get out

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is a black man dating a well-to-do white woman, Rose Armitage. (Allison Williams) This fact alone in post-Obama America shouldn’t be troublesome, but Chris is going to meet Rose’s parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) a neurisurgeon and Missy (Catherine Keener) a psychologist  for the first time, so naturally, they are both a bit nervous about meeting her parents.  On their way to her parents’ house in the country a policeman pulls the two over, heightening the tension, but he lets them with a warning, thanks to Rose.  Chris meets Dean and Missy, the act somewhat oddly. Chris thinks they may be overcompensating for being “Obama liberals” but he undoubtedly gets a strange vibe from Rose’s brother, Jeremy, (Caleb Landry Jones) who  is always talking about Mixed Martial Arts, and Chris needing to bulk up. Chris also gets an uneasy feeling about the black people hired to help around the Armitage household.  But maybe living in the country has made them more laid back than the people he’s used to meeting. After talking to Chris on the phone, his friend Rod Williams (Lil Rel Howry) has a vastly different take on the situation.  His advice to Chris:  Get Out!

Get Out is not a horror movie per se, it’s more a psychological thriller.  Get Out is a thought-provoking movie that plays with the viewers’ minds.  Do Rose’s parents resent Chris for dating their daughter, despite their liberal leanings?  Does Chris feel guilty for dating outside his race?  Chris is also dealing with some baggage of his own that the viewer finds out about during the movie, and Rose has a secret that is also revealed.  Things are revealed gradually like pieces to a big puzzle, but when the puzzle comes together, it is a treat.  I could tell you what movies Get Out reminds me of, but that would give too much away.  It’s not easy to combine elements of suspense with social commentary and comedy, but Get Out does it all, pretty flawlessly.  If you haven’t seen this movie, you should see it.

The acting is great.  Daniel Kaluuya plays a normal guy in increasingly abnormal situations.  If this was a comedy, he would be the straight man. He notices some things that are off-putting, but he doesn’t really think anything is wrong, he’s still got a great girlfriend, if nothing else so he stays in the house.  Allison Williams plays his loving sometimes protective girlfriend, She will protect him during his stay if things get weird, won’t she?  Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener are superb as typical upper class parents, the kind of parents any kid would be lucky to have, or would you?  The comedy relief is refreshingly provided by Lil Rel Howry, let’s just say he is the canary in the coal mine, and he is hilarious.

The direction by Jordan Peele, who also produced and wrote the film is pretty standard horror movie visual direction, closeups on the protagonist’s face, close-ups on the back of his head, while he is  walking down the stairs.  The protagonist is sometimes shot in the foreground, while unexplained things go on in the background.  It all sets a mood, which is not so much scary as it is creepy.  The pacing is excellent, it doesn’t get bogged down on any one point, and he gets excellent performances from a talented cast.  I just wish this movie had come out before Keanu, which was about as funny as a migraine.  This movie displays Jordan Peele’s true range of talents.

Get Out.  Outstanding.

Band Wagon (1953) 24

Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is a washed-up Hollywood song and dance man.  He comes to New York by train and is met by the only two remaining members of his fan club, Lester Martin (Oscar Levant) and his wife Lilly. (Nanette Fabray) Lester and Lilly are also screenwriters and Lester has a script for a Broadway play all set for Tony to star in.  Tony’s not sure, but Lester has a meeting set up for Tony with the hottest Broadway producer/director Jeffrey Cordova. (Jack Buchanan)  Jeffrey hears the pitch for the script, and has ideas of his own, he wants to do the play as an adaptation of Faust, the literary character who wants to make a deal with the devil to achieve success. Jeffrey also wants ballerina, Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) to be the leading lady, and after some reverse psychology on Gabrielle’s boyfriend, Paul Byrd (James Mitchell) Jeffrey gets Gabrielle to be the leading lady and Paul to be the play’s chorographer.

But as soon as the cast starts rehearsals for the play, tensions start to mount.  Tony feels like he’s being marginalized by Jeffrey.  Tony also fights with Gabrielle, he feels Gabrielle is arrogant and trying to make things more difficult for him. Even Lilly and Lester, the original writers and members of Tony’s fan club, are not even speaking to one another.  Will this play even make it to previews off Broadway or will internal dissension kill this play before people even see it?

