Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sorry To Bother You: A Smart Movie That Will Be Lost On Most Audiences

This is a very difficult review to write. Reviews are here to provide judgement of a movie and convince the reader of whether or not a film is deserving of their money and time and attention. A review serves to give a brief plot synopsis, a bit of analytical insight of the film, and breaking down what made the film good, bad or middling. I can't really do any of that with Sorry To Bother You. Plain and simple - this movie is smarter than I am. Yes, I am able to see the messages behind the film, but much like Get Out there's an overall theme that's being explored, but the bigger theme is pieced together like a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle and each piece has its own social commentary to compile the bigger picture. That's what Sorry To Bother You is like. After I finally understood what rapper and now writer/director Boots Riley was conveying with his "big picture" commentary, I kept looking for the little messages in individual scenes and I'd say more than half of them went over my head. Sorry To Bother You is not your typical Hollywood summer fare and the movie will be lost on most audiences. But for those it can actually speak to, it's a very important film. 

Sorry To Bother You, much like Get Out, is going to stay with you for a long time. I've been reading interviews with director Riley ever since walking out of the film to get more explanation of scenes that may have gone over my head, or I simply just misunderstood - and it turns out there's a lot. You remember when you realized in Get Out that the simple scene of Alison Williams' character eating dry Fruit Loops and sipping a glass of milk meant she was literally separating colors from whites? Yeah. That sort of subtle imagery is layered throughout nearly every scene of Sorry To Bother You (and it is, by no means, a subtle movie). It's fascinating to read Riley's explanations for certain scenes and directorial decisions. However, some scenes, he doesn't explain. Some scenes he simply WON'T explain because he needs it to mean something different to each viewer. There's an artistic beauty to the film that requires your own brain to think critically about what the director has conveyed to you. For me, I keep thinking about it. For others, (like the couple walking out of the theater next to us discussing the film--), it's just "a dumb movie" that you can't "unsee". 

I absolutely refuse to reveal anything about the movie to you. And if you've seen the trailer, you might've already seen too much. There's certainly an expectation you'll have entering the movie that will be demolished within a half hour of watching the film until it makes a hard right turn into what-the-fuck's-ville. The thing about the movie is it has a lot to say, but it doesn't say it lazily. It uses satire and an absurdist point of view to represent these impassioned views Boots Riley has. If you take what you see at face value - yeah, it's kinda dumb and doesn't make any sense. But to those people, Andy Warhol just liked to draw soup cans and Bansky is just a glorified tagger. If you haven't seen a trailer, I encourage you to enter it blindly. That's what Riley himself wants. He's even quoted in an interview in The Wrap as saying, "there are a lot of movies where people say you enjoy it more if you know as little as possible, but I really want that for the audience.” For one, this will limit your expectations and a lot of scenes that are in the trailer will be fresh and hit harder for you. 

Here's the even more difficult part for me - there's a difference between something being important and smart and subversive and culturally relevant and insightful-- and being enjoyable. I didn't really ENJOY this movie so much as I was fascinated by it. Most of the "laughs" (because it's being marketed as a comedy - but it's more of a dark satire) are in the trailer and the rest of the subject matter is a little David Lynch-ian to go "Man! I can't wait to see that again!" (Please don't let the comparison to David Lynch deter you from the film, it's just got that kind of stomach-churning weirdness to it that's common in Lynch movies... understand that this movie is wholly Boots Riley's.) The film is a different approach to a message about disenfranchisement told in an original and absurd way, but I don't know if I really enjoyed watching it. I appreciate it, I think it needs to be seen, and it certainly deserves the praise it's received thus far, but if I ever plan on watching it again, it'll be so I can challenge myself to find the understanding that Riley wants me to have with the film. I encourage you all - if you're up for your own challenge - to check it out so I can hear what interpretations you had while watching what I can certainly call the most original movie of the entire year. 


