Helena Bonham Carter) and Tammy (Sarah Paulson) or any of the other members of the crew that aren’t Debby Ocean (Sandra Bullock) seem to be overlooked and treated as unimportant. It’s a glaring flaw in the middle of “Ocean’s 8” that showcases the lack of style or nuance presented by Gary Ross, who also assisted Olivia Milch in writing the screenplay. The cast feels consistently mishandled, which for a film that is meant to use the sly socio-political messages of feminism to be the little jabs underlying this brash but familiar story, this misuse of the cast seems to be something that directly refutes the notions presented. 

Sister-hood is supposed to be something of pride, and it's something that is never heavily focused upon. If you're reading closely though, you may have noticed that the film is called “Ocean’s 8,” and I have only named seven members of the crew. Well, the eighth member is a bit of a surprise, that’s all I’ll say for now, but it's one of the many surprises that is fantastic. It’s one of the great things that Gary Ross borrows from the past four films in that the wonders that the heist includes, or the hidden cameos and twists of the narrative can be predictable, yet still feel invigoratingly enjoyable.

 It’s almost like a mainstream horror movie in that way, in the sense that the film has twists that are predictable due to the expectational assumptions that are brought to a movie about stealing stuff. You know what’s coming next, but you still want to be a part of the ride, despite the predictability of it's best parts. It’s one of the aspects of “Ocean’s 8” that I was already signed up for, so, to no surprise, it was one of the many things that made me grin during my screening. 

The other things that made me grin were the powerhouse of performances brought to the table by this ridiculously talented ensemble of women. Anne Hathaway plays this ditzy girl in hiding, whose obvious sex appeal, and pretty but dumb persona lends to her performance being one that is multi-faceted. Both in the way she is directly trolling her critics and in how she keeps you guessing as to what her importance is to the screenplay. Is she just the butt of the joke, or is she apart of the fun? 

Sandra Bullock is magnificently charming and cunning. She has the dose of calmness and sternness that makes her seem as if she’s sleeping through her performance, but that’s the whole point of her character. This con isn’t her first, nor is it her last. She’s not going to have those rookie jitters; she’s a veteran and one of the best at what she does. Cate Blanchett shares remarkable chemistry with that facade of her character, continually dispensing her charisma all over the screen in a way that makes her feel like she’s giving far more to the role than the role is giving back to her. Rihanna and Awkwafina are the two comic reliefs of the group, something they excel at, and Sarah Paulson and Helena Bonham Carter are given roles that allow them to feel necessary, but never unique. 

Someone who feels completely underused is Mindy Kaling, she’s such a talented actress, and one that deserves some more opportunities because she leaves a lot of her fingerprints on this film, unlike Gary Ross. Not only is his screenplay rather dull in that of the meat of what makes this story tick, but the visual language presented is something of mundane quality as well. He’s continuously showcasing these wide shots of New York City as if we forgot where this film was taking place, and his edits feel more like he’s mimicking Soderbergh, instead of making this franchise his own. 

He plays second fiddle, not to these exceptional women, but to the man that made these films famous. At least the woman look incredible though, thanks to some impeccable costume design from Sarah Edwards who works alongside top designers such as Valentino and Naeem Khan, to name a few. She allows these women to embrace that feminine side of glitz and glamour, something that alongside the constant jabs of feminist pride, can become quite special to watch. 

It’s a long con, pulled off by both the cast and the filmmaker behind them. “Ocean’s 8” is presenting itself as a female-led reboot of a film, one that has no unique attachments, but in all reality, it's just that. It’s a female-led film that has a unique touch because of its womanhood, something that doesn’t get brought to light enough by the “man” behind the camera. If only this film had a director with a woman’s touch, I might not be describing this film as almost great. I guess that might be the great con of it all, a movie about women, with no woman behind the camera, such a shame. 

Hereditary (2018)

   Director: Ari Aster  With: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd, & Milly Shapiro. Release: Jun 8, 2018 R. 2 hr. 7 min. 

Director: Ari Aster
With: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd, & Milly Shapiro.
Release: Jun 8, 2018
R. 2 hr. 7 min. 