Since I saw La La Land, which was a tribute to Hollywood musicals, I wanted to see a classic Hollywood movie to see if the authentic movie musical was worth the tribute.  The Band Wagon is definitely worth watching and definitely is a classic.  Whereas Singin’ In The Rain is a satire of Hollywood in the silent movie era, the Band Wagon is a satire of Broadway, much like Mel Brooks’ The Producers.  The pompous pretentious producer Jeffrey reminds me of the Horace Hardwick character from Top Hat, pompous, pretentious, and perpetually confused.  Part of this movie reminds me of Damn Yankees, a movie that was really based on Faust, with Gwen Verdon as the temptress, instead of Cyd Charisse The only kink in the armor of The Band Wagon is that they try to push a romantic storyline, where it was really not necessary. But I’m a sucker for Fred Astaire, and even an older version of Astaire has wit, charm, and dance steps to spare.

Fred Astaire plays what he always plays, a song and dance man.  But this time, he’s an aging song and dance man who’s staring the end of his career straight in the face.  Actor Astaire conveys the frustration of being an aging Hollywood star well, in a town that tosses out older stars like most people toss their garbage.  Dancer Astaire proves that he’s still got magic in those feet, doing some of the more masculine styles popularized by Gene Kelly in his movie musicals.  Similarly, Cyd Charisse plays her role with a dual purpose as well.  Actress Charisse plays the role of a shy ballerina, while dancer Charisse plays her role with a smoky seductiveness.  Jack Buchanan plays the haughty producer to perfection, and Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray add even more comedic value to the movie.

The director is Vincente Minelli, father of Broadway star Liza.  Minelli’s film, like many other movies in that golden age of film, pops with bright almost incandescent colors.  This was a visual style aped by Darren Chazier in La La Land.   The musical numbers are expertly staged, and the choreography is excellent.  Minelli also gets very good performances from a talented cast.

The Band Wagon Jump on!

th secret life of pets

Max (Louis CK) is a pampered pet living in New York City.  His owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper) raised him from a pup, and Max misses Katie terribly when she goes to work, but she hangs out with the neighborhood pets when she’s gone, he hangs around with other pets, a cat with a voracious appetite, named Chloe, (Lake Bell) a pug, Mel, (Bobby Moynihan) a dachshund ,Buddy (Hannibal Burress)  and a Pomeranian named Gidget  (Jenny Slate) with a secret crush on Max.  Max’s cushy life ends abruptly when  Kate brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet) from the pound.

Max and Duke don’t like each other, and Duke drags Max way out of his neighborhood where they are attacked by cats, who forcibly remove their collars.  Max and Duke are then dragged into a van by animal control and are on their way to the pound.  Max and Duke are “rescued” by Flushed Pets a militant group of former pets who want to lead a revolution against their human masters.  They are led by a deranged bunny named Snowball, (Kevin Hart) and have their headquarters in the New York City sewer system.  Snowball holds Max and Duke hostage after they refuse to go along with Snowball’s revolution.  Can Gidget and Max’s other friends save him from Snowball?

This movie misses the mark almost completely, there are a few funny moments, but not nearly enough to sustain a whole movie.  I’ve seen a lot of animated films, and The Secret Life of Pets doesn’t even come close to Pixar films in terms of plot and theme. There are animated movies for kids and animated movies for adults and this one is definitely aimed towards kids.  Here’s the ironic part, the Flushed Pets are definitely not for kids, they espouse kidnapping and violence, so the theme of two dogs from different backgrounds trying  to get along is completely overshadowed by this strange subplot.  There are good characters, Chloe, the cat, Gidget the Pomeranian, but they are woefully underdeveloped.  The writers ran out of material, about 15 minutes before the ending and so they just repeat a plot point from earlier in the movie.

