Category Archives: Movies

Crazy Rich Asians: Movie Review

Ten minutes in, I realized that I had misunderstood the title. Crazy Rich Asians does not mean ‘Asians who are both Crazy and Rich.’ It means, Asians that are Crazy Rich. Very rich, extremely rich, super rich. I like that better. It’s not trashing Asians, calling them (or at least some of them) deranged. It’s saying ‘it’s crazy how rich these people are.’

In most respects, Crazy Rich Asians is a rom-com. It’s actually a fairly conventional one; built around an attractive young couple, who we root for to find Troo Luv in each other’s arms. It has many of the romantic comedy plot points. There’s the rush to the airport (implied, in this case, but still) by one member of the loving couple, to rescue the relationship in the nick of time. It has wise advice from the Gay Best Friend. Meanwhile, it bases the comedy on something other than the happy (then unhappy, but ultimately happy) couple, usually the funniest bits involving their best friends and/or eccentric family members. It’s just set in modern Asian culture, or a subset thereof. Asian culture, though one in which essentially all the characters have Western names, have studied at Cambridge or Yale, love Western pop music, and speak English, dipping only occasionally into Chinese. If you like romcoms, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t like this one.

In fact, you’ve seen it before. The main factors preventing the couple from uniting are basically class and family–class-based family expectations. Set it in modern England, and He’s from an aristocratic family, and She’s from the London East Side; same movie. Regency England: it’s Pride and Prejudice. Set it in LA, and it’s Clueless. New York? Maid in Manhattan. Make the girl a hooker, and it’s Pretty Woman. Remember Arthur? 1981, Dudley Moore, John Gielgud, Liza Minelli? This movie is basically Arthur.

But there are, of course, subtle differences between All Other Romcoms Ever and this one, just as there are always differences between various movies in any genres, and those differences make the difference, between a terrific movie and a pedestrian one, or even a super-creepy one. (While You Were Sleeping, anyone?) Crazy Rich Asians is top-of-the-line.

Here’s why. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), is an economics professor at NYU. Newly minted, we presume, because she’s young for a PhD, and certainly pre-tenure, but an academic hotshot, specializing in game theory. She’s a confident, capable, sensible and successful professional woman, with a career she loves and is good at. Her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), is good looking, charming, and in love with her. None of that changes for either of them over the course of the movie. At the beginning of the movie, they’re a happy couple in love, and at the end of the movie, they’re still a happy couple in love. Their breakup (and of course they break up, it’s a romantic comedy) does not involve either of them meeting someone else, or anything silly like that. Rachel, if she loses Nick, will go back to New York, teach again, and presumably put her life back together. She wants to marry him, and will if nothing intervenes. But something does intervene, and there’s (momentary) trouble in paradise. Which she will survive.  I love that.

And trouble is inevitable, because there are things about Nick Rachel initially does not know. One is: he’s rich. Crazy rich. He’s the scion of a crazy rich Asian family living in Singapore, but with business interests everywhere. His Dad, who we never meet, is, we’re told, in Shanghai putting together a business deal. In the first scene of the movie, Nick’s just a little kid when his Mom, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) is refused service in a swanky London hotel in which she has a reservation. She responds by buying the hotel. So they own a hotel. Rachel doesn’t know any of that. She has been dating Nick for a year, and knows he is, in his words “comfortable.” She doesn’t realize what that means.

Nick’s best friend Colin (Chris Pang) is getting married in Singapore, and Nick invites Rachel to join him, and meet his family. And she has an inkling what that implies, and what it might mean to their relationship, and decides to go for it. And then is taken aback when they board their commercial jet, and sit, not in economy, and not in first class, but in a private hotel-suite-like compartment with beds. Nick is, in fact, crazy rich. And this trip is going to be an adventure.

One draw for Rachel is that Singapore is where her good friend, Peik Lin (Awkwafina) lives, a long limbed, awkward, fashion-sense-deprived gamin who was easily the most charming and fun character in the film. And Peik Lin catches her up on all the Young family background.

See, Eleanor, the Mom, wants Nick to come home to Singapore, and run the family business. Dad (not present in the movie, but very much in everyone’s thoughts), has been running himself ragged, and it’s time for the next generation to begin to take up the slack. And, aside from Nick, they’re mostly not up to the task.

And then we meet them, and boy howdy. There’s the slimy Wye Mun (Ken Jeong, at his smarmiest), sex-obsessed and creepy. There’s party animal Bernard, (Jimmy Yang), who clearly must never be allowed to run anything. There’s Eddie (Ronnie Chieng) an obnoxious petty tyrant, who chews out his children because they’re only attractive enough for Chinese Vogue, not American Vogue. There’s talentless filmmaker wannabe Alistair (Eddie Hii). And more substantively, there’s the melancholy fashion icon Astrid (Gemma Chan), married to Michael (Pierre Png). She’s a model and designer, and rich on her own; Michael is a former soldier, with no money of his own, starting his own company. Astrid and Michael form an interesting contrast with Rachel and Nick, which I will discuss in a sec.

With the exception of Astrid, all these characters are comic relief. They’re in the movie to satirize a new class of Asian nouveau riche, avatars of conspicuous consumption. Rachel would have studied Veblen in grad school, and the movie invites us to see these rich idiots through Rachel’s eyes, almost anthropologically, certainly objectively, as the film’s buffoons. Look at the actors playing them–Ken Jeong, Ronnie Chieng, Jimmy Yang. American/Asian comedians, with movie careers type-cast as various Asian stereotypes. This movie’s use of them suggests that successful Asians regard them much as American producers do, as clownish. It’s a little discomfitting, but they’re all gifted comedians, and the checks all cleared–they were undoubtedly happy for the work.