 

Curled up in my seat, grasping my arms, breathing heavily, and struggling to not look around me at all times. These are the traits of an experience that a great horror film can manifest from its viewer, traits that I exhibited tonight at my screening for Ari Aster’s feature film debut, “Hereditary.” It’s a horror film designed to produce something different from the guessable and unimpactful mainstream horror that audiences are accustomed too, in fact, it's hard not to say that this film isn’t original. From it’s story to its use of the camera, “Hereditary” maintains this sense of unique and nuanced storytelling. 

A brilliantly written story that builds from something slow and dramatic that lingers with an atmosphere that chills you to the bone, to something off the rails with unexpected twists and shadowed silhouettes that are sure to haunt my dreams when I lay my head down later tonight. However, it’s also a story that is easy to spoil and ruin for someone unaware of the brilliance that they're about to witness. Ari Aster structures this story in a way that makes it that way, continually blending expected reality with that of horrific fiction making sure that if you give away the surprise, the party's ruined. 

You're never sure if the events your witnessing are occurring or just another figment of a nightmare though, like that of Annie’s (Toni Collette) sleepwalking, a habit of hers that once led her to drown her children and herself in paint thinner one night. Waking herself out of the numbified trance with the sound of a match being lit. It’s a story that explains this disruption in the family, well one of them that is. It all takes place after the death of Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother, a woman whose dominating personality estranged them away from each other. We learn her family has a lineage littered with tragedy, a father whose depression drove him to death from starvation, and a brother whose schizophrenia drove him to suicide by hanging. Leaving behind a suicide note that blamed his mother for letting "them" inside him. 

Annie (Toni Collette) doesn’t become stricken with grief, but somewhat guilt. Fearing her mother’s behavior would somehow become her own, tearing apart the family she loves. To deal with this fear, she articulates small figurines. Building a little three-dimensional portrait of her life, from the birth of her children to the recent loss of her mother. She crafts a small glance into the shell of her life, one that begins to haunt her when her family begins to struggle with inexplicable things. 

Her youngest daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), ticks with creepiness and behavioral perplexions, like her deadly allergy to nuts. Yet it seems she’s chosen to eat them before, as we see her eating a chocolate bar during the funeral of Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother. Her father asks if it has nuts in it as if she willingly ate them before, well aware of her allergic liability. 

Her son, Peter (Alex Wolff), is someone attempting to understand his mother. Unable to forget her sleepwalking occurrence, he’s hard on her and always butting heads. They exchange a passive-aggressive tone of dialogue in a scene in which Peter (Alex Wolff) is asking to borrow the car to attend a friend’s party, a conversation that haunts our story later on. 

The husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), is a man of rationality and one that seems to be the backbone of the family, constantly reeling his wife back in. 

All of this is as much of the story that I am willing to give you in, why the fear starts or how it starts is something you’ll have to discover on your own. These are merely foregrounds for the characters, to allow you to understand the inherent emotion found in the horror that develops a sense of naturalistic realism. Realism that is maintained even when the story jumps from lingering articulative atmospheric fear to in your face and strangely believable events that are handled with a level of mastery from Aster. 

Aster in his first feature film has earned that definitive description of mastery because he continuously berates the story with nuance and sense of organized erratic behavior. Unable to predict what’s coming next, and feeling uneasy while you try to be two steps ahead of both Aster's visuals and his screenwriting. They work hand in hand, barely placing pressure on the strain of the audience until they suddenly reveal an image in which you see something lurking in the shadows. Something is remaining entirely still, staring back at you. The camera lingers, staying wide, steady, and calmly placed. Your eyes darting across the screen, and your hands gripping the theater chair, expecting to see something sporadically move, but Aster is not that simple. 

Aster keeps you on your toes in that way, always peeking around every corner of the story with this unsure sense of confidence, unable to predict the outcome. It’s unlike horror to do such a thing; we’re supposed to go in a be able to say “wait for it, here it comes,” as a loud screeching noise jolts through the surround sound, convulsing your friend out of their seat. Aster doesn’t do that though; he begins the film with slow, lingering, and depthful camera movements. They methodically meander throughout the frame, never in a rush to get to a scare or the next scene. He manifests an atmosphere; one the exemplifies something worth experiencing in a theatre. 

It’s worth that ten dollar ticket, if not to see the magnificent fright that awaits you, then to see Toni Collette throw her name out in front of the pack for the best female performance of 2018. Her facial expressions, her movement, her subtle smiles and twitches, and her constant evocation of emotional outrage is something worth a lot more than ten dollars. She grasps every drop of attention from the audience, pouring out her emotions on to the screen. Never shying away from going all-in, and knowing when to hold back. 