Friday, July 13, 2018

Skyscraper: The Towering Die Hard Inferno

You may not remember... or you might not be old enough... or it's just been too long... or maybe you do remember... but Summer used to be the TIME to go to the movies. They weren't just movies. They were events. Summer packed people in shoulder to shoulder to see the new action epic or high concept comedy. Yeah, I know Summer is still kinda like this, but back in the 80s and 90s these big budget epics were wholly original films. Summers lately have been pervaded by sequels and comic book adaptations and prequels and spinoffs and rarely is there a brand new concept like Summer movies used to be. It's July and people are standing in long lines waiting for The Rock or waiting for Independence Day or waiting for Twister or Men in Black or Liar Liar or Air Force One. It's a rarity that people gather in droves for the newest action or comedy in Summer that doesn't have a familiar title attached to it. There also aren't many stars in Hollywood that can bring audiences out by sheer fame of name alone. However, The Rock is one of these people. Attach his name to anything and you'll literally cough money into the hands of a box office attendee. One thing you can respect about Dwayne Johnson is he's willing to take risks. He's willing to take a spec script with no franchise attached to it, and agree to star in it - knowing full well it'll make a truckload of money because he's the face of it. Skyscraper may not be the best movie DJ has attached himself to... but it FEELS like a Summer movie from the 90s. And for that - I heartily recommend it.

I know it looks like a handful of different movies - Skyscraper is, indeed, an original film. I wouldn't say it "rips off" these movies, but it certainly pays homage to terrorist/disaster movies of the 70s and 80s, namely The Towering Inferno and Die Hard. DJ plays Will Sawyer, an ex-cop who lost a leg in the line of duty, runs an independent security company. He's brought in to oversee the security of The Pearl, the tallest man-made building of all time. Once there, terrorists break in, set the building on fire and enact their contrived evil plot. Sawyer is the man on the ground and the man inside. He's there to single-handedly take down each of these bad dudes one at a time and save his family trapped inside. The movie has a myriad of plotholes. The movie has some pretty corny dialogue. And the movie may not be the most original thing you'll ever see - but damn, if it's not fun. Johnson has enough charisma and is a big enough of a star to be able to keep the wheels turning in the film. The stakes are always high and while, in the back of your mind, you know he's going to succeed, writer/director Rawson Thurber injects enough conflict that it will legitimately keep you on the edge of your seat. Especially if you are afraid of heights. The scenes outside the building and up on the crane feel almost VR in nature and had me gripping the seat rests with the full force of my cringed fingers. The angles, the wind, the noise... all of it had my heart in my throat.

What's cool about Skyscraper is it's got that modernized remake feel to it. The technology is smarter. The action is bigger. The building is... taller. And it's fun to see what these movies Skyscraper is paying homage to would look like if they'd been made today. And while none of the original movies are without their own faults (except Die Hard... Die Hard is perfect), Skyscraper isn't perfect either. It's got some serious flaws. The two biggest ones include no formidable bad guy and no one for The Rock to talk to. What makes Die Hard or Air Force One or Under Siege or any movies with that formula good is you've got a big movie star facing an equally big foe. John McClane isn't as cool without going toe-to-toe with equally cool Hans Gruber. In Skyscraper the villains don't have that magnetism that DJ brings and therefore don't seem like much of a threat. I never once though that if they went one-on-one with The Rock that he would lose - and he's only got one leg! The other biggest problem is that The Rock spends a lot of the movie alone. This is a mistake because his on screen charisma is wasted without someone to spar lines with. And the other reason is that he is now forced to speak his plan out loud-- to no one. And it's jarring. There's a reason Sgt. Powell is such an important character in Die Hard. It gives McClane someone to talk to which organically allows him to explain his plans, as well as give more life to his character. The Rock can do a lot, but when he's alone and explaining to the audience himself what he's going to do next - the movie loses some of its life. Long story short - he needed a partner, or a the very least, some comic relief.

My final complaint with the movie is a small one, but it bugged me nonetheless. Most of the characters throughout the film are going through an inferno of fire and debris, and no one sweats. There are a couple of times you'll get a shot of The Rock with some soot and some moisture on his forehead, but it's hardly what I'd label sweat. Occasionally, it took me out of the film. Other than that, I had a really good time. Writer/director Thurber has got a good thing going with The Rock and seems to be making movies that not only audiences will enjoy, but movies that he WANTS to be making. If I was a writer/director, I'd be wanting to make movies like the ones he makes. He began with Dodgeball, following it up with We're The Millers, began working with The Rock in Central Intelligence and now Skyscraper. He's also just inked another deal for a high concept, big budget action thriller with The Rock for next year as well. The guy makes entertaining and fun movies. And with a background in comedy, he's able to breathe some extra brevity into these movies that could get stuck too dark and too serious for its own good. He also gives The Rock a lot more fun stuff to do. Skyscraper doesn't take itself too seriously and it knows what it's trying to do. There are subtle and not-too-subtle nods to the movies it's honoring and it's a good reason to head to the theater. I do wish Hollywood would make more movies like this because with the saturation of Summer fare we've learned to live with over the past decade or so, even a flawed movie like Skyscraper feels like a breath of fresh air.