A more substantive critique, though, comes from Eleanor. She opposes any marriage between Rachel and Nick, and although she’s clearly the villain of the piece, her reasoning gave me pause, because she’s not wrong, and the movie clearly thinks so too. Eleanor thinks that Asian culture (particularly Chinese culture), understands the concept of family very differently than American culture does. Americans ultimately believe in self-fulfillment, in Family as something that enables and supports children to pursue their own ideas of what will make them happy. Chinese culture, on the other hand, puts Family first, always. The wants and needs of individual family members are immaterial. What’s important are the needs of the Family. And Eleanor looks at all the cousin/relative extended family members there in Singapore, and sees ne-er-do-wells and wastrels using family money to pursue their own lives, and making a frightful mess of it. (We spend quite a bit of time at various Singapore parties, and never, not for one second, do any of them look fun).  And Nick, steady, bright, responsible, thoughtful Nick is her son. He’s the one to restore the family, to save it. And while she rather likes Rachel (or at least respects her), Rachel’s an American, with a career in New York that she loves. She will not give that up for Nick, to live in Singapore and raise their children traditionally. Even if she does, she’ll resent it. So no to the marriage. Can’t happen.

She’s wrong-ish in the world of the movie. After all, we like Nick and Rachel, both individually and as a couple together, and we’re rooting for that to happen. But the movie focuses nearly-equal attention to Astrid and Michael’s marriage, which, over the course of the movie, falls apart. They couldn’t make it work, because Michael does NOT put family first. He puts his business ahead of her, and ends up having an affair. And yes, the fact that she has all the money and he has none is a factor. Which will also be the case for Nick and Rachel. He’s crazy rich, and she’s a college professor. Which is a good income, and a great life. But not one likely to make you a billionaire.

I love that about the movie. Eleanor is a wonderful character (and wonderfully played by Yeoh), precisely because she’s simultaneously terribly, hurtfully wrong, and also right. And while the movie does satirize crazy rich Asian culture, it does so lovingly. Singapore is lovely, and the food they’re constantly being served is amazing looking.

Rachel gives up Nick, turns down his marriage proposal, because she can’t bear the thought of him losing his family. She then explains why through a wonderfully unexplained game of mahjong she plays with Eleanor. (If you see the movie, it may not make much sense to you; this explainer helps.) Eleanor then responds by giving the marriage her blessing. And Nick makes it to the airport in time to propose. Like in every romcom ever. And you think to yourself, a successful family business could actually be run as effectively from New York as it could from Singapore. And a game-theory microeconomist would be handy to have around.

Anyway, it’s a wonderful movie. I strongly recommend it to anyone, whatever your ethnic background. And even if you’re an unromantic old curmudgeon like myself. Seriously, it’s terrific. It’s a crazy rich movie, emotionally, about a fascinating world subculture. I’m so glad someone was fool enough to make it. (And make tons of money off it!)

The Meg: Movie Review

It’s about a really big shark. The shark eats some people; other people heroically try to kill it. You already knew all that, and you already know the story. Plus I saw it last week, amid health issues. So rather than actually review it, here’s a different approach:

Fifteen responses The Meg.

  1. Far and away the most compelling, engaging and enjoyable performance by an actor in The Meg is delivered by an eight-year old girl, Shuya Sophia Cai. She plays Meiying, the daughter of Suyin (Bing-bing Li) the main marine biologist at a research center off the coast of China. Little Meiying has all the best lines in the movie, delivers them with aplomb, and is just insanely cute. My daughter thinks the movie’s costume designer took Cai to a particularly cool shopping mall and let her get anything she wanted, including moon boots with flashing lights, plus angel wings. Having no idea what he was doing, The Meg‘s director, Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure, Cool Runnings, The Kid) had Meiying disappear for the middle third of the picture. Yep; the movie had exactly one character you cared about, and she was gone, for no reason, for a good chunk of the movie.
  2. But Bing-bing Li is terrific too. She’s been a top actress in China since 1994, though not in movies most Americans will have seen. If this is meant to be her Hollywood breakthrough role–probable–it’s just a shame it’s not in a better movie. She’s outstanding–heroic and brave and nuanced. And old enough that her romance with Jason Statham isn’t all creepy.
  3. And Statham, playing the movie’s putative hero, Jonas Taylor, an underwater rescue expert, gives a perfectly acceptable Jason Statham action movie performance, no better and no worse than he’s given in twenty other movies. Statham’s 51 now, and looks terrific–most guys his age would kill for those abs. Short, bald and British do not preclude a long action-movie career. (Still, isn’t Statham the guy you get if you can’t get Bruce Willis?)
  4. Big roles for both Caucasian and Chinese movie stars, and long scenes in Chinese, with titles–they’re marketing this in China, and it might do pretty well. I mean, it’s not like the story is culturally specific–sharks are scary everywhere. There are, what, 300 million regular movie attenders in China? And that number is growing exponentially? I loved the casting of this movie, and loved seeing really good Asian actors doing good work. What I did think was weird was how many Asian extras get chomped. I would have thought that they would have made some effort towards equal opportunity shark victims.
  5. The movie does waste a bit of time with pseudo-scientific gibberish meant to explain why a megalodon, extinct for around a million years, still survives and why it’s starting snacking on homo sapiens. I get that movies have to do that, make the improbable premise of the movie seem probable. But it went on a bit long for my taste. Not that I mind movie science-y gibberish. The flux capacitor!
  6. My goodness, though; the characters in these movies make some dumb decisions. These kinds of movies always have scenes where all the characters sit around going ‘how do we fix this?’ But someone, in at least one of those scenes, has to say ‘no. Come on, that’s idiotic.’ They’re dealing with a shark maybe thirty times bigger than any shark ever, and they think someone will be safe in a shark cage? Seriously?
  7. Sheriff Longmire is also in this. That is, Robert Taylor, who plays Sheriff Longmire, is like the whitest guy in the movie. My daughter and I immediately decided he was going to be first character to die. We were wrong. He was second. But he does get to die heroically. Of course.
  8. I desperately hope, and do actually believe, that Rainn Wilson is a prince of a guy. I bet he is. I bet he’s a really good guy in real life. Because, my gosh, he’s great at playing obnoxious twerps. Or privileged rich jerks, which is what he plays here. I mean, check out his IMDB page: he voices Gargamel! Gargamel!
  9. Boy, that’s one scary shark, though. The Meg is a seriously ugly, exceptionally mean antagonist. And convincing.
  10. In fact, both of them are. Sorry! Spoiler! But, yeah, there are two Megs.
  11. Meg Ryan is not one of them. Another spoiler: Meg Ryan does not appear in a movie called The Meg.
  12. There exists, apparently, a new beach toy (new to me, anyway). Basically, it’s a big bubble, and guys climb into them, and you can run on the water, kind of like a hamster ball. It looks really fun. And it pops very satisfactorily when a ginormous shark bites down on it.
  13. There’s an actress in the movie, Ruby Rose, who plays an engineer named Jaxx. I don’t remember having seen her before, though I actually have seen several movies she was apparently in.  But she’s great in this. I liked her character in part because I could never quite decide if she was going to die or not. That’s a lot of the pleasure of a movie like this: guess who’s going to buy the farm, and in what order. Quiet Likeable Asian Family Man? Doomed. Comic Relief Black Guy? Probably okay. Cute little lapdog? Action Movie Dogs are immortal. My daughter and I guessed right every time.
  14. The Meg isn’t trying to be anything it’s not. It’s a movie about a really big prehistoric shark. It’s exceptionally predictable and nothing in it is likely ever to surprise you. The shark CGI is nicely done, but that’s Hollywood standard nowadays–you just don’t see a lot of crappy CGI anymore. It’s a popcorn movie, and perfectly acceptable on those terms. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing. My daughter and I enjoyed ourselves very much.
  15. Just don’t make it a priority.