Milly Shapiro isn’t far behind though, in her first performance she inhabits a character that dispatches shivers. Manifesting a sound that is sure to be mimicked and replicated for years to come, one that merely involves you clicking your tongue. It becomes a dreaded noise in the film, one that when it occurs, it automatically riddles your body with goosebumps in anticipation for what could be lurking in the shadows. 

Alex Wolff and Gabriel Byrne are the backboned performances that could make or break this film. They remain tethered to reality, being the two representatives of those afraid of the events they witness. Not curious, not inspired by, just merely scared. Their performances hold the film together when it needs it most, being those utility tools that every filmmaker needs to craft something of this magnitude because they are essential to “Hereditary” becoming what it has been dubbed as, a masterpiece. 

It’s not this generation's “Exorcist,” nor is it the twenty-first century’s “Psycho.” “Hereditary” is something of its own, and it's insulting to call it something otherwise. It’s original; it’s the most prolific attribute that is worthy of the most praise. Ari Aster is a genius and one that has a bright future ahead of him. His direction of the actors, of the cinematographer, of the production team, and his pure manipulation of the audience is something exceptional from any director, let alone a first timer. Pawel Pogorzelski's cinematography, Colin Stetson's music, and the array of impeccable performances can’t go unmentioned, and now, neither can “Hereditary” when discussing the best of the horror genre. 

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

   Director: Morgan Neville With: Joanne Rogers, McColm Cephas Jr., François Scarborough Clemmons, Kailyn Davis, Joe Negrim, Fred Rogers, & Tom Snyder. Release: Jun 8, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 34 min. 

Director: Morgan Neville
With: Joanne Rogers, McColm Cephas Jr., François Scarborough Clemmons, Kailyn Davis, Joe Negrim, Fred Rogers, & Tom Snyder.
Release: Jun 8, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 34 min. 

 

Documentaries are perhaps my least favorite genre that filmmaking can offer. Not because I don’t enjoy being informed, but because the vacated gap of cinematic value that is never as prevalent as it needs to be to keep me intrigued. It’s one of the reasons I never provided a written review for Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s “RBG,” which is a fine film, but one that never pushed me far enough to deliver a few paragraphs of my thoughts. Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is not one of those documentaries for myself. 

Providing an intimate glimpse into the life and significance of a poorly produced television show and it's unlikely star. Always admitting that the inherent production value to be found within Mr. Roger’s show was nothing to be wowed by, but the intrinsic value and organic connection found is what leads to a show that talked tough to children, with earnest generosity for the limitless mind of a child. The structure of the documentary is what stole me away from the get-go, the film doesn’t begin with the expected opening of “when Fred was a child.” No, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” jumps into the thick of things and provides a strong opening that introduces those of whom are unfamiliar with the “second coming of Christ” as one of Fred’s sons so cleverly described. 

We run down the beginnings of the TV show shortly after that, learning that troubles of fabricating television shows from the ground up when the film was not so prevalent as it is now. Being forced to use old film, the show would cut out in the midst of live airing. This lead to Fred getting the idea for puppets such as Daniel the Tiger which would jokingly provide the time during these breaks in the airwaves. 

From there, we learn the significance of a man speaking to children with maturity, but never pridefully shouting down to them. The fellow leaders in his cause, and the ability he had to connect with children without ever needing a funny hat or a funny gimmick. Fred was a man that directly came down to there level; he tells a story in which one of his first interactions with a large group of children took place at an elementary school. A kid asked him a peculiar question that pondered as to why a toy loses its ear, Rogers describes the room coming to an anticipated silence as if the kids said: “this is your test, do you still have an imagination? Are you still one of us?” Fred responded with the same childlike curiosity and then carried on to list all of the other things that can get lost, each limbering description widening the child’s eyes. 

Each child felt this way, but “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” doesn’t stick with the effect that Rogers had on children. We get a glimpse of the risks he took by discussing themes such as assassination, death, and divorce. His importance as a figure that was able to provide the only hopeful light on a subject of such grief and tragedy like the Challenger explosion in 1986 that was answered by Rogers. As well as the dumbing down of children, the treatment of children’s future selves while simultaneously ignoring the present imaginative child, and using the core essence of his faith to inject the world with a little bit more kindness. 