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The First Purge: A Misguided Indictment, But An Indictment All The Same

By the time a fourth entry in a franchise is released - no matter what franchise - everyone watching the movie should know what to expect. The Purge franchise is no different. The only exception with these films is that the quality of the movies do seem to get a tad better with each entry. The acting improves with each one, the stories, the characters, and the tension. But... the structure of each movie remains the same. The first film (which I consider to be the weakest entry) centralized on a single house with a single family being terrorized by purgers. The second film expands to the city with several different groups dealing with the Purge (this movie is barely better than the first). The third film, which I still believe to be the strongest entry, is focused on a politician up for election who is running on a platform of ending the purge once and for all. Now, with The First Purge - it's the same thing once again, except it's not a sequel, it's exactly what it sounds like-- it's the first purge. We get to see the inception of it and how it came to be the country wide phenomenon it becomes in the first three films. And it's... exactly what you'd expect. If you've enjoyed any of the other films, this will be enjoyable for you. Even though it's a prequel - it's the same structure. And while it is better than the first two films, it still falls short of its message and goal.

The problem with The Purge movies - that has pervaded every one of them - is that they've got a GREAT concept. And a terrifying one at that. But, they've never really been able to capitalize on the concept. The first movie used it as a guide for the thrills. The next three have used it as the actual plot. After the first two films, it seemed like the filmmakers realized they had a film that could reflect the current political atmosphere and could do what a lot of horror films don't - actually have something to say. So, while The Purge: Election Year was basically just an indictment of conservatives... The First Purge is now able to comment on hot topics in our current political landscapes, especially the marginalization of people of color. In its creation, Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei) uses it as a purely social experiment to study. However, the "new" government calling themselves The Founding Fathers have a more sinister plan behind it. The first Purge - called "The Experiment" is tested only in low-income areas of Staten Island while the whole world watches. Low income families and individuals are offered $5,000 just to stay on the island for the Purge. They're offered more money if they "participate". When people aren't killing each other left and right (like the Founding Fathers had expected), they send in Mercenaries disguised as gangs to begin wiping everyone out.

This film follows a couple of protagonists - first there's Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her little brother Isaiah. Nya is an activist against the Purge and Isaiah wants the money to get him and his sister out of the slums they live in. As good as his intentions are, Isaiah causes more trouble for the two of them than he means to. Then there's Dmitri (Y'Ian Noel), a local drug kingpin with his own small empire, trying to hold down the fort with his lackies, attempting to make sure no one tries to bring his empire down. Luckily for us, Dmitri is the criminal with a heart of gold. He's a Staten Island boy and he cares about the people around him, so when shit hits the fan - he reacts in the name of good. Now, here's where The First Purge could've really said something with substance. It's a real opportunity to comment on where we're at right now as a country. However, while its heart is in the right place, it never truly finds the best way to go about making these moments of commentary. Every image that reflects real-life instances are too overt to make any real impact. Sure, there is a scene where a purger tries to attack Nya and actually "grabs her by the pussy"... to which she screams: "pussy-grabber". Yes, there are purgers dressed in cop uniforms with scary masks beating down a black man. Yes, these images do conjure up feelings of real life instances, but they never really have anything beyond the image to say about them. I do think it is important for these filmmakers to try and make statements beyond just creating a horror movie, but the handling of these statements feel very amateur. Like if a college filmmaker grabbed a bunch of headlines from the past two years, didn't delve into the real stories of them, and attempted to make what he or she thought were astute observations. The one thing The Purge movies have never really taken into consideration is subtlety. And subtlety can make all the difference.

Otherwise, the movie succeeds in being a pretty tense action-horror. There's still the suspenseful scenes and a few scares. There are terrifying costumes and masks and fear-inducing villains. There's some cool action - though this one did try to be a little bit too John Wick-esque, which felt a bit bizarre in this franchise. The acting has gotten much better. I like that The Purge films do find unknowns to lead the films since Ethan Hawke in the first one - but some of the acting in the other films have been sup-par. This one, everyone is great. I could see both Davis and Noel going on to do great things. I'll give The First Purge this- it's really trying. One can see that they're not JUST going for the cash grab. Yes, it's a franchise that could've ended with the last one. And yes, they're doing a ten episode miniseries of it later this year. Yes, these are all cash-grabby things to do. But they're at least trying to say SOMETHING in these movies. They're exposing the ugly in our country right now - a country that doesn't even have a Purge. The ways in which they're trying to do this may be misguided and a little bit too on the nose - they're trying. And I can respect the films, especially this one, for that. There's nothing new under the Purge-riddled sun... but they're not getting worse either.