The Incredibles 2: Movie Review

When my wife and I went to see the new Incredibles sequel, it started with what honestly felt like an apology: Holly Hunter and Samuel L. Jackson and Craig T. Nelson helpfully explaining why it had taken Pixar so long to do an Incredibles sequel. I thought that was weirdly unnecessary. In fact, Incredibles 2 required nothing of the kind. It’s an energetic, imaginative family/superhero comedy, a perfectly enjoyable piece of popular entertainment. With–tread lightly here–some non-intrusive-but-not-uninteresting political overtones and ramifications.

Both of the Incredibles movies posit a world where superheros exist, do good,save people, catch crooks–especially supervillains– but due to the property damage they sometimes cause, have become politically problematic. I think that’s a funny conceit, and I also totally get it. How many cities have been wrecked in the Avengers‘ movies? A popular superhero movie cliché is the fight scene where one superhero flings another one into a building, which is wrecked, though the superhero remains unscathed. I think that particular trope started with Richard Donner’s Superman, way back in 1978, which might be the first one where special effects were sufficiently advanced to make things like Christopher Reeve flying and smashing up things look realistic. Anyway, if any of that were real, someone would have to pay for all those ruined buildings, and probably means government, and that means tax increases, which no one likes, least of all politicians. So, yeah, ban superheros. Absolutely. Make ’em get normal-people jobs, put away the capes and skin-tight lycra costumes, punch a clock. Darn right too. Why do they get all the excitement and, you know, celebrity? Not fair.

In the first Incredibles, that’s precisely what Bob Parr (aka Mr. Incredible), voiced by Nelson, has done. His superhero costume has been put in a closet, and barely fits anyway. He works as an insurance executive, and hates everything about it. But that’s what you do when you have a young family. Nights, he sneaks off with Lucius/Frozone (Jackson), and monitors police radios. And dreams of doing superhero things. And Bob’s wife, Helen/Elastigirl (Hunter), is the occasionally nagging voice of domestic conventionality. And then a really nasty supervillain shows up, and Mr. Incredible is again needed, along with Frozone and Elastigirl.

Now, in the sequel, the politics are ever so slightly more front-and-center. A business mogul/political operative, Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), is into superheros, about the way Elon Musk is into space travel. Winston’s plan is to choose one particularly appealing and personable superhero, and send her out to rescue people, stop bad guys, do superhero stuff. Generate some positive public support. (He’s assisted in all this by sister Eleanor (Catherine Keener). And the hero he chooses is Elastigirl. And Helen is both intrigued and reluctant. But the money is good, hubby would seem to be temporarily unemployable, plus she really likes being Elastigirl. So she jumps at it.

So the movie splits focus, and we cut from Elastigirl’s heroic antics, to Bob’s best attempts at parenting. And he has some challenges. Daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), is busy negotiating the terrifying world of junior high crushes and romance. Son Dash (Huck Milner), is a boy’s boy, flunking math, into sports,  hyperactive, and also possessed of a super-speed superpower. And they’re the easy kids. There’s also baby Jack-Jack (voiced by Eli Fucile), who has a baby’s energy, a baby’s lack of discipline, plus a whole raft-full of emerging superpowers, some of them truly freaky. Bob is quickly exhausted. And seeks help, from, obviously, his favorite costume designer, Edna Mode (Brad Bird). And boy does she come through.

That’s the main body of the film, those intercut scenes, with Elastigirl’s heroing, and Bob trying to be a good Dad. Meanwhile back at the ranch. And the scenes with Bob and the kids are far more engaging. I mean, Elastigirl is an awesome hero, and her action sequences are cleverly conceived and beautifully drawn. But a very long extended scene of a battle royale between Jack-Jack and a racoon is a comedic masterpiece, brilliant and also terrifying (Jack-Jack is , after all, a small child, and racoons are predators! And susceptible to rabies! Yikes!) All the stuff with Bob at home is quite brilliant.

The last third of the film feels more pro forma. There is, inevitably, a supervillain, and convention requires that it be someone we’ve already met, which means either Winston or Evelyn, or both of them. I figured out which one it was ten seconds after the character made an appearance, and, it turns out, got it right. And of course, the kids have to ride to Mom and Dad’s rescue. There are also a bunch of lesser superhero characters, with amusingly varied powers, who also have to be exploited, then rescued. The final action sequences are, I suppose, sufficiently exciting and fun for the movie to work. But Bob and Jack-Jack are such comic gold, they overshadow the rest of the movie.

But I also like the film’s take on, well, politics, on irrationality and fear and prejudice. Superheroes, in the world of this film, are extraordinarily talented and capable individuals with almost limitless capacities. But they ‘cost too much.’ And must therefore be discriminated against, guarded against, regulated. Much the way immigrants are today. The Incredibles handling of weighty issues of xenophobia and prejudice isn’t remotely heavy-handed. It’s in the background, ever-present but not front-and-center. But it’s still there. So nice to see Pixar take a stand.