Morgan Neville (Oscar Winning “20 Feet from Stardom”) is someone who applies a unique touch to this film. He never introduces topics that are not easily google-able, you can simply research Fred’s importance and risk-taking and stumble upon an article to read in a matter of minutes. It’s the essence he attaches to the documentary, allowing Rogers to speak almost directly to the audience with that genuine poignancy he’s famous for, but it's also the structuring as I stated already. 

The technical aspects of the filmmaking can’t go unmentioned either, whether it's Jonathan Kirkscey’s music or Graham Willoughby’s cinematography, both of which stand out more than you’d expect. Willoughby has a framing in which the camera feels as if it's been placed inside of a television, lensing the child that is viewing this sweater wearing pastor. Providing a visual representation of the intimate connection shared between the man on the screen and the child on the other side whose one on one experience feels special. 

Neville builds upon that specialty with the story of a man whose faith inspired to him change the world, but the world continued to battle against his benevolence. Continuing to rage against his machine of generosity with racial tensions, division, and massive acts of violence. 

At one point, he was asked to provide a PSA after 9/11. He asked a friend what the end of all this was? The world seems to be getting worse. It’s a heart-wrenching thing to watch a man with boundless joy, whose own optimism and hope become internally questioned due to the continuing destruction of reality. His constant reminders of love continued to push him on, such as the idea of 143. A weight that Rogers stayed at for an extended period of his life that numerically alphabetized the phrase “I Love You,” in which each number stands for the number of letters to be found in each word. 

It’s not his love that struck me though, but his continuing devotion to the idea of liking someone precisely the way they are, something that few members of the church believe. Rogers was opposite, his dear friend Francois Clemmons was someone that Fred allowed to be a statement for racial tensions. He later learned that the man he used to represent colored minorities, was apart of another minority in that of the gay community. Fred was against the idea of Clemmons coming out because it would put the show in danger of cancellation, sacrificing something for the greater good. It took Clemmons two years to learn that Fred may not have welcomed that part of him on the show initially, but he already told him that he still loved him just the way he was. 

Which is what Rogers best feature was, he was someone that embraced anyone and everyone. Even though he never welcomed himself, sharing a duet at one point in which he sings lyrics that described himself through the symbolic representation of Daniel the Tiger as a mistake as if his kindness and compassion did not belong in the world that he was born into.  The idea is especially haunting when discovering his funeral was protested with such hatred due to his rumored homosexuality. 

Something that remained just a rumor, but when met with hatred something that Rogers taught that every interviewee took part in near the end of Neville’s exceptionally poignant documentary was the idea of taking one minute to think about someone who has helped you most along your journey of life. Allowing one of our greatest gifts, silence, to remind us of someone's love that pushed us towards something better. I’ll tip my hat to this great man once more, and take part in this experience myself.

Placing the keyboard down and allowing silence to remind me of someone’s love that assisted me to this moment with you, the reader. I hope you indulge me and join in because we all should take time to remember those who have cared about us this whole time, and loved us just the way we are, welcoming us into their neighborhood of love. Something that Mr. Rogers did better than anyone I can remember. 

Upgrade (2018)

   Director: Leigh Whannell  With: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Christopher Kirby, Simon Maiden, Benedict Hardie, Melanie Vallejo, Richard Cawthorne, Clayton Jacobson, Sachin Joab, Michael M. Foster, Linda Cropper, & Roscoe Campbell.  Release: Jun 1, 2018 R. 1 hr. 40 min. 

Director: Leigh Whannell
With: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Christopher Kirby, Simon Maiden, Benedict Hardie, Melanie Vallejo, Richard Cawthorne, Clayton Jacobson, Sachin Joab, Michael M. Foster, Linda Cropper, & Roscoe Campbell. 
Release: Jun 1, 2018
R. 1 hr. 40 min. 

2.5_4 stars.png
 

Indie filmmakers have a particular talent for extending a clever logline to its absolute limit. Leigh Whannell shares that same talent; he takes a familiar and almost bad-shit crazy idea like that of a man being given a chance at revenge by being given a small computer chip implant called STEM (Simon Maiden) to its absolute limit, and then he strides past that barrier. A technological innovation that allows this violently made quadriplegic and technophobe Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) to gain access to his limbs once again, STEM (Simon Maiden) does that for him, as well as becoming a new friend that only he can hear. One that speaks into the drums of his ears and provides a vaster sense of knowledge and ability to himself, but also an inherent danger. 