Thursday, July 5, 2018

Sicario - Day Of The Soldado: Benecio Del Toro Is So F&$#ing Cool

This is a tale of two very different movies. The first Sicario was a tense political thriller that took an in depth look at law and morality. Is it okay to break the law if it means getting the bad guys? Is it okay to torture the hell out of the bad guy if it means getting the worse guy? The fact that the men are the ones doing all of the immoral and unethical actions while the woman is the voice of reason is another layer to an already subtextually riddled film. Sure, on the surface it's a small little action thriller set in the Mexican desert. But, below that surface are several commentaries about our government's involvement in things we may or may not have the right to be sticking our noses into. When I first saw the film I thought it was decent, but I never really understood Emily Blunt's role. She's constantly used and undermined by her male counterparts, and is never allowed to do anything exciting in the movie except protest these immoral actions of others. The first time I saw it, I felt like her role was a fault. After watching it again, I realized that her character is us... the audience. She's left in the lurch, like we're left in the lurch. She's used and manipulated just like we are used and manipulated. We don't get the full comprehension of what's going on in the film... until she does. And it's a really smart way of writing what could've otherwise been just an average action thriller. But that was Sicario. Sicario - Day of the Soldado is a different story.

This next film does away with the Emily Blunt character completely (which I think was the right move. As much as I love her as an actress, her character's arc was finished and complete with the first film). Now, we're following Brolin's Matt character. After a series of suicide bombings on US soil, the government has figured out that these terrorists are shipping into Mexico and crossing the border with help from the cartels. Matt is brought in and asked to start a war between two rival cartels. That way the two cartels will take each other out and the US has complete deniability. Matt, of course, recruits his best man and sicario - Alejandro (Benecio Del Toro) to help. Their plan involves kidnapping the daughter of the head of one cartel and blaming it on the other. Once across the border, the kidnappers  become the heroes who, now acting as DEA agents, must go back into Mexico to return the girl and complete the circle that spins into inter-cartel war. However, things don't go to plan and Alejandro and the girl are separated from the rest of the group during a firefight. When the US government has seen this fuck up... they decide it's best to cover their tracks and Matt is tasked with taking out Alejandro and the girl.

Here's the difference between the movies-- the first film had a good guy. The first film had a voice of reason and a true moral center. This film-- there are no good guys. There's just guys we root for. Sicario started out with Blunt as the protagonist and ended with Del Toro's character as the one we were most interested in. He's an awful, awful, violent, scary character, but we can somehow empathize with him. He's also the character it makes most sense to center a sequel around. And while this film does kind of deal with the same themes from the first movie, there is no real commentary in this movie. There is nothing really extra being said about the state of the US and their unnecessary political involvements. Most of that is either carried over from the first film and not explored any further, or just put on the back burner in favor of story. And this is where some people (a good handful of critics) will find the movie to be significantly lacking. Sicario - Day of the Soldado foregoes any subtext and goes straight for the action-thriller throat. And while it may not have anything to truly say about the ethics and morality that was explored in the first film - it excels everywhere else. Where Sicario was tense... this one is TENSE. Where Sicario was nerve-wracking, this one is NERVE-WRACKING. Where Sicario was exciting... this one is EXCITING.