Tag: Movie Review

In 2013, the Wall Street Journal published a story about 10 close friends who, every February, played a massive, endless game of Tag. That’s Tag, the children’s game, where you, you know, tag people. A reporter named Russell Adams apparently broke the story, and included the detail that Hollywood was sniffing around.

And now, in 2018, someone greenlit the project, and someone else funded it, and a bunch of good actors signed on, and we have Tag, the movie. Hollywood being what it is, the movie is a good deal more preposterous than the actual Tag game it’s based on. That’s okay. There are ten real guys; to make the cast size manageable, the movie cuts it down to five. And to sharpen and heighten the conflict–to make sure there actually is a conflict–one of them, named “Jerry” (Jeremy Renner) has to be the all-time GOAT, the champeen, the never-once-ever-by-anyone-literally-lifetime-untagged Michael Jordan of tag. Who is also getting married and therefore retiring from the game. So the stakes are high; this will be the only chance these friends have of tagging Jerry. Who is, for all intents and purposes, untaggable.

And also, the WSJ reporter who breaks the story and follows these friends around getting details for it has to be cute, female, and blonde. Because: Hollywood. She’s given the character name Rebecca Crosby, and played by Annabelle Wallis (remember her as Jane Seymour in The Tudors? British actress, nicely affecting a ‘murrican accent for this). Sadly, her character never evolved beyond ‘character-other-characters-tell-things-to.’ Plus, ‘attractive blonde in a guy movie’. Wish they’d given her more to do: Wallis can act.

The actual tag guys all had sort of vaguely generic white-guy American names; the characters in the movie are given different generic American names. Hogan (Hoagie) Malloy (Ed Helms) is the leader of the band, the guy who especially wants to tag Jerry, for personal and private reasons of his own. The sensible (and rich) friend, is Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm), who is reluctant to commit to some of the more extreme tagging notions of his friends, but who seems happy enough to finance the finding of various clues as to Jerry’s whereabouts. Their stoner/loser/divorced pal, Randy “Chilli” Cilliano (Jake Johnson), seems to find whatever meaning in life he’s capable of mustering in their shared tag quest. And casting diversity was provided by the character, Kevin Sable (Hannibal Burress); contemplative, philosophical and eccentric. His comic timing was spot-on throughout. Best of all, though, imho, was Isla Fisher as Anna Malloy, Hogan’s wife, who is prevented from playing tag by her gender, (?) but who is invested in the game at a level the others can barely dream of. Anna is very sweet and supportive of her husband and his friends, except occasionally, when her ferocious competitive spirit just flat explodes. She’s the one, for example, who decides that waterboarding one of Jerry’s employees would be just a fine idea. Fisher basically walks off with the movie–tough to do in a guy-oriented buddy comedy, but she’s magnificent.

The cast is rounded out by Rashida Jones, playing Cheryl, a high school friend who Callahan and Chilli both still have massive crushes on, a fact that Jerry ruthlessly exploits. I think Jones is a terrific actress and comedic screen presence, but she’s given much too little to do here, and her part fell flat. Far more effective was Leslie Bibb, who plays Susie, Jerry’s fiancee. When we meet her, she’s a generic pretty blonde ditz, happy to be engaged, thrilled with Jerry, and just delighted to meet his old friends with their silly game. That’s all pose: Susie, it turns out, is actually a far more cold-blooded and effective gamester than any of them, a formidable foe of the first order, and Bibb has a lot of fun with the part.

So we have a guy comedy, a male-oriented ensemble piece about a bunch of grown men who have been playing the silliest of children’s games seriously for 30 years. And yet four women round out the cast, and two of the women end up taking over the movie. (Of course, one of them was Isla Fisher, who genuinely is one of the funniest women alive). That’s promising. That could portend a really funny comedy.

Sadly, it’s my duty to report that the movie is maybe 20% less good than it ought to be–20% less funny, and 20% less satisfying. There are a lot of scenes that work really well. Every thing Fisher does works, and pretty much everything involving Bibb. And since it’s about a game of Tag, there’s plenty of opportunity for physical comedy, for slap-sticky extended sequences in which guys dive to tag someone and miss, or dive to avoid being tagged and crash into things. One such sequence involved a golf cart chase scene, which worked because, hey, golf carts. Even that scene, though, was less funny than it should have been, because it insufficiently exploited the inherent tension between the sedate lack of exertion involved in golfing, and the conventions of madcap chase scenes. This director–first-timer Jeff Tomsic–doesn’t seem to know yet how to build an extended comedy sequence, how to top this joke with a funnier one. Compare it to Game Night, a much much funnier movie on a similarly thin premise. This movie is funny, but it’s not, you know, funny.

Plus there was the script. Not the story, the script–the verbal humor. Which is only occasionally funny, despite having actors–Jon Hamm, Ed Helms, Hannibal Burress–perfectly capable of making verbal wit just sing.

Here’s the thing. I’m not generally troubled by crude, R-rated, sexually explicit humor. In the right hands, that kind of humor can be very effective and very funny. Ask Aristophanes. Or, Moliere, or Shakespeare, or Congreve. But sexually oriented humor only works when it rises organically from the characters and situation. You have to buy these guys, in that situation, talking that way. You have to buy that that’s how they talk–that their relationship as guys involves, you know, dick jokes. Great example is the HBO workplace comedy series Silicon Valley. You buy it–that’s how those guys talk. And I just didn’t, in this movie. It felt off.

There’s one extended sequence, for example, in which they’re trying to find Jerry, and ask one of his employees, Dave (Thomas Middleditch, speaking of Silicon Valley). Dave’s every line is crudely sexual. And it just doesn’t play. You don’t buy guys like Hoagie, or Callahan, or Sable in that situation. The only thing that saves the scene is when Anna decides to waterboard him. Isla Fisher to the rescue, in an otherwise flat sequence. The movie wastes a lot of time in scenes like that one, where the crudity falls flat.

And there are also a few montage sequences where the action is cut to rap songs. I have no objections to rap music, and no objection to cutting action sequences with rap. That’s all just fine. But it’s not the music these guys would listen to. We know that, because there are scenes in which the guys do listen to their kind of music, and it’s ’80s rock. I darkly suspect that director Tomsic likes rap, and likes rap-based montage sequences, and that’s why those scenes are in the movie. And they detract. They pull you out of the picture.