It’s a “Blade Runner” meets “RoboCop” kind of tale, a man turning to technology to return to life but also to hunt down the men that took that life away from him as well. It takes place in a world that feels apart of that noirish world of “Blade Runner,” almost feeling mimicked even. The grungy technologically advanced future that feels far more disconnected, despite the lack of available connectivity, which is not a nuance theme by any means. Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), is a technophobe with a wife who works for a tech company. He’s a grease monkey that fixes manually driven cars, while she rides in a car that drives itself home. 

After dropping off one of his renovated projects to a wealthy technological innovator, Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), who introduces him to his newest prototype known as STEM (Simon Maiden), this self-driving car goes haywire. Driving off the road and an accelerated speed before crashing and flipping upside down. The droned recording devices for the Police arrive promptly to watch a group of men come and kill Grey’s (Logan Marshall-Green) wife and paralyze him completely. These droned footage finders are unable to assist in finding these murders though, seeing as they removed some kind of chip that allows them to remain escapable from the reach of the law because criminals always find a way, don’t they?

Drenched in grief and unable to overcome his lack of physical ability, Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) finds himself unable to desire to live. Being offered a reset on his life by Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), he states “I’m not looking for the reset button kid, I’m looking for the off switch.” He gives in though, reminiscing on the idea of what his wife would want for him. The procedure goes all-too-well, and he soon finds himself with a technological “Upgrade” that pushes him towards vengeance in a sequence made famous by the trailer in which he gives STEM (Simon Maiden) permission to take over his bodily functions. Making for some exceptional acting from Logan Marshall-Green in which he delivers facial expressions of surprise and third-person perspectives because his body is now a separate entity from his mind. 

It makes for Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde kind of character, but a character that was never brought to light enough to evoke resonance from me. He hates technology and something terrible happened to him is about all we learn about the man controlled by a machine, but the action and surprisingly hefty themes attached to his character’s journey provide that extra boost that the film needed which harkens back to an indie filmmaker stretching an idea as far as possible. 

Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (“Saw” & “Insidious”), “Upgrade” is an expected action flick with no heart and no ambition, but becomes an action film hidden inside of a sci-fi drama discussing the dangers of technology and our desire for self-happiness over human prosperity. Whannell stretches this story way farther than expected, writing something that continuously maintains a constant state of investment in this world, despite his characters never making me fret for their well being. 

There is some insane ingenuity that makes for sheer cinematic momentum like that of a gun for an arm or sneezing razor-wired germs. This is a world that weaponizes the limitless potentials of technology, and one that remains to feel both original and reprinted from fellow sci-fi masters. It’s not just the world-building, or the ingenuitive writing that becomes too big for its own good, Leigh Whannell also visualizes this story exceptionally. 

The camera movement is especially interesting because it's both frustratingly cutting while maintaining childlike excitement. The camera snips and snaps in some fight scenes, but in others, it moves with our hero, like that of something out of a video game or a comic book. It pushes the limits of camera maneuverability while allowing the flaws of the quick cutting of the action genre to remain prevalent. It’s as if Leigh Whannell got lazy on some days, and was caffeine filled excited on others. 

Someone that remains consistent is Logan Marshall-Green, who is the only actor worth mentioning because everyone else plays the stereotypical bad guy or necessary girlfriend. He provides a performance that gives his character far more emotion that it deserves, he delivers one of his best performances yet, but his character noticeably limits his reach at times. 

Unlike that character though, Leigh Whannell surpasses the limits of this fun-filled logline of a screenplay. He goes further and more profound than expected, but that third act finale is a bit too much. He slams on the gas pedal towards something ambiguous and thought-provoking when he should have steadily applied pressure towards the finish line. 

He’s expanding “Upgrade” past my expectations, and he helms it remarkably, but like every other compliment I can give him, there is a fair critique to be stated. Constantly pushing the film too far, and not far enough. He extends it to the point that is sheerly remarkable that it all makes sense that we went from a man on a path of vengeance to a philosophical glimpse on our desire for happiness. Our mind has limits, and this film does too, I just hope Leigh Whannell didn’t pull anything while stretching “Upgrade” to it’s stumping finale.