There's a certain grime and seediness to Taylor Sheridan's writing. Each of his films (Sicario, Wind River, Hell or High Water) have this constant feeling of dread even in the "safest" of scenes. And I think, while this isn't his best movie, it is his most suspenseful. You don't so much as watch Day of the Soldado as you do FEEL it. The writing, the constant tension and lingering feeling of dread along with the most guttural soundtrack makes this film a successful thriller. While I think the first Sicario has a lot more to say and contribute to society and real social issues... Day of the Soldado is a much more entertaining film. I actually found that I enjoyed it more than the first one. And the first one is brilliant. It may have something to do with the fact that Benecio Del Toro is just so fucking cool. I could've watched Alejandro bake a cake for two hours and would've been riveted as well as gripping the arm rests of my seat anticipating something horrible happening. We get a little deeper into the character of Alejandro and his relationship with Matt. His interactions with the kidnapped girl explore his humanity a little further, which is even more of a mind fuck considering we know what a complete unrelenting psychopath the dude is and can become at any second. Del Toro brings such a quiet and understated performance to the role of hitman that it's almost intoxicating. Brolin, whose name is definitely on the cool-guy scale, but not nearly up to Del Toro status. His character is a hot-headed American who's more in-your-face with his tactics instead of calculating. He hurts you with a shit-eating grin on your face, which IS cool. But there's something about a dude with zero expression on his face unloading a gun into someone - feeling absolutely nothing. The two of them, however, form one damn watchable duo on screen. One that I could continue watching in several movies if offered to me.

You know how I know Sicario - Day of the Soldado was a great film? I saw it at a 10:30pm showtime on a Tuesday... and the theater was packed. Rather than return my ticket and see it a different day, I resigned to sit in the second row from the front. These, as everyone knows, are the worst seats in the house. But, I really did want to see the movie. About five minutes into the film until the very end of the film - I completely forgot I was sitting up front. I was so glued to the action, to the characters, to the story, I forgot my neck was turned in an awkward direction and that I was probably very uncomfortable. If a film can make you forget about these things-- it's probably pretty decent. So, for those looking for another *smart* political commentary involving Americans conducting their shady business across the Mexican border, it's not the same as the first movie. There isn't anything new to discuss morality-wise. But it is a very capable action thriller that's upped the ante with the entertainment factor and badass character factor. Don't go for the analysis, go for the Benecio.


Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Incredibles 2: The Views And Opinions Of This Review Do Not Necessarily Reflect Those Of The General Public

The Incredibles came out 14 years ago. Fourteen. Doesn't feel that long ago, does it? Fourteen years ago I was 16 years old, still young enough to enjoy animated films, but felt old enough to have outgrown them. My twenties would teach me that I'd never be too old for cartoons. I remember we all went as a family to see the movie because Pixar was the best thing in animation (much hasn't changed, but their resume was prefect-- this was before Cars). After watching the film I remember stepping out of the theater and just feeling... underwhelmed. It was the first time I'd been disappointed by a Pixar movie and I seemed to be the only one. Everywhere I went people were talking about how much they loved The Incredibles and critics were praising it as Pixar's best film ever even though this was after two Toy Story movies, Monster's INC., and Finding Nemo. I thought I was crazy. The Incredibles didn't hold a candle to these movies. And it's not like like I hated it either-- I was just underwhelmed. It was the first time I'd ever felt... bored... during a Pixar movie. And honestly, that was the last time I saw it. I've seen nearly every Pixar movie more than once (including Cars), but I've only watched The Incredibles that one time. So, here comes the sequel a decade and a half later and the reviews are just as praising of this one as they were the first film. Pixar has been on a TEAR lately, so I was excited to see it. They had to have fixed the faults of the first movie and with their track record what it's been lately-- it's gotta be good, right?

So, I obviously didn't remember a lot from the first film because I had some questions about this one. It starts a few months after the events of the first film and superheroes are illegal. However, our Incredible family pop up to stop a villain from robbing a bank and tearing up the city. But, the city gets torn up anyhow because of the destruction from the fight. Enter Winston Deavor and his sister Evelyn, the heads of a gigantic telecommunications company, DevTech, who are ready to put superheroes back on the map and show the world just how much good they accomplish. They select Elastagirl to be the face of this venture, much to the chagrin of Mr. Incredible. He feels it's his duty to be the leader and head of the household, but after discussing this with his wife, relents and she becomes the breadwinner, while he stays home to take care of the kids. And that's what 75% of the movie is. She's out fighting crime and being the face for all superhero-kind, and he's at home trying to learn new math and take care of the baby. Things I didn't remember about this world-- that superheroes were illegal to begin with, that it's set in some sort of cross between our time and the 50s (seriously almost all the set pieces, cars, TVs, radios are all 50s... yet they have cell phones and advanced technology and all that), and that the baby, Jack Jack has powers. I remember him having powers, yet everyone seems to be shocked that he does, including his parents. Did he not have powers in the first one, people?!