So Tag is a moderately funny movie, in spots, instead of hilarious. And, not wanted to asperse, but I think the director is to blame. It’s a less funny movie than it ought to have been. Not a bad movie, not a failure, not a flop. Just not as good as the premise could have allowed for. My wife and I enjoyed it. Dinner and a movie–we made a nice night of it. But our basic reaction is pretty ‘meh.’ Isla Fisher got some work in, and was stunning. Jon Hamm refined his comedic chops, and Ed Helms had some serious moments, and Leslie Bibb and Hannibal Burress did some really nice work too. But Game Night went ‘tag, you’re it,’ and Tag promptly fumbled the chance away. Shame when that happens.

Superfly: Movie Review

The original Superfly came out in 1972, part of that new wave of blaxsploitation films following Sweet Sweetback’s Badaasssss Song in ’71. The word blaxsploitation was initially a pejorative, suggesting that they were bad films that exploited black performers and audiences. In time, though, filmmakers came to embrace the term. To be sure, these films may have done harm to black perceptions and ambitions, given how they dealt, for the most part, with the stereotypical black urban world of gangsters, drug dealers and pimps, whores and violent criminals. But a lot of really good actors got work and paychecks. And as a teenager, I loved ’em. Shaft, Foxy Brown, Blacula, I saw a bunch of ’em. I loved their energy, their cool, their nihilism. I loved seeing the action scenes, and the cool, tough guy characterizations. And I loved the soundtracks. Superfly was maybe not the best film of the genre, but it had Curtis Mayfield’s superb soundtrack, which I bought and wore out.

Now comes a 2018 remake of Superfly, and it follows the basic story and characters of the original fairly well. It’s now set in modern Atlanta, which it portrays as a city of crooked cops, corrupt politicians, and a rising black upper middle class. In a lot of ways, though, I found it more reminiscent of the TV show The Wire–quite possibly the best show in the history of television. The hero of the original Superfly was Priest (Ron O’Neal), the toughest, smartest drug dealer in Harlem. In this one, Priest has a first name: he’s Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson). He’s smart. He’s basically Stringer Bell from The Wire, only 10% smarter, and with less of a tendency towards violence. Priest prides himself on the fact that he’s never been arrested, that the police don’t even know who he is. He never uses a gun, though he’s a juijitsu expert, and isn’t afraid to fight. He’s always in control, relaxed and calm, the kind of guy who thinks three steps ahead while his enemies are reacting to events. He’s reasonable. He also has two girlfriends, Georgia (Lex Scott Davis), and Cynthia (Andrea Londo), with whom he enjoys leisurely shower threesomes.

Priest, however, is richly blessed with enemies, adversaries, and untrustworthy friends. His mentor, Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams, from The Wire), is also, sort of, his boss and supplier. But Priest wants more. He sees the handwriting on the wall, realizes that a career in the drug trade is bound to end badly, and he wants out, with as much money as he can possibly get together, running off to a country with no US extradition. So he plans one final big score. This requires that he takes the kinds of chances he has previously eschewed. His business partner, Eddie (Jason Mitchell), isn’t 100% on board, though he reluctantly goes along, only to make the one big mistake that Priest has always feared. Which also gets Priest’s bodyguard, Fat Freddy (Jacob Ming Trent), killed.

Priest also faces a rival gang, the spectacularly flamboyant Snow Patrol (cocaine=snow), a gang that only wears white jump suits, drives white cars, and fires white guns. Priest is on uneasy good terms with them, but, again, Eddie screws that up. He also has to push to the breaking point his relationship with Adalberto Gonzalez (Esai Morales), Scatter’s supplier, a cartel boss who he also uses. Plus, a dirty cop, Detective Mason (Jennifer Morrison), has learned of him and expects her cut.

The rest of the movie involves Priest’s careful negotiation of that perilous terrain, with various gangbangers, bad police, a drug cartel, and his old mentor all out to get him. And we root for him to get away with it, to outwit his various enemies.

The film’s music score was by rapper Future, and it pales next to Mayfield’s masterwork. But the director, Director X, keeps the action moving, and Jackson’s performance holds the movie together. It was a pretty good Moviepass movie. And, hey, a whole bunch of good actors got work. It’s very seriously R-rated, like all blaxsploition films, but it passed the afternoon agreeably enough.

Hereditary: Movie Review

My daughter and I went to see Hereditary this morning, a 10 a.m. screening where we had the theater to ourselves. I’m glad the place was empty. About the only way we made it through was to comment on it back and forth. Had to do something to break the tension.

It is one creepy, scary movie. A first-time feature, written and directed by a young guy named Ari Aster, it’s a remarkable achievement, a combination of psychological thriller, nightmare, ghost story and awake-an-ancient-evil Lovecraftian mind trip. It’s one of those movies where you’re never quite sure if what you just saw really happened, or if it’s meant to be a dream. Sometimes, when the movie signals that it was just a dream, it feels more real than the movie’s actual setting, in a dreams-tell-the-truth kind of sense. And it’s held together by an utterly stunning central performance. Two stunning central performances, actually.

As the movie begins, Annie (Toni Collette), speaks at her mother’s funeral. Their relationship appears to have been fraught, and Annie’s eulogy is hardly warm and loving, but she gets through it. Annie works as an artist, a crafter of miniature houses, with furnishings and tiny human figures. Many of them resemble her own house, and other places from her life, including one of the hospice where her mother died. Which, I might as well tell you, is very far from the creepiest piece in her collection. She’s putting together a big show of her work at a gallery, and they call from time to time, rather pointedly checking up.

Her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), seems to be somewhat older than she is, and is clearly the more stable partner. Annie is, uh, volatile. At times, she seems like a loving, concerned mother, wife and daughter, but her work is disturbing, and at other times, she seems quite demented. She does sleepwalk, cannot find repose in the bed she and Steve share, and she also seems to have chosen to keep their house at a temperature he finds freezing. Still, he supports her. Their house is away from the city; looks like a nice mountain cabin-like residence like you see well-off people owning in places like, well, Utah.