The voice acting is not great.  Louis CK is way too mellow as Max, I expected some sharper, funnier lines from him, the director should have let him ad lib a little. Eric Stonestreet at least tries to inject some personality into Duke.  Kevin Hart goes far overboard on Snowball, someone needs to give Snowball some kitty Xanex.  All kidding aside, again it’s the director’s job to reign in such prodigious overacting, and he did not.  Jenny Slate has a likeable quality to her voice, they should have developed her character more fully, but there were so many characters that the writers didn’t or couldn’t focus on a few.  Lake Bell does a good job also playing a cat who all the dogs are slightly wary of. She should have had more lines.

The direction is not that great.  The directors just seemed to let the actors do whatever they felt like doing, and sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  One of the directors directed Despicable Me which I really liked, but I didn’t like this movie at all.   The animation was not great other than a few scenes of the New York City skyline.

The Secret Life of Pets:  For the dogs.

wonder woman

Diana, (Lilly Aspell, Emily Carey, Gal Gadot) is princess of the Amazons, a band of fierce female warriors, who live on an island, with no men.  She wants to train to be a warrior, but her mother Queen Hippolyta  (Connie Nielson) forbids it.  So Diana gets training from General Antiope (Robin Wright) behind her mother’s back.  One day, American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes through the barrier that keeps the island from being visible to others and into the ocean.  Diana saves Steve and learns that Steve is an American spy on a mission to end a secret German chemical weapons program, spearheaded by General  Ludendorf (Danny Huston) and Dr. Maru, (Elena Anaya)  and end World War I.  Steve has Dr. Maru’s formula for the mustard gas, and has to deliver the book to British intelligence.  Diana believes that someone on the German side is really the Greek God of War Aries, who is trying to prolong the war and kill as many humans as possible.  Diana’s mission is to find and kill Aries. Does Hippolyta allow Diana to leave the Amazon’s island and travel with Steve to the front?  Does Steve accomplish his mission to stop the chemical weapons from being used?

This could have been a classic movie, but it sends all kinds of mixed messages.  One is a message of a woman imbued with great powers to stop the human race from annihilating itself, which is a wonderful message.  But if Wonder Woman is so powerful, why does she need help from a man?  Then, the writers want to superimpose some kind of messy love story within the superhero genre.  This kind of genre mixing rarely ever works. It’s been tried in Superman with Lois Lane, and Spiderman with Maryjane, with varying degrees of success.  In the context of this movie, the love story actually undercuts the female empowerment story.  There are also silly scenes that overemphasize Diana’s femininity.  Other than the lead character being a woman, this is a pretty generic superhero film, and the ending is pretty generic as well.  And if anyone thinks that being a woman makes Diana a pacifist, you haven’t watched a Hollywood superhero movie lately, this movie is very violent.

There is one redeeming aspect to Wonder Woman, and it is the performance of Gal Gadot as Diana Prince.  Her earnest, sincere, heartfelt, and serious (that’s a compliment) performance make this movie worth watching.  While most superhero actors are looking for a tagline, Gadot conveys the genuine feeling to the audience that Diana only wants to help people.  Her naiveté is refreshing as well.  If this movie stands out, it is because of her.  Chris Pine is not so lucky, he gives the standard hero performance, but he’s supposed to be an American spy who infiltrates the German military not once but twice.  He doesn’t even try a British accent to blend in to British society, and his German accent is weak.  His ham handed performance almost steals the movie from Gadot, Chris Pine, this wasn’t your movie.  He seems to have forgotten that Gadot is the focus of the film.  Robin Wright has a small role as the woman who trains Diana, but the role is too small to make an impression.

A big deal was made that Wonder Woman was directed by a woman.  The fact is Patty Jenkins added very little to this movie that is different from a man directing the same film.  There’s a backstory, an over reliance on special effects, and a long, long running time.  What exactly is the difference between this movie and Captain America’s origin story?  Not much and so why should Patty Jenkins deserve credit for directing a standard issue superhero movie?  She shouldn’t.  The only outstanding performance is by Gadot, and the pacing is slow at times.

Wonder Woman:  Wondering Why It Wasn’t Better.

between the world and me

The Atlantic magazine columnist Ta Nehesi Coates writes a heartfelt and urgent letter to his son, Samori about the state of race in post-Civil Rights America.  Coates talks about his own journey, from the streets of Baltimore, to the Mecca of African American learning, Howard University, to marriage and fatherhood, which makes the wish to protect his son from harm even more urgent.