The first Incredibles movie, to me, felt too slow moving in the first half. Even as a sixteen year old it didn't grab my attention the way most Pixar and most animated movies do. But then, I thought, it probably was because I was a sixteen year old and was nearing the height of my douchery as a human being. However, now, as a thirty year old man, I felt the same way about Incredibles 2. I was bored. Several times. My fiancé was bored. Several times. There was a packed theater of children and the three or four next to us, when there weren't bright colors or action sequences... they looked bored. Several times. I don't know how to explain it because it's a decent story. One that normally wouldn't bore me. And I'm not the type of moviegoer who needs constant action and punch punch pow. But for some reason the Incredibles movies just don't speak to me. And just like the first film, from what I can remember, once we get over that first half hump and the real fun begins, I got a little bit more into the movie. The back nine of both Incredibles movies are fun, funny, and action-packed and very, very enjoyable, but the first half, to me, just feel lifeless. They're supposed to be showing the monotony of working a dead end job or the difficulties of staying home and raising a family when there are other desires tugging at your mind. But these scenes really do feel monotonous. There's hardly any humor or heart or fun to be had and as an adult I was fighting boredom, I can't imagine what that must be like for a child. So, once again, Incredibles 2 didn't really speak to me.

These movies also don't feel like Pixar movies to me. We have an established expectation from Pixar films. They have to be original (even the stories of its sequels), it has to have vibrant characters, it has to look better than any animated film around it, it has to be fun, it has to be funny, and it most likely is going to make you cry buckets. Incredibles 2 only has some of this stuff and the stuff it lacks feels like what most non-Pixar movies shoot for. First of all, it's gorgeous. The animation in these films are one-upping the last one with each entry. I marvel (ha!) at the effects of the live action superhero movies, but watching even crazier superheros do their animated thing is somehow even cooler. And it is a lot of fun in the second half, most of which comes from the storyline of Elastagirl trying to figure out who this new super villain is who is about to take over the world. And then, of course, the climactic fight at the end. But as far as characters go-- I didn't feel like there was much in the way of further development. It felt like this movie assumed you knew these people if you'd watched the first movie and that's all you needed to know. No more faults or traits needed to be explored in this one and you should just accept them because you should know them. And I didn't. Especially the kids. Violet is a teenager anxious about a date. Dash needs help with math. That's pretty much all you get in the way of character. And since there is hardly any character development, we don't get close to these characters, and there's no room for that Pixar heart we desire when we attend one of their films. I didn't expect Incredibles 2 to make me weep my guts up like Coco or Inside Out, but the creators at Pixar are so clever with their writing, I'm on tear-alert when I purchase a ticket. However, this time I was left face-dry. And! Speaking of clever writing-- the twist-- or like the reveal of the villain-- saw it coming a mile away. That's not the Pixar I expect. Incredibles 2 is more akin to Despicable Me 2 than it is to the quality of movies they're known for making.

I don't know. It's not a popular opinion to state that I'm just not a fan of the Incredibles films. This is the one contrarian review you're going to see and as a budding critic of film, my job is to guide my readers to see or not see a movie. This time I feel like my personal feelings, while valid, somehow aren't going to be yours. I'm going to nudge you in the direction of maybe wait until RedBox, but still somehow I feel like that's the wrong decision. I could tell you that if you had kids to definitely take them to see it, but now I feel like I'm doing a disservice to your children who will, most likely, be bored for a good portion of the beginning of the film. So, here's what I can say to you to decide (which, chances are you already know if you want to see this movie anyway without my input)-- to me, Incredibles 2 is a damned mirror image of the first one. Slow to start, gets exciting by the end. So, if you tolerated/liked/loved the first film, then chances are you will tolerate/like/love this one. And that's the best I can do with what they've given me.


Saturday, June 30, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor?: A Beautful Return To Childhood... To Cry Like A Baby