They have two children. The oldest, Peter (Alexander Wolff), is in high school, probably a senior, which would make him 17 or so. He seems to be doing fine in school, and also has a few close friends, who he bonds with over bong hits. The youngest, Charlie (Millie Shapiro), is a decidedly awkward and more-than-a-little-creepy thirteen-year old girl, who seems to be following her mother’s footsteps in the building things from scratch department, but who was essentially raised by her late grandmother, we’re told. She also has a strange habit of making a popping mouth noise.


I’m not sure how much of this is a spoiler, in fact, because it happens pretty early in the film, and everything subsequently relies on it, but, okay: Charlie dies. In the most shocking and horrific way. And it’s arguably Peter’s fault. And also, arguably, her Mom’s fault. Certainly, enough so that Mom and son, who don’t much get along anyway, have some knock-down drag-out fights over it, horrendous battles that leave both of them shaken and devastated and in tears.

And so, Annie turns to spiritualism. Which we learn, her Mom was also into. And which involves a dear, sweet, kindly woman she meets at a grief group counseling session, Joannie (Ann Dowd), who, of course, turns out not at to be what she appears to be.

Things go badly from there, and then go unimaginably worse. Having said that, I would add this: I found the ending disappointing, and insufficiently prepared for. So much of the movie focuses on Annie’s deteriorating mental state, and her battle-to-the-death with both her surviving family members, that when that focus shifted late, I found it less creepy and scary and imaginative than I expected. This is 9/10s of a terrific horror movie. The last tenth worked less well. But that small criticism doesn’t ruin the movie or anything. I liked it very much indeed.

And Toni Collette is glorious. Oscar-nominee brilliant. And Wolff is likewise terrific. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric horror film, and a thoughtful and intelligent one, that doesn’t rely on cheap spectacle or gotcha jump cuts to achieve the terror it produces. And earns. It’s a movie where you have to watch the entire frame, where you’re constantly going ‘wait, there in the corner, is that . . . ?’ Highly recommended, for those who like horror as a genre. Don’t see it alone.

Ocean’s Eight: Movie Review

But first, a joke. Why is the all female heist movie Ocean’s Eight, when the first, all male one was Ocean’s Eleven? Because 8 divided by 11 is 78%. . . .

It isn’t actually. It’s 72%. But a nice pointed sexism joke nonetheless. In fact, watching Ocean’s Eight, you don’t really ever think of it being a female Ocean’s Eleven. They’re both caper movies, about exceptionally clever thieves stealing tons of money from bad guys. They both star attractive, famous actors, the cast rounded out by attractive, less-famous actors. Both movies are a lot of fun, and neither exists in any actual recognizable reality. They’re both fun escapist romps. The plots, in both cases, are cunningly contrived, with plot twists throwing us off and then inviting us back in. And they both exist in a largely amoral universe, a topsy-turvy plane, where charm and adroit planning trump any ethical considerations.

Having said that, I’ll add this; Ocean’s Eight is a bit more fun than its guy-centered predecessors. I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that Anne Hathaway is much more fun as the target of the scam in Eight than Andy Garcia was in Eleven. The second is that Cate Blanchett is just a touch more enjoyable as a logistical expert than Brad Pitt was in Eleven.  What carries movies like these is the cast, and their charm and wit and charisma. And a cast that includes Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham-Carter, Hathaway, and Sarah Paulson is a cast I would see in anything, no matter what the subject matter or story.

But Hathaway makes it work. Let’s face it, in real life, criminals are not cuddly and canny and charming. In real life, criminals, especially con artists, are vicious and selfish and, you know, bad. Caper movies exist in a moral vacuum. They’re movies in which we root for bad people to do bad things. We cheer for them, because the people they’re stealing from are even worse than they are. A good deal worse, in fact. In this movie, it’s Anne Hathaway, as the delightfully named Daphne Kluger. She’s an actress/socialite, selfish and sort of hilariously insecure, and poisonous of temperment, and Hathaway has an absolute ball playing her. Her scenes are marvelously entertaining, and by the time we get to the robbery, we’re totally fine with her being the one robbed. And, in fact, she’s not really out much. The diamond necklace that’s the actual target of the thieves is insured, which means that the entity being stolen from is an insurance company. Boo! And not just an insurance company, but one that specializes in insuring high priced bling worn by celebs. So some super-rich people have their premiums go up. Big deal. We think. If we bother to think about it that much. It’s not like there’s violence involved, we say to ourselves.

Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, sister to Danny Ocean (George Clooney in Eleven). As the movie begins, she’s in prison, at a parole hearing, in which she gives a heart-felt testament to the sincerity of her repentance, how she’s learned her lesson, and will never engage in criminal undertakings, ever again, promise. This is, of course, a complete whopper, and next we see her, she’s re-upping her wardrobe and accessories, in a fancy-schmancy department store, minus the formality of actually paying for anything. She’s been brooding and plotting in stir, and immediately reconnects with old friend Lou (Blanchett), who she persuades to join her. Big heist. Big payoff. Fun for all. And we’re off.

And so the obligatory rituals and plot staples of the genre–putting together the string, logistical hurdles overcome, the night of the robbery, and the obligatory Big Twist near the end. They need a fence: hence Tammy (Paulson), a nice suburban mom, whose garage is full of stolen goods, and who deals with equipment needs while also raising her daughters via cell phone (“no, honey, you can’t put chewing gum in your sister’s hair.”) They’re stealing diamonds, so they need a jewelry expert, and bring in Amita (Mindy Kaling). They need a hacker: Nine Ball (Rihanna). They need a pickpocket, and recruit Constance (rapper Awkwafina). Best of all, they need a down-on-her-luck former Important Designer, Rose Weil (Bonham-Carter). HBC is terrific as this eccentric, unstable fashion world former icon.

I don’t want to give away details of the plot. Suffice it to say that it’s detailed, carefully worked out, and in the general vicinity of plausible. Lots of celebs round out the cast–Bullock’s plan involves the Met Gala, and so we get that tiny frisson of seeing super-famous people for three seconds each (“Is that Kim Kardashian? Oh, wow, Anna Wintour! Hey, Serena Williams!”).

The result is a very fun movie, well-paced and delightful and splendidly wicked. My wife and I had a great time at it, and I think you will too. Sometimes, in movies, crime does pay.