I didn’t know what to expect from this book, but I have to be honest, (why else would I have a blog if I can’t be honest?)  I did not like this book at all.  Coates conveys the feelings of growing up African American very well.  He conveys the fear that he has for his son, who also has to grow up black in a society that in Coates’ estimation doesn’t care for black people.  But Coates view is too narrow, by focusing like a laser beam on police shootings of black men, he negates all the progress that black people have made in this country.  He is good at stating a problem, a pernicious problem, that affects all minorities disproportionately, but he is short on answers.  The real answer is that there may not be an easy answer to police shootings of minorities in America.  If we as a society are willing to place the power of life and death in the hands of a few, some of those few might abuse that power.  But Coates is guilty of political and social myopia, he only sees the one problem, and doesn’t address the larger systemic issues that result in the problem.

He dismisses the power of faith, Coates is an atheist, he dismisses Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, he dismisses Malcolm X and Black Nationalism, because he found it too violent.  He descends into intellectualism, as if there is a way to quantify hate, but that seems to be a dead end too. Coates does seem to prefer a certain solution, but that too is frustrating to me.  It seems like he’s given up on America, and I think it’s a little late for anyone to give up on America, we’re all stuck here, with people we don’t like, facing circumstances we don’t like.  I would have preferred if Coates had focused on why we are still so segregated as a country, fifty years after the end of de jure segregation. If we live in the same neighborhoods, and go to the same school, and pray in the same churches, (assuming you’re religious) it’s hard to hate a person if you see an assortment of nationalities, races and genders every day.  How do we get there?  There’s the rub, but we have to keep trying.  This book, as powerfully as it lays out a serious problem is a book for nihilists, and I’m not a nihilist. There have to be ways to de-escalate there confrontations, here are a few suggestions, police should live in the communities they police, community policing, police should walk a beat get to know the people in the neighborhood, civilian complaint review boards, body cams, dash cams. None of this might work.  But it’s incumbent on cities and towns who pay civil awards to victims of police violence to find a solution, or they will go broke. Coates doesn’t offer solutions, save one, and that is not feasible to most people.

But who am I to pan this book?  People like Maya Angelou have said that Coates is the next James Baldwin, and she certainly knows more about the African American experience than I do.  I still have hope that we can rise above most of our problems as a country.  Sometimes progress may actually be one step forward two steps back, but that doesn’t mean that progress stops.

Coates doesn’t sugarcoat the problem.

the founder

In the 1950’s, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) was a salesman for a milkshake mixer called the Multi-Mix.  He was not very successful at it either.  He was trying to sell mixers near his home in Illinois, while drinking heavily and reading the Power of Positive Thinking. Despite his best efforts to stay positive, his business is struggling. Kroc’s downward spiral ends abruptly one day when he receives an order for six Multi-Mixers from a hamburger stand in San Bernardino California.  He decides to drive all the way to California  on Route 66, and there he finds Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald.(Nick Offerman)  The McDonald brothers have laid out their restaurant based on a floor plan that emphasizes speed and efficiency.  Kroc eats the burger and he’s sold, he sees the floor plan and hears about the ups and downs of all of the McDonald’s business ventures. Kroc takes in the presentation, and after some discouraging words from his wife, Ethel, (Laura Dern) Kroc tries to go back to selling milk shake mixers, but he can’t get McDonald’s out of his mind, so he goes back to the McDonald brothers with a proposal.  He wants to franchise the brothers’ burger stand.  What do Mac and Dick say?

The Founder is unflinching in its portrayal of Ray Kroc.  He is a ruthless, unscrupulous, unethical businessman.  He’s a schemer, whose many get-rich quick schemes have failed in the past.  He sees a golden opportunity and he’s not going to let it pass.  And business is not the only aspect of his life where he has a winner take all attitude.  The McDonald brothers are portrayed as naïve yokels, who fell off the turnip truck. How much of either is true is only known by the principals in the story, but it makes for a fascinating story.