Let me tell you guys a story. As a kid, I watched and adored Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. I watched it every single morning right after Sesame Street. A lot of kids, during play time, like to emulate things they see on television. Some kids play Superman. Some kids play soldier. Some kids play cowboys and Indians. I played... Mr. Rogers. Curious, I know. You may be wondering to yourself just exactly HOW does one PLAY Mr. Rogers? So... here's how. My grandparents had a large walk-in closet in their house. They had two bars with which they would hang their clothes. One was up at normal height for adults to peruse their apparel. The other was at the height normal for a four or five year old (my grandmother was not a tall lady). Very near to the ground. This bar hung items like coats, and jackets, and... sweaters. Below this bar of sweaters and winter-wear, was an incalculable amount of shoes and sneakers. So, what I would do, every time (seriously every time) I went over to my grandparents' house, I would enter with my own clothes, my own jacket, and my own shoes and begin singing the theme song just as the real Mr. Rogers does in the intro of every episode. ("It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor... would you be mine? Could you be mine?...) As I sang, I'd remove my jacket and replace it with one of my grandfather's sweaters. ("It's a neighborly day in this beautywood, and neighborly day for a beauty. Would you be mine? Could you be mine?...) Then off came my shoes in favor of my grandmother's bright and colorful sneakers. I'd turn off the light to the closet and, with the shoes, ramble out to the couch and tie them onto my feet JUST as he does in the intro. Until finally, I wind up sitting on my grandmother's couch finishing the song to no one ("Won't you please? Please won't you be... my neighbor?").

In a simple television show that spanned nearly forty years... Mr. Fred Rogers touched the lives of MILLIONS of children. Anyone my age would've been around the last generation of kids to have been moved by him, but certainly anyone older will remember sitting down in front of the television and learning about some social issue from the kindest most gentle soul ever to walk the earth. Then traveling with the Trolley to the Land of Make Believe to meet with Daniel and King Friday and Lady Elaine, et al. Without really knowing WHY... Mr. Rogers had an impact on my life. I thought that impact was just a catchy song that involved changing into sweaters and sneakers. But once the song was over, I would emulate an episode of Mr. Rogers. I would "discuss social issues" with my fake audience. I'd get mail from my imaginary Mr. McFeely. I'd exchange words with my fake Trolley. What I didn't realize is that by just emulating Mr. Rogers I was subconsciously understanding what he was trying to tell me. By regurgitating his message that everyone is loved and everyone matters and every single child on the planet is special... it was being retained somewhere in the back of my brain and, even slightly, molding me into a better person than I could've been. This one man... on a freakin' television show.

This is less of a review of Won't You Be My Neighbor and more along the lines of accentuating what the movie showcases so well... that Mr. Rogers was a unique individual. He genuinely loved and cared about children. He genuinely loved and cared about PEOPLE. He genuinely believed that every person was special and had something unique to offer the world as long as there's love at the center of their actions. This is what the documentary illustrates. And no, it doesn't try and deify Rogers, but it does highlight his undying compassion for the human spirit and especially children. It's a beautiful documentary that had tears careening down my cheeks for nearly 90 solid minutes. It's an honest movie that brings into light the motivations behind Rogers' actions and shows. I knew he sometimes took risks with what he would discuss with children, but I didn't realize the depth to which he took a stand on issues during times of country-wide division. Yes, the man was an ordained minister and devoted his life to God. But unlike a lot of religious leaders, he didn't peddle his religion onto people and especially onto children. He took all of the aspects of Christianity that teaches people to just be good and spread that message instead. Make the right choices... keep hate out of your heart... and accept everyone for who they are, and you will live a happy life.

This documentary is exquisite and spreads a message of pure love that literally everyone needs right now. Be warned, it will break you down to a wailing infant because you probably already have it in your mind that Mr. Rogers was a kind soul... but to witness the kindness and the tenderness and the sheer compassion he has for any and all people looking for the helpers is so utterly beautiful there's no real way to hold the tears back. Bring crates of Kleenex.

After leaving the theater, and driving home, my fiancé and I discussed the film and tried to speculate on how Mr. Rogers would've dealt with what's happening in our country. What would he say to us to ease our sorrow and give us just a crumb of comfort? How would he react to innocent children being ripped from their families? Would this be the thing that finally broke his spirit? A man who would do so much good in this world, but every time he got us to take a step forward, the evil of the world took it ten steps backward? During his memorial service after he died, there were actual protestors outside declaring that Rogers was burning in hell and "God Hates Fags". There's so much hate in this world that the ONE PERSON (well, him and probably Tom Hanks) who should've been immune to any of that hate... had protestors outside his memorial... including children. I don't know if this is what would've broken Rogers... or if the man could even be broken. But I do know, that right now, it feels like we need him more than ever. But, if we can't have him, thankfully we have a film that showcases his love and compassion for humankind, and all we can do is try to be a little bit more like Fred.