Solo: A Star Wars Story, movie review

You’ve probably heard that this newest entry in the Star Wars franchise is disappointing. You’ve heard that it hasn’t done as well as anticipated in box office receipts, and you may well have read reviews that were less than rapturous. I have. I put off seeing it for awhile, knowing I would eventually see it, as mandated by federal law, but expecting a less-than-stellar experience.  (See what I did there?)

Well, I finally saw it last night, and am delighted to report that it’s great fun. In fact, of all the post-Star Wars Star Wars films, I would say that this one comes closest to the giddy pleasure of, you know, Star Wars. The first one, the original, the movie I pig-headedly refuse ever to call Episode IV: A New Hope. It’s the IV that does it for me: it implies that the first three prequels are something other than Ghastly Mistake One, Two and Three. (Only Revenge of the Sith is even watchable, and that only for the 2 minutes of Samuel L. Jackson’s fight scene). Finally, with Solo, we get a prequel that captures the self-mocking, B-movie charm of Star Wars. Does it reference many many other action movies? Yes, of course it does, as did Star Wars. (There’s a spectacular heist scene that reminded me a lot of the truck heist in Raiders of the Lost Ark, hardly surprising, since this movie was also written by Lawrence Kasdan, in this case working with his son, Jonathan). The originality of this Solo is more about creative recycling than innovation. That’s fine with me. Star Wars was never anything but the funnest B-movie ever made.

Above all, and I cannot emphasize this enough, this is the first Star Wars movie to make no mention whatsoever, at all, of The Force. What a blessed relief! I was so happy to see a Star Wars movie without all that New Agey pontification. It’s just fun. It’s a rolicking adventure yarn; it never tries to be anything else. It’s entertaining, consistently and without pretend profundity. I can’t even begin to express my gratitude to this group of filmmakers. Ron Howard is hardly groundbreaking as a director, but he’s a solid pro, who builds terrific action sequences in which the camera is always where it needs to be, in which we’re always oriented in time and space, and without sacrificing character or story. I know it was a troubled production, with the original directors let go and replaced, and maybe their vision would have been genuinely astounding. I don’t much care. I wanted to see a fun movie, and this is a fun movie.

Alden Ehrenreich (who was so dazzling in the Coens’ Hail Caesar), is charismatic and charming as Han Solo, despite not particularly looking like Harrison Ford. Emilia Clarke, from Game of Thrones, is delightfully duplicitous as Q’ira, his love interest. Woody Harrelson is fine as grizzled veteran thief and scoundrel Beckett, who apparently robs trains between writing Endgame and Godot. Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo is splendid as Chewbacca. But to me, the cast standouts were Donald Glover, as the charming rogue Lando Calrissian, and Thandie Newton as Beckett’s partner-in-crime, Val. She dies much too early in the film, and Lando’s part was badly underwritten, but both are compelling enough entertainers to carry their scenes. The film also features a particularly sassy ‘droid, L3, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, veteran actor Warwick Davis, far too briefly, and Erin Kellyman, playing a young revolutionary, prefiguring the rise of the Rebel Alliance. Another evil creature, Proxima, voiced by Linda Hunt, is essentially a female Cthulhu, a nice touch. And I must also mention Paul Bettany, playing a particularly repellent villain also named after a famous playwright, Dryden, author of All for Love. Which could be this film’s subtitle.

Because that’s what’s going on, a rolicking look at what we do for Troo Luv. For the most part, the story is fairly straightforward. Han is a gifted pilot, deeply into Q’ira and determined to buy a ship so he can rescue her, and enjoy the life of a smuggler and wanted criminal. He joins Beckett’s gang hoping for that One Big Score that will enable his dreams. While he’s at it, he is tossed into a mud pit, to fight A Monster, who turns out to be Chewbacca. Han speaks some Wookie, and is able to first, communicate with, and second, rescue, his new friend. The movie provides as much Chewie back-story as it does Han’s. Along the way, the film’s one main theme is consistently reiterated; you can’t trust anyone. Han has always been a cynical cuss, and we see the roots of that cynicism, but we also see his essential good heart. In the clutch, Han comes through for his friends. Q’ira can’t be trusted, sure, but he’s still all about her, and always will be. You know, until he meets Leia. Oh, yes, and we see Han, in the Millenium Falcon, make the Kessel run in 12 parsecs. If you round up, that is.

Anyway, fanboys who deride this movie–and their names are Legion–are wrong, and should be ignored. I thought it was fun. I enjoyed it immensely. I suspect there will be a sequel–a prequel sequel, if such a thing isn’t too absurd–in which we will see Han contract with Jabba The Hut. Who, I understand, will be played by Sergei Kislyak.

So ignore the cynics, and embrace your young idealist. And enjoy a rolicking good time at the movies. My only regret is that I didn’t buy popcorn.

Adrift: Movie Review

A few years ago, my niece Marilyn went on a boat ride. A friend owned a big sailboat, and proposed to sail it from New York to London–did she want to come along? Marilyn is the most fearless and intrepid woman I know, and said sure. And in the North Atlantic, a hurricane hit, and the boat was badly damaged. She somehow survived, rescued by a Portuguese fishing boat. Her boat sank a few minutes after her rescue.

So when I saw the trailer for Adrift, about a young couple who survive their boat being wrecked in a Pacific hurricane, I knew this was a must-see movie. I mean, it’s the Marilyn Stout story! (And if any Portuguese fisherman had showed up in the movie, we were prepared to sue!). Different ocean, of course, different circumstances, different time frame. And Adrift is based-on-a-true-story, but it’s actually about a woman named Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley), and her fiancee, Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), back in the 1980s.  (Marilyn and her co-sailor were never romantically attached). But the basic situation is equally dire. A sailboat, a hurricane, a really big ocean. The deep blue sea, and desperation and a fight for survival. And, honestly, Shailene Woodley even looks a little like my niece.

And Adrift is truly terrific, genuinely exciting and harrowing and scary. Although the screenplay’s insistence on emphasizing the Troo Luv attachment between Tami and Richard got a bit cloying, Claflin and Woodley make it work. They’re both–wait for it–adrift, rootless people in love with the rhythms and textures and solitude of the sea. And they find each other, and are convincingly in love with each other throughout, and it works.