The acting was mainly carried by Michael Keaton, he didn’t try to humanize Kroc at all, he just portrayed him as a tough, driven, SOB, who would run over people to get what he wanted.  It was a tough role, and Keaton didn’t even try to be likeable in it.  Despite the single note performance, it’s a good comeback for Keaton. John Carroll Lynch was excellent as Mac McDonald, he made Mac seem honest likeable, and even sympathetic.  Nick Offerman was also good as Dick McDonald, he played Dick as a tough but fair businessman, who only wanted to serve a decent burger. Even though Offerman played Dick as a by the book businessman, the viewer also feels sympathetic toward him.   Laura Dern was dull as Kroc’s wife Ethel, the most she ever did was glower at Keaton, and that’s all.

The direction was ok, the pacing was kind of slow, but the cinematography was fantastic, there are shots of an early McDonald’s lit up with neon and it looks gorgeous, so inviting to go into and eat.  He got some good performances, from Keaton, Offerman and Lynch but surprisingly, it was the visuals that made it fun to watch as well as informative.

The Founder:  Keaton doesn’t clown around as Kroc.

 

logan

In the year 2029, the mutant population has shrunken dramatically, and Logan (Hugh Jackman) is finding life difficult now that the X-men have disbanded.  He is working as a chauffeur, and medicating himself by drinking quite a bit.  He realizes after fending off an attack from a group of youths trying to steal his car, that his ability to heal is vastly depleted.  Logan tries to maintain his loyalty to Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) by taking care of him in his older years.  Xavier is suffering from either Alzheimer’s disease or ALS, and if these diseases are not treated with medication, Xavier’s powers go haywire.  Logan is aided by Caliban, (Stephen Merchant) as the three learn to deal with the fragilities of aging bodies.

Adding to the chaos that’s become Logan’s everyday life, a woman named Gabriella (Elizabeth Rodriguez) is desperate for Logan to help her.  She is a nurse and she is taking care of a pre-teen girl named Laura.(Daphne Keen)  There is a story that Gabriella adamently wants to tell Logan, what is the story?  Who is Gabriella?  Who is Laura?  Why do they need Logan’s help?  Does Logan help them?

Logan is a very interesting story about men who used to have superhuman abilities who is now learning to cope with his mortality.  It’s also part Western (with a telling reference to the movie Shane) part odd mutant nuclear family story, and part road trip, its settings seem like they are post-apocalyptic, and they may be for mutants, but the roads are mostly empty in the small rural towns where the film is focused.  That seems purposeful.   It is far from the traditional superhero movie where the heroes team up to stop some catastrophe, instead it’s a very personal story about being mortal, after living as an immoral.  It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s touching, nothing anyone would expect from a superhero film, but all qualities that abound in this film.  All the more reason to watch it.

The acting in Logan is superb.  Hugh Jackman is an amazing actor who knows this character so intimately, that he knows how to play him in every circumstance, and in this circumstance the role requires different emotions for Jackman to draw upon, and he does so successfully.  I can’t imagine anyone else playing Logan or Wolverine.  I know it will happen, eventually  but I won’t like it. Patrick Stewart also gave a standout performance.  He is no longer the cool, calm, collected mentor of the X-Men he is a man on the verge of losing his mental faculties and watching his powers spiral out of control. Stewart conveys the desperation of that situation well, but manages to maintain the character’s dignity, humor and compassion. Daphne Keen is ok as Laura, but she us silent for much of the movie, then screams for more, she is just not given much to do.

The direction is very effective in conveying that this is not one of those epic end of the world movies. James Mangold wrote and directed this movie, as well as the previous movie Wolverine, so he knows this territory.  He also  directed  3:10 to Yuma so he knows how to direct a Western too. The scenes in the rural countryside give a sense that this is a modern day Western, and also a quieter movie devoid  of the massive amounts of special effects that are so prevalent in movies like this.  This is a long movie because there is a lot of exposition and there needs to be because there are a lot of pieces to put together, but when the pieces come together, it is a very satisfying film.  He gets good performances from the leads, and the ending is satisfying as well.

Logan:  The claws that refresh.