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Hearts Beat Loud: The Feel Good Movie We Need Right Now

Amid the dinosaurs. Amid the transformers. Amid the explosions and CGI and superheroes and everything summer movie fare saturates our theaters with-- I love finding those one to two under-the-radar quiet indie movies to cleanse my summer palate and remind me why I love movies in the first place. There's always one and it usually sneaks up on you. These are movies like Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, The Way Way Back, Chef, St. Vincent, Love and Mercy, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Dope. And just as it does nearly every year, another quiet indie has snuck up on me and given me that palate cleanser I needed. Most of you probably haven't heard of Hearts Beat Loud yet. I hadn't seen a trailer for it until about a week ago and I accidentally stumbled upon it online. If Hollywood would give the same attention to films like this one instead of relegating them as "indie" fare only receiving limited releases, we might all have a reason to go to the theater more often. It's certainly a shame you haven't heard of this film because it's a wonderful movie that's nothing but feel-goodness, which is something we all desperately need right now.

Nick Offerman (best known as Ron Swanson from Parks and Rec) is Frank, the owner of a failing record store and father to Sam (Kiersey Clemons), an ambitious young girl readying herself to leave for med school across the country at UCLA. Frank is just a big kid, whereas Sam is the responsible one. When Sam wants to do prep work for pre-med classes, Frank wants to have a "jam sesh". Together, the two of them write, perform, and record a song called "Hearts Beat Loud". Here, Frank truly learns of his daughter's talent-- not just as a songwriter, but as a singer with the pipes of a friggin angel. In the past, Frank had been a part of a band with his late wife. Since her death, he's been aching to start a new band with his daughter-- something she rejects each time it's brought up (because, seriously, who wants to be in a band with their dad?). However, Frank decides to put their song up on Spotify and they become a *very* small indie music hit-- their song winds up on a Spotify playlist. Frank pushes his daughter to finally start a band with him, but that would mean pausing her dreams of college and med school and L.A.

It's a very sentimental movie. Frank wants to start this band with Sam because he doesn't know how to let her go. He's decided not to re-up on his lease at the record store after seventeen years and his daughter is heading to the other side of the country for college. Frank doesn't know how to be alone as his daughter is the only constant in his life. Sam doesn't want to start the band because she's finally ready TO let go. She's dating (a girl!--- yes, this is a movie about a queer person of color!!!! Thank you!), she's taking pre- premed classes, and she's all but out the door when their song finds the small amount of "success" that it does. So, the two are constantly at odds with each other about the "band" they've started. They jam together, they write songs together, they're creatively vulnerable together as they encourage one another with their art. Yet, the end game for this "band" is never really agreed upon by both. The father-daughter relationship is the strength of the movie and while I said it's sentimental, the script isn't bogged down by overt and cheesy sentimentality. These are real characters who the audience care deeply about. As "regular people" ourselves, yeah we wanna see a 17-year-old kid and her grey-bearded dad start a band and get famous. That's why we go to the movies. To see some shit like that happen. As realists we know that Frank is just trying to find an escape from the impending loneliness that's awaiting him once Sam leaves. We know Sam NEEDS to go to college and not push it back in favor of trying to become famous. But there are these seriously tender moments between them. And the songs-- OH MAN the songs-- we want them to succeed.

It helps that the cast is wonderful. Even if the script was a goopy pile of sentimental mush (it's not), an actor like Offerman is going to elevate the script to a point that it's enjoyable just watching him on screen. Clemons is a marvel to watch-- and listen to. Her voice is gut wrenching (in a good way) and will send chills down your whole body. Watching her sing with Offerman off to the side admiring the hell out of her while playing an instrument could've been the whole movie and I would've been satisfied. The two of them have such chemistry, you accept the fact that they're father/daughter almost instantly. This is a duo you want to watch and are sad to see go when the credits roll. Toni Collette also shows up as the quirky landlady of Frank's record store and maybe might have a sort of 'thing' for Frank. Ted Danson also lends his charisma as Frank's bar-owning buddy who has just discovered the magic of marijuana. Together this cast fuels a film that's often very funny, very charming, very heartwarming, and just HAPPY. Movies, in general, for audiences, are about escape. Let's go watch dinosaurs eat people for two hours so we can forget about the real world. However, movies like Hearts Beat Loud are a different kind of escape. It's about viewing someone else's real life... in real life scenarios... and seeing how happy people can be and how much love there really is surrounding all the hate. This movie reminds us of the love. And it's damn near perfect.