Woodley in particular is first-rate. I’ve always liked her as an actress, and she’s great in this. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that Richard is unable to do much to help them survive; she has to navigate, jury-rig a sail, catch fish to survive, pump the water-logged boat out. She has to do everything. And she’s up to it. And I love that.

I love stories about competent people. I love stories about people who can fix things and arrange things, and do what’s needed to survive. In this story, Tami is the less-experienced sailor of the two of them, but she figures things out. She’s a strong, capable, insanely courageous woman. The movie sets various obstacles in her path, and she surmounts them. She finds food and water, she operates a sexton, she seats a mast, she sets sails, she clears the rudder of the drag of an errant sail, she spearfishes. I mean, it’s a tale of survival. Woodley survives. Her performance carries the movie. Quite spectacularly, in my view. Sunburnt, dehydrated, starving; she survives. If you think of Shailene Woodley as a teen star, or as the Divergent girl, think again. She can flat-out act.

The Icelandic director, Baltazar Kormakur directed, and once again proved he has a dab hand for man-vs-nature. The last movie of his I saw was Everest, in which Josh Brolin and Jake Gyllenhaal and Jason Clarke battled the elements found on the world’s tallest mountain. It’s kind of a favorite of mine, in part because Kormakur captured both the magnificence and danger of that amazing mountain. He does the same here–captures the loneliness and isolation and teeming life and power of the ocean. I read somewhere that filming was difficult, because mostly the movie was shot on location on the open sea, and the crew kept getting seasick. I bet. I was completely engaged throughout.

Above all, I appreciated being able to have the visceral experience of, well, being alone and terrified and injured in a small boat on the ocean. My grandfather was a seaman, and I loved hearing him tell his tales, not just about ports he visited and places where they docked, but those long empty days and nights peering over an endless horizon. And my niece, who I completely adore, survived a hurricane in a boat. Survived a damaged craft, no radio, no engine, sails in scraps. I know it’s just a movie, but I’m grateful for that tiniest hint of vicarious shared experience. And am, and always will be, grateful to Poseidon for sparing her.


Upgrade: Movie Review

Upgrade is the very definition of a MoviePass movie. You’ve never heard of any of the actors, and it was barely marketed at all. You probably wouldn’t spend 10 bucks on it. But it’s an intriguing little flick, much more engaging than it has any right to be, on a very promising sci-fi premise. And it’s got loads of well executed action sequences, brutal but effective. It probably would have been a drive-in movie back when I was a kid, what used to be called B-movies. Today, it’s MoviePass. The story doesn’t make much sense, but you don’t really expect it to. It’s got a good Rottentomatoes score, and the cooler the website, the more positive the review, so that’s all good. It’s a whim movie, an impulse movie. Those are fun too.

It’s set in a not-too-distant future, a time when driver-less cars are a thing, but not yet ubiquitous, and when AI software firms are fiercely competing for market share. Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green, and isn’t that a great character name?), is an anachronism, a grease monkey, a mechanic who fixes up and sells old muscle cars for rich jerks. His wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), is more with-the-times; she works for an AI firm, and her ride is driver-less and awesome, a Tesla on steroids. So they’re something of a mismatched couple, but those crazy kids make it work somehow. (Vallejo is very engaging). His latest client wants a rebuilt Firebird, which Grey delivers, to an amazing house dug deep into the earth, owned by semi-reclusive billionaire Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), who looks absurdly young, and borderline sociopathic, but also lonely and misunderstood. But on their way home, the AI running Asha’s car malfunctions, and it crashes, and four thugs rob and murder her, and shoot Grey in the spine. He survives, but as a quadriplegic. A deeply depressed, suicidal quadriplegic.

Until, his old client, Eron shows up. He has an AI implant that can restore Grey’s mobility, and allow him to do what he really wants to do, which is find and take revenge on the thugs who killed his wife. Meanwhile, a detective, Cortez (Betty Gabriel, so great in Get Out and the only actor in this I’d ever heard of before), is working the case, and getting nowhere. In fact, a police surveillance drone saw the murder happen, recorded it, but the drone’s AI functionality is also compromised. She’s baffled. And also, in the meantime, Eron is fiercely protective of his proprietary tech, and works to keep Grey’s abilities top-secret.

Grey’s implant is called Stem, and it can talk to him. (It’s voiced by Aussie character actor Simon Maiden). And, when activated, Stem can help Grey walk and run and drive a car–it basically give him normal-person powers. But if Grey lets it take over completely, Stem gives him superpowers. Suddenly, he can fight with maximum effectiveness. It also pretty turns him into Robocop. Remember how Robocop moved? Sharp turns, leading with his head, no rounding off corners? That’s how Stem-controlled Grey moves.

I don’t know Logan Marshall-Green at all, but his physical performance is first-rate. There are all these fight scenes in which Grey’s body inflicts maximum damage on various baddies, while Grey’s face is completely appalled by it. It made for an interesting dynamic for an action movie. Most of the time, Our Hero is good at fighting, and his face is set at Grim Determination. Grey has all the martial artsy moves, but his face is reacting with Yikes.  It’s nicely comedic.

Obviously, Grey finds the bad guys one at a time and dispatches them with a ruthless efficiency that Grey finds alarming and tries to stop from happening. And Cortez stays grimly on the trail, though her investigation is slowed by the fact that her suspects keep getting bumped off in horrendous ways, and that the guy who appears to be bumping them off can’t possibly be doing it, seeing as how he’s quadriplegic. Main baddie, by the way, Fisk (Benedict Hardie); delightfully nasty.

No spoilers, but of course, not all is as it appears. I was a mile ahead of the movie story-wise, and a bit disappointed by the big plot-twist reveal at the end. Still, it was a decent popcorn movie. Quite R-rated, if that matters to you, for language and for violence. But it’s a well-paced thriller, directed by an Aussie bloke named Leigh Whannell, who previously had directed a couple of Insidious movies, and who does a nice job with his own screenplay here. It’s an interesting twist on AI-is-going-to-change-everything futurism. And I saw it via MoviePass. And, yes, I also bought popcorn. The movie theater came out ahead on my presence in their theater. Which was packed, at noon on a weekday. Recommended? Heck, yes.